Saturday, 21 April 2012

Treating iPads with respect and cheap, disposable technology

iPads are all the rage at the moment. I can't get excited about it though - indeed, what I see in the iPad phenomenon is the power of branding and corporate presence to convince people that there is something new and technologically innovative, when in fact the only thing that's new is the packaging. Bandwaggons are not indications of progress. They are more often an indication that something important is being missed.

The use of iPads in the classroom is particularly interesting in this regard. The advantage the device has over a computer is that it is portable. However, in the hands of children, it is hardly robust (no doubt vulnerability of the device is part of Apple's business model!). Its interactive potential is no different from a laptop, apart from the presence of touch interfaces. But what's 'touch' all about?

Would the kids experience be all that much worse if they had to use a mouse? Of course, the ubiquitous networked connectivity of the device is also important - but again, not much different from a laptop. But fundamentally, even when the networked potential of the iPad is deployed to its full potential making use of rich collaborative activities, it is still basically a display of virtual buttons or switches, which change the state of the device so that the buttons or switches change functionality (and display their functionality to the user).

Seen this way, I cannot see that the iPad is anything more than a very expensive way of doing physical (i.e. mobile, touch) computer-based activities. But because the iPad presents itself as the generic do-it-all solution (for a hefty price), everyone jumps at it rather than looking for cheaper alternatives. But I suspect the real disruption will occur around the price for doing any kind of physical computing.

I've documented in this blog my interest in physical computing using Arduino and JeeNode. You want networked switches? Here's a switch... (for a tenner). You want to dynamically change the state of a device based on user input? Here's a way you can develop it (for nothing). You want to integrate with different kinds of physical device (tables, chairs, doors, trees..).. here's how (and that bit is much more difficult with an iPad). And the price matters, because it makes the technology 'unimportant' as technology per-se. It is no longer a fetish object, but part of the everyday. It doesn't matter much, but is powerful and can be used and experimented with very easily.

What is interesting here is that the price of something does have an impact in the way we think with it. If something is cheap, we don't worry about breaking it, and are prepared to take risks. If something is expensive, we treat it with respect. With iPads, "treating things with respect" is the real problem. Indeed, being told to treat anything with respect can be a problem. In the middle ages, books were to be treated with respect. Of course, they were very beautiful, but the 'respect' was also a way in which power structures were created around knowledge. Treating iPads with respect creates and reinforces similar power structures: the "rules"of using the technology, the warranty conditions of the manufacturer (I'm sorry, but you dropped it and that's not covered!). This is the generalised creation of new risks through the technology - and that is the real business model of Apple.

I would prefer to see technology not treated with respect. Only then I think can it really unlock human creativity. "Respect" for expensive, branded technology only creates the conditions for realising the visions of technology manufacturers. And we should be really worried about them!

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