I grew up in the 1950s as a first-generation baby boomer. That means that my era was the hippie era — the birth of the counterculture movement in the U.S. After John Kennedy was assassinated, something came over all of us at the time — a profound sense that something was really wrong with the country that the war generation of our parents had given us. And there were just so many of us that we could actually get the attention of the culture with our message — or so we thought.
The public counterculture movement dissipated with the end of the Vietnam War, but the events in Chicago in 1968 are what really destroyed it. More radical elements had taken over (the war did that), and the riots at the Democratic National Convention signaled the end, because they were televised. The status quo (and the public) was deeply disturbed by what they saw and took it out at the election box by putting Richard Nixon’s law-and-order campaign in the White House.
I remember that like it was yesterday, a sinking feeling that all hope was lost; that our “power to the people,” anti-elitist message drifted to despair as popular culture embraced the disco movement and all that it stood for. But it didn’t disappear; it simply went underground, and as John Markoff points out in What the Doormouse Said, How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, we owe the freedoms of personal computers — and the Web — to that same movement.
This is why I’m so troubled by what Apple is now pioneering with an ecosystem for “Web” content that is actually a walled garden of enormous proportions and why I agree with what people like Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor (old hippies, both) see as a clash between profit and freedom. To me, it feels like the Chicago Police Department under the command of Mayor Daley “restoring” control in 1968. Naturally, I wince, and I fear that nearly every one of the people who have benefited from my generation’s largess in creating something so revolutionary have no idea what’s really taking place. The status quo — led by the traitorous Steve Jobs — is reasserting what it believes is its rightful place in the culture.
This time, however, I don’t think it will work.
Jeff calls what’s taking place with Apple’s “i” devices and ecosystem a dangerous “move from the Web to apps.
The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.
That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation…
So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.
I think Jeff is spot-on here, and the problem is that desperate media companies — those who would greatly benefit from an ecosystem that would allow them to reap profits from it — are fawning all over themselves in their adulation for the iPad. Dan Gillmor doesn’t necessarily believe this is calculated, but he calls it exactly what it is: a conflict of interest.
By appearing on stage at the Apple event and by launching an iPad app that the Times wants to monetize in every possible way — an app from which Apple will likely make money as well — the Times is becoming more of a business partner with a company it covers incessantly.
Dan notes also that the Times’ app appears in Apple advertising for the iPad, which gives the paper a huge promotional boost that furthers the appearance of a conflict of interest. He goes out of his way to praise the work of the journalists involved in the Times’ coverage of the iPad, but asks heretofore unanswered questions about how this looks.
What value has Apple received from the Times’ massive and continuing coverage? Quite a bit, of course — though it’s only fair to note that most other major journalism organizations have given the iPad the kind of fawning attention that makes every other company executive on the planet insanely jealous.
Apple’s business and PR methods aren’t the issue here. No company plays the media better than Apple, period, and this is obviously good business for Jobs and his employees and shareholders.
What matters is the Times’ seeming indifference to the way this looks. Even though I don’t believe there was any quid pro quo, I do believe that someone who doesn’t know the players could reasonably ask if an arrangement did exist.
All of this makes me wonder, too, and I’m deeply concerned that the public doesn’t see any of this. The irony, of course, is that Apple’s original operating methods were decidedly the opposite of what we’re seeing today. The company was always known as one promoting exploration and innovation with its products.
Writing for Slate, Tim Wu calls the iPad “Steve Jobs’ final victory over the company’s co-founder Steve Wozniak.”
In 2006, professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School predicted that over the next decade there would be a determined effort to replace the personal computer with a new generation of “information appliances.” He was, it turned out, exactly right. But the one thing he couldn’t forecast was who would be leading the charge. How, indeed, could anyone have guessed that Apple Inc., the creator of the personal computer, would lead the effort to exterminate it?
For all of Jobs’ business acumen, Wu rightly points out that it was Wozniak who created the open technology that made Apple famous (or infamous, as the case may be). Both had deep roots in the counterculture movement, but Wozniak’s personal computer advanced the theories and stuck it to “the man.”
Wozniak’s Apple took personal computing, an obscure pursuit of the hobbyist, and made it into a culture-wide phenomenon, one that would ultimately transform not just computing, but communications, entertainment, business—in short the whole productive part of American life. And in doing so he made the ideology he followed—“open computing”—America’s ideology.
So the fact that it is Apple that’s trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube with its “i” series of devices and ecosystems is truly stunning, if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
But for all that’s happening, I think it is Wozniak’s spirit that will prevail, for once having tasted freedom, it’s pretty hard for people to go the other way.
In many ways, I tell anybody who’ll listen, we’re experiencing what Western Society went through in the 15th Century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s machine-printed Bible and John Wycliffe’s common language translation broke the hold that the Roman Catholic Church had in Western Europe. After failed attempts at licensing and other dramatic responses, one priest is recorded as saying, “The Jewel of the Elites is in the hands of the laity.” The jewel is knowledge, that most counterculture of all elements of free people. It is from those roots that America’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was birthed, and my hope is that we’ll all take a very hard look at what’s taking place today and make the right decision about tomorrow.