Culture

The iPad As Escape Pod

Media wants us to pay for content, and the iPad is engineered for that purpose. Everything about the gadget flows from that basic idea. Just follow the money.

I agree with much of this critique of the iPad by Jeff Jarvis:

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.

That seems clearly true. Media wants us to pay for content, and the iPad is engineered for that purpose. Everything about the gadget flows from that basic idea. Just follow the money.

But Jarvis assumes (as I often tend to) that people inherently dislike being an audience, that they are all chafing at their lack of input and control over the culture industries. It may be an erroneous assumption, one derived directly from the ideology of creativity that holds that there is an eager artist in all of us waiting to be released if only the System wasn't stymieing us all.

If anything, the System is forcing us to create and "share" more than ever before, and it can be exhausting. Our consumption has never been regarded as more productive, and our everyday lives have never been subjected to so much pressure to be interesting, broadcastable, repeatable, symbolically significant, trend-setting, and so on. This is what immaterial-labor theory (which I have a tendency to yammer on about) tries to articulate, how the boundary between work and leisure has been eroded and our everyday-life practices are being harvested as a form of work -- our friendships, our preferences, our leisure activities are all being expropriated and commercialized, made operative as marketing data. Being immersed in Web 2.0 functionality is basically all about harvesting our immaterial labor, quantifying our quality of life and making it into information that can be circulated as a kind of currency in "the attention economy."

The iPad, regardless of what other dark portents it harbors, seems positioned as a device that allows us to escape from productive consumption. It promises to let us just consume again, in a sealed-off environment. Being in front of a computer or on a laptop immerses us in many temptations, amny of which are work-related. It may be the conduit by which work reaches us, with emails, etc. So the iPad is supposed to be a haven from that -- a device that denies us the temptation of multitasking and "liberates" us to concentrate on entertaining ourselves with good-old professionally made culture-industry content.

Jarvis complains about this escape:

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. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.

But I don't think it is snobbish and insulting at all to imagine that people don't want to be on call at all times to be sharing their consumption habits or to be making them productive for someone else. I don't think the limitations built in the iPad make Apple saintly or make their flacks into truth-sayers. I still kind of think people who buy into the iPad hype are suckers -- but I am wondering if I should temper that. The question the iPad controversy evokes is whether one can enjoy what is available on the open internet without consenting to a kind of self-exploitation. Are there better ways to avoid immaterial laboring (if it is even something worth avoiding -- should we be seizing upon immaterial labor as a means for toppling the existing relations of production?) than retreating to Apple's hermetically sealed universe? What are they? The iPad is clearly a conservative, retrograde device in its implementation, but is it trying to roll back a revolution we have reason to reject? I don't think the iPad can give us our ability to concentrate back, but it should make us wonder why so many people seem to think that they should be paying a premium to have the ability restored to them.

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