The Civic Consequences of Shiny Things.

Steven Johnson has shaped my way of thinking about technology more than any other writer. His 2002 Emergence was a revelation for its description of how everything from ant colonies to cities to software share a certain organic interconnectivity that makes them so powerful. That's what has made his recent celebrations of the iPhone and iPad as triumphs of closed environments so disappointing. On the facts, Johnson has a certain correctness. The App Store is, as he points out, chock-a-block with apps created by a range of developers. Still, it's striking that he seems so reluctant to see that Apple products so controlled by one company might have effects beyond the quantitative measure of iBeer Zombie Pizza apps.

Last night brought a little hope, but in a strange way.

Johnson gave the annual Hearst Foundation New Media lecture at Columbia Journalism School. The subject: "The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book." The latter refers to the sort of proto-blog books that big thinkers like John Locke and Francis Bacon kept with quotes from their varied readings. iPads and iPhone fall into the category of the former. Johnson, encouragingly, complained that he had spent good money (well, at least a few bucks) on Wall Street Journal and New York Times iPad apps that don't let him copy, paste, and create an electronic commonplace book like his forerunners. Those restrictions, said, Johnson, are "a choice with real civic consequences that are not to be taken lightly."

Okay. But that Johnson appreciates WSJ and NYT apps-lockage as having real public import only makes it all the more odd that he doesn't seem to see civic consequences to the gatekeepered iPhone OS architecture. When a cartoonist whose app had been rejected by Apple won a Pulitzer, Steve Jobs himself e-mailed a customer to say that the original "no" had been a mistake. This is an intensely Apple-centric system. On the Web, the only controlling authority that can tell me that my site is banned is government, if I've broken a law. If Jobs gets bitten by a Labradoodle, there's little preventing him from banning Labradoodle apps from the Apps Store. The iPhone and iPad system is a different approach than the Web we know. The resulting civic consequences are worth some considered attention.

Where my argument breaks down is that there's a possibility the iPad/Phone doesn't become the digital architecture of the future, but one of many. Kids learn to build apps, sure. But they still learn to design for the open Web, Mac OS, Windows, Linux, and so on. We might see a time where app development shakes out where people only build stand-alone apps where they're really needed. The rest can stay on the open Web (a good thing for the many millions of people who don't actually own Apple products). That would mitigate some of the concerns about the closed nature of the iPad model. But for now, as Johnson says, the App Store is flourishing.

--Nancy Scola

You may also like