My contemptible device


As discussed in a recent post, I recently chaired a panel on – among other things – voyeurism, privacy and gender politics, following a screening of the short film SLR at Lighthouse, in Brighton.

During the discussion, the entertaining, insightful and consistently challenging Wendy Grossman referred to the iPad Mini in front of me – on which I had my notes – as “that contemptible device”, or words close to that…

She was referring, I think, to its closed ecosystem, the command-and-control its manufacturer still holds over it, giving a panopticon-like view over its users’ lives – and some other things she dislikes about Apple. She doubtless has a valid point or two, but we’ll get back to the trade-offs we’re willing to make for things that work well over control, privacy etc. in another post (after the other day’s cryptoparty shenanigans, there’s definitely one bubbling up).

So ever since, the iPad Mini has been “my contemptible device”.

The name has actually made me feel slightly more affectionate toward the thing. I like to affect contempt for it, although I can’t really bring myself to compare it to phones and computers that I have really hated. I remember a grey slab I was issued by the tech quartermasters when I started my last proper job, packed with software designed to process ideas and thoughts into grey, bullet-pointed entropy. Then I was given a “smart” phone to match. A phone so bad, it allegedly destroyed the electronics in one of my colleagues’ cars when he plugged it into to its USB port.

I am enjoying the idea of an almost ubiquitous, well designed, well built piece of gadgetry being notorious and despicable. This is partly recreational contrarianism, but I also want to properly understand the arguments as to why anyone should reject tech owned and run by large corporations (there’s a thing called “de-clouding” where you remove your data from the cloud, which I want to find out more about). I’m not sure whether I object to the idea completely, or just don’t agree with it yet. I’m sincerely, deeply curious.

It may not be the supposed contemptibility of Apple that does for the iPad, though, if Zal Bilimoria of Andreessen Horowitz’s comments in an article on re/code are on the money. He joined the VCs recently from Netflix, where he said the company’s data seemed to show that tablets were being neglected in favour of large phones or “phablets”.

The tablet couldn’t possibly shoulder all the expectations people had for it. Not a replacement for your laptop or phone — but kinda. Something you kick back with in the living room, fire up at work and also carry with you everywhere — sort of. Yes, tablets have sold in large numbers, but rather than being a constant companion, like we envisioned, most tablets today sit idle on coffee tables and nightstands. Simply put, our love for them is dying….

What I realize now is that it has been the phone all along. What we are witnessing today is a merger of phones and tablets, not just at Netflix but everywhere, which is why this decade’s attempt at tablets is nearing its death — just four years after Jobs launched the original iPad.

After a couple of months of determined attempts to use the iPad Mini as a writing machine, I’ve returned to my first love – a 15″ MacBook Pro for writing. It’s had a really positive effect so far on my blogging. It’s the form factor, the power and the speed with which you can write, edit and flit about the internet. I realise now how much I have unknowingly missed this bulkier form of mobile computing for years. We’ll see if effect this continues or not – I cycle through fads and obsessions with different devices and workflows all the time – but I feel pretty strongly in favour of it right now.

Despite the honeymoon with my Mini being over, I still love it for reading, for notes and for trips to London when I don’t want to haul a couple of extra kilos of laptop around. I still love my contemptible device, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be playing with whatever Nokia, Android and Firefox OS devices of all shapes and sizes, as soon as I can get my hands on them. Despite having been accused of tech-partisanship in the past, I’ve little brand loyalty:  my obsession is with what lets me think fastest, work fastest, what software gets out of the way and doesn’t break down the most.

Other than that, I’m not fussy.

Image: Lighthouse Arts

Leave a Reply