The Broader Implications of Appliancization – by “Benjamin H”

Appliancization obviously has implications for how we interact with the internet; assuming we use tethered devices, we necessarily become consumers without the ability to generate changes to the technologies we use, and it’s hard to think that some innovation will be lost without the tinkering that has been so typical of the internet thus far. Some think that anxiety is overblown or irrelevant, though. Is it really a problem if we lose the tinkering culture that was in part responsible for the growth of the internet if it means greater security and for many more intuitive functionality? Perhaps the debate about generativity extends beyond technology to more philosophical issues like our economy, and texts like Asimov’s “Profession” are also bound up in even greater anxieties about our government that are no longer relevant. Tim Wu, a media historian, pushed back against Zittrain’s arguments about appliancization by highlighting the broader implications of the debate. Although Zittrain is concerned about technology, what really underlies the debate is issues of how we want to envision our economy:

The [internet and the media industry] are in the midst of an epic struggle between two competing economic systems that are almost as different as communism and capitalism. The first, old-school scale economics, is behind most of the media empires of the last century, from NBC to Paramount, and it still powers firms such as AT&T and News Corp. It is a model in which bigger is better, products are standardized, and integration is massive. It is the model that ruled American media–and indeed American industry–for most of the twentieth century. Its rival is a model premised on the economics of decentralized innovation and content creation that we associate with the Internet–loosely, the generativity that Zittrain is talking about. (http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/244145/chris-anderson-appliancization-internet-reihan-salam)

At some level, then, appliancization is a debate about how our economy should function, and it seems like tech companies like Apple are trending more towards traditional media models. Many industries run on a model closer to that of the traditional media industry, and part of the anxiety surrounding appliancization may be simply a desire to preserve the internet’s distinctive culture. But perhaps there’s no reason to think these two systems are mutually exclusive. Html5 and other technologies might allow people to make iPads and other tethered devices generative.

Asimov’s “Profession” is an interesting example of more general concerns about the loss of our freedom of choice and the ability to educate ourselves. If we can’t choose our paths and learn creatively from scratch, perhaps education will become commoditized like any other product. Asimov’s specific concerns aren’t relevant since we can’t, unfortunately, feed ourselves information tapes, but he seems to be concerned more generally with the loss of our freedom of choice and the notion that some higher authority can construct our choices for us. “Profession” was written in 1957, well into the Cold War, and part of his concern seems to stem from the then-rational fear of Soviet-type domination, as some reviewers have noted (http://www.helium.com/items/1994997-profession-by-asimov). As the doctor tells George, “Surely you know that being interested means nothing. You could be devoured by a subject and if the physical make-up of your brain makes it more efficient for you to be something else, something else you will be. You know that, don’t you?”” This kind of concern for the “efficiency” of society destroying the individual is exactly the kind of Cold War stereotype of the Soviet Union that would have been repeated in 1957. Perhaps it’s just me, but the fact that the evil doctor has an Italian name (Antonelli) and the historian’s name, Ingescu, sounds like the famous Romanian dictator Antonescu indicate at least some kind of post-World War II anxiety about the loss of freedom under undemocratic regimes. Even though Zittrain’s argument against appliancization is obviously not a Cold War argument, concerns about loss of freedom are still a similar aversion to any authority impeding with personal choice and action, just like Asimov’s concern. I’m skeptical that these concerns are legitimate today. Even if we can’t maintain generativity with Html5 and other languages, it would seem to me that security concerns are more of a threat to our freedom—from undue invasion of privacy, perhaps—than the threat to our ability to innovate. Moreover, since a new generation of programmers will have to take over the app-making process at some point, the industry has to maintain some way for people to learn how to innovate, even if its only in their established fashion. Perhaps programming will simply become a more specialized field like medicine and will lose amateurs, but security concerns may currently outweigh the benefits of amateur innovation today.

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