Jobs’ IPhone: Vernacular Innovation vs. Terminator Tech

I don’t own a cell phone for pretty much the same reason I didn’t become a lawyer after I graduated from law school – namely, the brooding sense that one more would just make the problem worse. Besides, one thing I do not need these days is another thing to think I need.  So when it comes to Steve Jobs and his vaunted iPhone, this is a hunt I have no dog in.

Still it’s hard not to follow the story, in particular the tragedy of Mr. Jobs himself.  Decades ago, he and Steve Wozniak were making black boxes that enabled people to hack into the AT&T long distance network. Now he’s become the enforcer of the sanctity of that very network, at least as it connects to his iPhone.  The guy who was the anti- Bill Gates has become a disciple of the Gates business model, which is to lock customers into a technological system as opposed to giving them tools to do what they want.


Steve Jobs, Encloser

There are numerous ways to enclose a commons.  You can expropriate it, such as by selling off the national parks. You can despoil it, such as by dumping crap into the sky. Or, in the case of a social commons, you can suck the life out of it by seducing or compelling people to attend to something else.  Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Inc, has gotten two out of three.

Jobs generally is seen as the mercurial product genius, in contrast to Bill Gates the impresario of patent monopoly and closed code. There is a bit of truth to that portrayal; but Jobs and Gates actually are brothers under the corporate skin. They share the fatuous technophile belief that any new gizmo they offer for sale is a great step for human kind.  They share as well an apparent deficit in low self-esteem; and neither seems to think deeply about the impacts of their technologies upon the people who use them or on society at large.


The Technology of Obedience: Corporate Research and the Invisible Hand

Is technology an independent force that evolves inexorably along a particular path – the path of best answers?  Or do the corporations that drive innovation steer it towards their own convenience and not necessarily for the benefit of the society as a whole?  The question might seem naïve.  But it still has to be raised, given the ideological hackles that it raises.

About two decades ago, an MIT professor by the name of David Noble made a painstaking study of the introduction of computerized controls in the machine tool industry. In his book Forces of Production, Noble showed how, at practically every turn, managers at the General Electric company had chosen the path that would increase their own control of the shop floor and diminish the role of workers – even when this did not improve the quality of products or the efficiency of the production process.


Bamboo for Who?

Once again the question: who would bother to develop a technology for which they didn’t hold a patent monopoly? And once again the answer: lots of people. Today’s case in point is bamboo scaffolds.

Bamboo is a wonderful material. It is a form of grass; so that when cut, it grows back again – and fast, in a matter of months where a tree takes many years. The wood is light, strong, and flexible. It has a multitude of uses, from houses and furniture to carabao (water buffalo) sleds and even bicycle frames. A bamboo house breathes; the slats feel cool under bare feet. And then there are scaffolds.


Product Bias: The End of the Romance

You’ve heard about the new iPod video player and believe me, this is big. Now kids will be able to watch movies behind their textbooks in class. They’ll have another way to sit in the back seat and ignore their parents on family car trips. I mean, we wouldn’t want parents and kids actually to talk with one another.

That’s not all. The iPod has spawned a host of devices that enable people to use them while driving. Harmon-Kardon makes one called the Drive + Play, which includes a remote screen you stick on the dashboard and a sort of mini-joystick to put near the gear shift. (Cost: $199.00) I don’t know if this works with video iPods – yet – but the audio version is bad enough.


Where’s Hoover?

The inkjet printer represents one of the worst business models ever devised. They sell the things for practically nothing. “What?” you think. “I can buy a printer for less than a hundred dollars?” Then you discover that the cartridges cost twenty-five to thirty dollars each, and that they wear out all the time, so that you’ll pay for the printer several times over within a year or two.

Not only that. They make a slightly different cartridge for each series of models, so that you can’t interchange them. If you had a stash left over from your old printer, too bad. They design them to be hard to refill — with most types you actually have to use a drill. If you do refill anyway, the cartridge won’t send the proper signal back to your computer, so the control mechanism gets thrown off.


Quiet the Cell, Hush the Bus

I love tools. I stop at hardware stores sometimes just to look at them. The utter economy of a screwdriver and hammer feels almost cleansing in a society built upon diseconomy and waste.

Technology is another matter. Technology is what happens when the tool becomes the task, rather than just a means of doing the task. Usually it doesn’t so much solve problems as shift them around and create new ones. Cars, televisions, cell phones — we all could make a list.


Relationship Between Silence and Progress

I suspect I’m not the only person who read about Father Llopis and thought, ‘Good for him.’ Probably I’m not the only one either who often wished that I, too, could jam the cell phones on a train, in a coffee shop or sometimes just walking down the street. So perhaps it’s time to ask some questions about those cell phones and noise and this strange thing the experts call ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’ I mean, what gives people who use cell phones and the corporations that operate them the right to fill our air with their noise? The air belongs to all of us. So how come those who want to fill it with their yakking and beeping get first dibs, and how come those of us who want to keep the quiet have to suffer in silence?

Here’s another thing. The device the priest used to block the cell phones in his church, it’s not legal in the US. Police departments use them, according to a manufacturer, and probably the Defense Department and the CIA, too, but you and I can’t. Why is it legal to use electronics to fill the air with noise, but not legal to use electronics to reject that noise? Why should those who trespass on our peace go free, while those who try to keep the peace could go to jail? It’s the same with the economy in general. It’s what’s happening with this whole big thing called ‘progress’ and ‘growth.’


Reach out and Annoy Someone

In the latter 1990s, in the midst of the high tech boom, I spent alot of time in a coffee shop in the theater district in San Francisco. It was near Union Square, the tourist and I observed a scene play out there time and time again. Mom is nursing her mocha. The kids are picking at their muffins, feet dangling from their chairs. And there’s Dad, pulled back slightly from the table, talking into his cell phone.

I would watch the kids’ faces, vacant and a little forlorn, and wonder what happens to kids whose parents aren’t there even when they are. How can we expect kids to pay attention if we are too busy to payattention to them? Peter Breggin, the psychiatrist, says much “attention deficit disorder” is really “dad deficit disorder.” Maybe he’s right.