I’m no uncritical iPad cheerleader, but having become accustomed to having the device around, I wouldn’t want to be without one—not because I’m in thrall of the thing, but because it’s a useful tool that makes life more convenient.
Consequently, I think a provocative screed by Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at DePaul University W. Andrew Ewell posted this week in Salon—entitled “Does the iPad deserve to exist?“—is more than a bit over the top. Prof Ewell compares the iPad with Victor Frankenstein’s monster constructed from recycled human body parts in the famous horror novel by Mary Shelley, and suggests you should think twice before before buying one.
Ewell argues that Apple is asserting in its somewhat controversial current tranche “This is our signature; designed by Apple in California” ads, that iPad is no longer just a convenient device; it’s an indispensable companion, humanized to the point that we really believe we “may rarely look at it,” but that it still “enhances each life it touches.”
For what it’s worth, I would say that my iPad has enhanced my life to some degree, again as a useful tool that makes certain things more convenient than using a full-featured Mac or PC, but don’t read too much into that. I don’t impute the device with any mystical qualities. I don’t doubt that some folks get addicted. I probably am a bit myself, although with what it does—not with the device itself. I still like laptops better, and was I obliged to choose one or the other, the laptop would get the nod. And I would suggest that tablets are somewhat less addictive than smartphones for an awful lot of folks.
Prof. Ewell says his worry isn’t that “tech companies inflate their sense of importance in our daily lives, or that they might sometimes reach beyond the limits of their scope and relevance in order to sell more widgets.” He doesn’t dispute that doing so is their prerogative, and even perhaps also their imperative. What he says concerns him is that we allow them to do this, noting that we question oil companies, the auto industry and fast food, but contends that we give Apple a free pass to humanize its products even as it dehumanizes its labor force with long hours, low pay, and dangerous conditions.
I infer that Prof. Ewell doesn’t spend a lot of time scrutinizing the tech press, where Apple routinely takes plenty of stick for those and other alleged shortcomings. Why pick specifically on Apple? Do its competitors do a better job of policing their ODM suppliers’ labor policies? Not likely. Indeed, they’re often the same firms. It’s just Apple’s size and relative success that makes it a fat and easy target for critics.
To address Prof. Ewell’s rhetorical question—”Does the iPad deserve to exist?”—of course it does, no less than any other technological innovation and commodity. Consumers will ultimately decide whether it continues to exist, or whether the next big thing will displace it. There’s such a thing as making too big a deal out of a premise that doesn’t really stand up, and this is one such instance.
Give consumers a bit of credit. I suggest that the vast majority of those who buy iPads do so because they perceive and experience using them as an improvement over whatever they were using before.
Lookit; I have concerns about what not just iPads, but also what information and communications technology in general may be doing to us as a culture over the medium to long haul. And for example, I perceive the the growing phenomenon of “iPad schools” (where tablets displace traditional textbooks and notebooks and much else) as somewhat insidious. I actually agree with Prof. Ewell on the point that “… if you’re relying on a piece of aluminum and glass to enhance your life, then you might, as Victor Frankenstein warned almost two centuries ago, be about to ‘destroy your taste for those simple pleasures’ in pursuit of something ‘not befitting the human mind.’ ”
It’s the content, and what we do with it that should be the focus, and not the medium upon which it is accessed. Information technology is powerful, and therefore has plenty of potential to be misused. However, it also has the potential to enrich and improve our lives if utilized wisely. Not everyone is wise, alas, but it was ever thus, and that’s not the fault of the iPad or any other electronic device, or their designers and manufacturers, however overblown and pretentious their merchandising spiel. The particular medium of access is not the message here.
Methinks the good professor protests too much about a single element of what needs to be thought about in a much larger context.