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The open zone

This week my four-year-old computer had a hissy fit and demanded, more or less simultaneously, a new graphics card, a new motherboard, and a new power supply. It was the power supply that was the culprit: when it blew it damaged the other two pieces. I blame an incident about six months ago when the power went out twice for a few seconds each time, a few minutes apart. The computer's always been a bit fussy since.

I took it to the tech guys around the corner to confirm the diagnosis, and we discussed which replacements to order and where to order them from. I am not a particularly technical person, and yet even I can repair this machine by plugging in replacement parts and updating some software. (It's fine now, thank you.)

Here's the thing: at no time did anyone say, "It's four years old. Just get a new one." Instead, the tech guys said, "It's a good computer with a good processor. Sure, replace those parts." A watershed moment: the first time a four-year-old computer is not dismissed as obsolete.

As if by magic, confirmation turned up yesterday, when the Guardian's Charles Arthur asked whether the PC market has permanently passed its peak. Arthur goes on to quote Jay Chou, a senior research analyst at IDC, suggesting that we are now in the age of "good-enough computing" and that computer manufacturers will now need to find ways to create a "compelling user experience". Apple is the clear leader in that arena, although it's likely that if I'd had a Mac instead of a PC it would have been neither so easy nor so quick and inexpensive to fix my machine and get back to work on it, Macs are wonders of industrial design, but as I noted in 2007 when I built this machine, building PCs is now a color-by-numbers affair plugged together out of subsystem pieces that plug together in only one way. What it lacks in elegance compared to a Mac is more than made up for by being able to repair it myself.

But Chou is likely right that this is not the way the world is going.

In his 1998 book The Invisible Computer, usability pioneer Donald Norman projected a future of information appliances, arguing that computers would become invisible because they would be everywhere. (He did not, however, predict the ubiquitous 20-second delay that would accompany this development. You know, it used to be you could turn something on and it would work right away because it didn't have to load software into its memory?) For his model, Norman took electric motors: in the early days you bought one electric motor and used it to power all sorts of variegated attachments; later (now) you found yourself owning dozens of electric motors, all hidden inside appliances.

The trade-off is pretty much the same: the single electric motor with attachments was much more repairable by a knowledgeable end user than today's sealed black-box appliances are. Similarly, I can rebuild my PC, but I can only really replace the hard drive on my laptop, and the battery on my smart phone. Iphone users can't even do that. Norman, whose interest is usability, doesn't - or didn't, since he's written other books since - see this as necessarily a bad deal for consumers, who just want their technology to work intuitively so they can use it to get stuff done.

Jonathan Zittrain, though, has generally taken the opposite view, arguing in his book The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It and in talks such as the one he gave at last year's Web science meeting that the general-purpose computer, which he dates to 1977, is dying. With it, to some extent, is going the open Internet; it was at that point that, to illustrate what he meant by curated content, he did a nice little morph from the ultra-controlled main menu of CompuServe circa 1992 to today's iPhone home screen.

"How curated do we want things to be?" he asked.

It's the key question. Zittrain's view, backed up by Tim Wu in The Master Switch is that security and copyright may be the levers used to close down general-purpose computers and the Internet, leaving us with a corporately-owned Internet that runs on black boxes to which individual consumers have little or no access. This is, ultimately, what the "Open" in Open Rights Group seems to me to be about: ensuring that the most democratic medium ever invented remains a democratic medium.

Clearly, there are limits. The earliest computer kits were open - but only to the relatively small group of people with - or willing to acquire - considerable technical skill. My computer would not be more open to me if I had to get out a soldering iron to fix my old motherboard and code my own operating system. Similarly, the skill required to deal with security threats like spam and malware attacks raises the technical bar of dealing with computers to the point where they might as well be the black boxes Zittrain fears. But somewhere between the soldering iron and the point-and-click of a TV remote control there has to be a sweet spot where the digital world is open to the most people. That's what I hope we can find.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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