Apple's iPad Re-Ignites the Great Technology Culture War

Last Updated Apr 5, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

Now that Apple's (AAPL) pre-launch iPad hoopla is over, it's time to take a step back and see what is going on. Looking at some of the first reviews and morning-after considerations, I found myself nodding, as they reflect a thought I had toward the end of last week: the iPad seems divisive because it is emblematic of a cultural divide between those want central control and others who want think that it should end.

When I read David Pogue's review and Cory Doctorow's opinion that people shouldn't buy iPads, what struck me is how each saw the device as an object that crystallized people into castes. Pogue divided the world in to iPad haters, whom he equated with "techies," and fans, who "tend to be regular people":

The iPad is so fast and light, the multitouch screen so bright and responsive, the software so easy to navigate, that it really does qualify as a new category of gadget. Some have suggested that it might make a good goof-proof computer for technophobes, the aged and the young; they're absolutely right. And the techies are right about another thing: the iPad is not a laptop. It's not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it's infinitely more convenient for consuming it -- books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on. For most people, manipulating these digital materials directly by touching them is a completely new experience -- and a deeply satisfying one.

The bottom line is that the iPad has been designed and built by a bunch of perfectionists. If you like the concept, you'll love the machine.

The only question is: Do you like the concept?

For Doctorow, the split was between seeing people as intelligent and capable of being hackers in the old definition of tinkering to make the world a better (or at least more interesting) place, and the even older stereotype of consumer as dim-witted and inept lumpenproletariat :
The way you improve your iPad isn't to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.
Jeff Jarvis came closest to my impression -- actually paralleled what I first thought, that the iPad's design assumes that there are "creators" of media, and then there are "consumers." You're either one or the other, rather than the development we've seen of people commenting on blogs, creating videos, posting their own takes on the world, and otherwise interacting on an increasing basis with the flow of information that we call the Net:
The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn't create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine's app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It's worse than the web: we can't comment; we can't remix; we can't click out; we can't link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.
As I'm sure is true with each of these writers, I've found my own thoughts shifting this way and that. Mine now coalesce around the concept of command and control: the organizational concept that the Rulers, who are Wiser, should control the world and command the Peons, who are Dumber and Unfit. You either create or you consume.

Although I've made numerous comments on this blog about Apple's control-freak culture, I don't mean to single out the company. In its view of the world and business strategy, absolute control makes perfect sense.

But how much better is Microsoft (MSFT), which has often tried to crush competitors and in the past been disdainful of trivialities like the Internet? How much better are businesses like Monsanto, which wants to crank out genetically-modified foods and assumes that there will be no adverse impact on the world? How much better are financial institutions, which were sure they needed to be unleashed, that operated so freely as to bring the global economy to its knees, at which point the CEOs begged for forgiveness and multi-billion dollar handouts? How much better are political bodies, whether on the Right or the Left, which are sure everything would be better if only they could fully impose their theories on everyone else, no matter what the circumstances and track records?

Conversation around the iPad crystallizes the notion that we are still in a time of intellectual feudalism. Old impulses die slowly. Some historians argue that Germany, which entered economic feudalism under the Junkers at a time that much of Europe was exiting system, took nearly 600 years, and the horrors of both the First and Second World Wars, to finally shake loose from the assumption that a few were born to rule the many. Feudalism of land and economics has refined itself into feudalism of the mind.

What the world needs is not limitations on how people may use what they buy and under what circumstances they can purchase accessories. Instead, we need a more fundamental equivalent of Magna Carta, where those who are ruled impose restrictions on the powers of the few at the top. Apple leaped to fame by invoking Orwellian 1984 imagery at that year's Super Bowl. However, by the end, protagonist Winston Smith came to love that which oppressed him. Let's hope another ending is possible.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.