April 19, 2010

The iPad and Generativity

Category: Critical Perspectives
2 children holding chalkboards

Since the announcement of Apple’s iPad, reactions to the device have been extremely polarized. While some people have been highly critical of the device, others have reacted positively. Still others have reacted first negatively then positively or, more disorientingly, both at the same time. A striking similarity of many of the most-cited negative reviews of the iPad is that they appeared before the reviewers ever had a chance to interact with the device. For both positive and negative reviewers, this approach made it much easier to praise or critique the iPad as an idea, rather than as a machine, and, in doing so, to imbue this idea with magical powers that are quite different from the physical reality of the device.

Many critiques of the iPad implicitly draw on Jonathan Zittrain’s discussion of generativity in The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. According to Zittrain, generative technologies are open, allow their users to modify them, adapt them for new uses, or, generally, do with them whatever they want. In contrast, rather than being truly generative, devices like the iPad—which doesn’t let users install software that isn’t approved by Apple and doesn’t work with key Internet technologies like Adobe’s Flash—are mere appliances. That is, they are controlled from the top down, designed for one or a few limited purposes, and, generally, intended for passive consumption.

This idea is taken up from an educational perspective by David Parry. Parry argues that the device doesn’t allow for creation, the primary focus of his teaching. By preventing users from modifying the device, and lacking crucial tools for creation like a camera, the iPad is an appliance for educational consumption, not creation.

While the generative critique does point to key limitations of the iPad as a creation platform, I believe that they err—and Zittrain’s description of generativity flounders in general—in that it treats appliances like the iPad in a deterministic fashion, as immutable ideas, not as devices that are subject to the agency of users.

For example, in his otherwise compelling critique of the social effect of tech like the iPad, Cory Doctorow points out that Apple has changed their position on openness over the years, as the original Apple ][+ “came with schematics for the circuit boards,” which inspired “a generation of hardware and software hackers.” In contrast, the iPad is closed, glued shut to keep out prying eyes. Yet, on the same day the iPad was released, iFixit released photos of the iPad’s internal hardware along with instructions for disassembling it. When applied to the iPad (and the iPhone, and other closed appliances) Zittrain’s hierarchy of technologies fails to take into account the hacker culture eager to take apart anything it pleases and reassemble it according to its own designs.

Similarly, the idea that the iPad restricts creativity underestimates the generative impulse of users. iPad owners can post to blogs, share information on social networks, and perform many, many other kinds of creative tasks enabled by the Internet. Can a supposedly non-generative device really be non-generative when it is so clearly dependent on a generative platform like the Internet?

In short, I believe the iPad, and the many similar devices that will follow it, are likely to inspire a new generation of learners, just as the Apple ][+ inspired Doctorow’s generation. Kids who like watching movies want to make movies. Kids who like reading books want to write stories. And kids who like using iPads and iPhones will want to create media and tell stories, too, as well as write their own programs. Some of them will follow Apple’s official path and post apps in the app store. Some of them will open these devices to see how they work. Some will hack the device for new purposes. Most importantly, many will be inspired by this category of product, rebel against its constraints, and create alternatives to it.

Of course, hacking leads to gray areas for educators, because hacking devices like the iPad is technically illegal. But the spirit of hacking—of adapting a product to ends that it wasn’t necessarily intended for—is one that educators can bring to the iPad. The iPad is a fantastic tool for mobile blogging. Its large size (compared to a cell phone) makes it possible for more than one student to use at once. Its networking capabilities will allow for new forms of connection between students who are already familiar with mobile learning, and it may represent an important step forward for disabled children.

I sincerely believe it is important for educators and technology theorists to continue to critique devices like the iPhone and iPad that seek to limit how users interact with them. However, I think we should do so from a position of power, knowing that technology–and the intentions of hardware and software makers–does not fix destiny.

Image Credit: Pratham Books http://www.flickr.com/photos/prathambooks/3291627875/