What Nick Carr doesn’t get: hobbyists are the canary in the coal mine

I told myself I wouldn’t write about the iPad anymore, but I have to.

Nick Carr has joined the John Gruber club, by calling us Luddites:

What these folks are ranting against, or at least gnashing their teeth over, is progress – or, more precisely, progress that goes down a path they don’t approve of. They want progress to, as Bray admits, follow their own ideological bent, and when it takes a turn they don’t like they start grumbling like granddads, yearning for the days of their idealized Apple IIs, when men were men and computers were computers.

[…]

While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist’s ethic.

Back in 1999, I used to pitch open-source software to big companies. I heard very similar retorts: why would customers want to hack at the code? Let professionals handle this, this is not a job for hobbyists! Over the years, I learned the most important response to that misguided opinion: it’s not about whether hobbyists can make modifications, it’s about whether someone other than the original manufacturer can.

With open-source software, it’s not that you will necessarily hack the code yourself, but the fact that you can means that you can also hire the professional you choose to do the job for you.

Similarly, if a hybrid car comes with a sealed hood that you, a hobbyist, can’t get to even with the right tools, then you also can’t choose the professional you want to service your car. Sure, you probably want to stick with the professionals “authorized” by the auto manufacturer, especially if you’re not an expert yourself. But nothing legal or technical is going to prevent you from choosing some “unapproved professional” you trust. If you can tinker with it, then you can hire someone else to do it for you. You may be taking a risk of voiding the warranty and irreversibly breaking your hybrid car, but that’s your choice and your risk to take.

And the same thing applies to the iPad. Sure, the average consumer is probably best off using apps that have been vetted by Apple. But if the technology harshly enforces this constraint, if you can’t hack at it, then you can no longer pick the professional of your choice to hack at it, and you depend entirely on Apple. That’s bad for tinkerers and hobbyists, as I described in an earlier post, and thus it’s also bad for progress because it removes choice.

So, no, Nick, we’re not saying that every device must make every effort to be hobbyist friendly. What we’re saying is that when a company goes out of its way to prevent hobbyists from tinkering, they’re also going out of their way to prevent end-users from choosing their professional provider. That’s a departure from progress as we’ve known it throughout history. And it will mean more decisions that don’t really benefit users, like the retroactive removal of apps that are “not quite useful enough,” and similar abuses that are all too common when one company maintains such airtight control. It was bad for progress when mobile phone companies controlled their phones in this way, and it’s bad for progress when Apple does it, too.

Remember, when radios started receiving only instead of also transmitting, that was the company building a simpler device, removing features to make it simpler and cheaper. The Apple iPad is not an unprogrammable computer. It’s a programmable computer with an added feature, DRM, that actively prevents you from programming it if you’re not approved by Apple. It’s more complicated to build that way, because it’s actively blocking you from trusting another company to vet your apps.

You call that progress?

4 thoughts on “What Nick Carr doesn’t get: hobbyists are the canary in the coal mine

  1. Is it too early to invoke Godwin’s law?

    <blockquote>…voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.</blockquote>
    Hermann Goering to Gustave Gilbert

  2. Is it too early to invoke Godwin’s law?

    <blockquote>…voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.</blockquote>
    Hermann Goering to Gustave Gilbert

  3. Ben – I agree that the concerns of tinkerers are very important. Like you, I had many such experiences growing up, and I would want my children to have the same. However, I wonder if our gut feelings are a good guide to 2010. So, 30 years ago, computers were not a mainstream device. Most computers were somehow hackable and few would have worked as a device every citizen and corporation depended on 24/7.

    Absolutely speaking, there are more hacking/experimentation opportunities than there were in 1980. (Go buy your son a FreeRunner instead of an iPhone if you like) Relatively, hackable devices are a vastly smaller piece of an enormous computing device pie.

    Certainly, the massive deployment of devices has improved society immensely. What we have to debate is just how much of that ecosystem should be hackable before it harms innovation and the rights of users. Many device owners will make choices good for their bottom lines and bad for users. Apple is making many controversial decisions, and we should be talking about them.

    However, your posts will start me thinking about the following question: how hackable does the device universe need to be? At this point, I don’t have the answer.

  4. Ben – I agree that the concerns of tinkerers are very important. Like you, I had many such experiences growing up, and I would want my children to have the same. However, I wonder if our gut feelings are a good guide to 2010. So, 30 years ago, computers were not a mainstream device. Most computers were somehow hackable and few would have worked as a device every citizen and corporation depended on 24/7.

    Absolutely speaking, there are more hacking/experimentation opportunities than there were in 1980. (Go buy your son a FreeRunner instead of an iPhone if you like) Relatively, hackable devices are a vastly smaller piece of an enormous computing device pie.

    Certainly, the massive deployment of devices has improved society immensely. What we have to debate is just how much of that ecosystem should be hackable before it harms innovation and the rights of users. Many device owners will make choices good for their bottom lines and bad for users. Apple is making many controversial decisions, and we should be talking about them.

    However, your posts will start me thinking about the following question: how hackable does the device universe need to be? At this point, I don’t have the answer.

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