An Amateur’s Lament

Amazon’s advertisement for the Kindle Fire opens with a Voltaire quote:

The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes property of all.

Visions of the Future

Taken from a certain angle, the metaphor makes sense. There’s a Promethean ideal of content — music, movies, books — no longer constrained by the physical media of the past, and no longer subject to the old Olympian gate-keepers: record labels, Hollywood, and publishers. The promise of these devices is accessibility of content to all. The killer feature of each one is the price, which is aggressive to begin with and, if the past is any indicator, subject to relentless and continuous cuts.

Apple has a similar vision of the future but approaches from the opposite direction. It’s more an offer of luxury to the masses, a democratization of high-end design. But the result is basically the same. The emphasis is on the device itself, but it’s a vision of technological access made available to everyone.

Both utopian visions, though, hide the threat of dystopia not far underneath the surface, as utopian visions often do. In the case of Apple’s “post-PC” devices, it’s a subtle one, hidden in the very experience that makes the devices attractive.

Production and Consumption

The iPad is physically not much more than a touchscreen, which is primarily just a screen with the addition of an input system. While the direct-manipulation paradigm is indisputably more intuitive, it’s also less robust. You simply can’t get the precision of a mouse, or the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard. It’s a user-interface optimized for consumption and shallow interactions like navigation. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to create things on an iPad; there are plenty of examples to the contrary. But its primary purpose is for output, not input, unlike the general-purpose PC. The iPad implicitly privileges consumption over production. So insofar as these post-PC devices will replace PCs, the market- and mindshare of consumption-oriented devices will grow at the expense of production-oriented ones.

Distribution Control

Amazon’s proposition with the Kindle line is subtly different. While the Kindle (which term I use generically hereafter to refer to the entire line of Kindles, including the e-book readers and the Kindle Fire) is openly a pure consumption device, it’s also cheap enough to be offered as a supplement to PCs as opposed to a replacement. Their purpose is narrow: to remove all friction from the consumption of digital media. Amazon, as a retail company, is trying to aggressively commoditize its complements while controlling the distribution channel.

For Amazon to make money through this model, though, everything has to flow through Amazon. And with how much of the e-book retail business Amazon already controls, it’s an outcome that doesn’t seem unlikely. With a free month’s subscription to Amazon’s Prime service with every purchase of a Kindle Fire, they’re instructing consumers on how to easily stream movies from their catalog and buy music directly in addition to buying everything else, from toilet paper to power tools. Meanwhile, music streaming services are becoming more popular. The inexorable trend seems to be toward subscription services for everything. It isn’t difficult to imagine a future in which you can play a flat rate to Amazon for access to an all-you-can-eat streaming service for all content: music, magazines, newspapers, books, movies, tv shows; all on free hardware ranging from e-ink devices, tablets, set-top boxes (hooked up to televisions bought from Amazon with one click and 2-day shipping).

Centralization

In Apple’s vision of the future, you buy apps and content on iTunes, which you consume on your various iDevices. In Amazon’s, you get a free Kindle with a subscription to Amazon Prime, and stream all your content. The real price of the ease and ubiquity of access offered by both of these companies is centralization of control. These visions represent a step backward into our recent past of broadcast media, with a few powerful entities acting as gatekeepers to our collective culture. Which may seem inoffensive if you prefer curated, professionally produced content anyway. But then you might realize that Apple plays an actively censorial role in its App Store. You might find that Amazon has bizarrely tone-deaf and comically ironic behavior in its recent past, like remotely deleting purchased copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles.

The most frightening and subversive part of Amazon’s strategy to me is the Silk Browser. While offering the proposition of a better browsing experience, Amazon has begun to insinuate itself into our great decentralizing force: the World Wide Web.

It is perhaps simply the historical cycle of a new technology’s decentralizing force dissipating into subsequent centralized control described by Tim Wu in The Master Switch.

Lamentation

My lament, then, is for the dying bazaar. For the crushed dream of the blogging revolution, replaced by closed and proprietary systems like Facebook. For the notion of putting the means of production into the hands of the masses, replaced by ubiquitous and unimaginably slick consumption devices. For a flourishing chaos of freely exchanged ideas, curated, ranked, and sorted by people, organizations, and algorithms that are themselves curated, ranked, and sorted. For a more participatory World Wide Web.

An Alternative Vision of the Future

Not that it’s over. As I’ve noted before, Google is a huge and powerful engineering monastery that has a symbiotic relationship with the Web and DNA consisting of decentralized production and distribution. And there are plenty of smaller efforts to make the Web a competitive endeavor, as well certain types of participatory depth and richness of experience that only the Web can provide. And we’ve only begun to see the new frontier of possible decentralized business models for content production afforded by the open Web.

Looking around the Web, though, it’s not that hard to understand why people might seek refuge in closed systems. A lot of it is unavoidable. Some places on the Web will always be cesspools. But there are some matters of convention we can change by consensus to make the Web a better, more participatory place that encourages deep, serious thought and collaboration as well as frivolous ephemera. There are ways to optimize reading, civil discussion, and community-building. And the beauty of a consensual, conventional system is that I just have to convince enough people that this is worth doing.

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