The Hidden Cost of Tablet Computers

Tablets seem to embody the neutralisation and monetisation of a technology's liberating potential. What is more, after the rise of hacktivist groups such as Anonymous, tablets certainly appear more conducive to placidity and less threatening to the status quo.

From the frail, jaded commuter casting his sunken eyes over a Kindle Fire on the tube, to the sticky-fingered toddler distractedly palming an iPad in the corner of a suburban cafe, everyone these days has a tablet. Increasingly, consumers have been voting with their wallets and selecting the shiny and more pocket-pleasing option (both in terms of price and size) over the traditional laptop/desktop. The figures from the spring confirmed this change, with a 14% fall in sales of PCs. Indeed, April's numbers are grim reading for those involved in the traditional computing market, such as HP, as they amount to something of a death knell, being, as they are, the fourth quarter of declining sales and the largest drop in purchases for twenty years.

HP and Dell's pain has proved, however, to be Apple and Amazon's gain. With the iPad and Kindle taking the lion's share, tablet sales are expected to top 229.3 million units this year -- a breathtaking 59% percent increase over 2012's still strong 144.5 million. But what does this transformation in the way that we engage with digital media mean? Is it a benign sea change, as natural as the passing of generations, with the clunkier and more impractical ancestor giving way to the sleeker and more invitingly tactile offspring, or, does it signify an important and more malignantly inclined move away from a bygone utopian technological ideal?

In 1882, the ailing and increasingly syphilitic Friedrich Nietzsche took delivery of a "Malling Hansen Writing Ball", an early sort of type writer. The machine was to have a transformative effect on the creative output of the philosopher, freeing him to share his thoughts on the page without having to be able to rely on his rapidly failing vision. Most significantly, though, the use ornate orbicular device proved intellectually enabling, stimulating a new more vigorous flavour to his prose, and one that he attributed to the mediacy of the machine. The typewriter thus had a twofold effect for the philosopher - it facilitated writing and changed how that writing was expressed. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts", he declared.

As a technology, the personal computer and, more forcefully perhaps, the internet, can be said to have had a similar impact on many of us. "If the experience of modern society shows us anything," Langdon Winner writes, "it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning." The dawn of Web 2.0 in 2005 was a paradigmatic realignment that placed the internet at the heart of the modern consciousness. Having evolved from the cumbrous and now almost unbelievably archaic dial-up based network of the beginning of the millennium, the internet and the devices which we used to interact with it became orientated around the private user connecting with his peers. The proliferation of social media underscores this relationship, as does the burgeoning community of bloggers that have snapped up domains and carved out various niches during the last decade or so.

The driving spirit of this technology was felt by many budding amateurs, hobbyists and entrepreneurs to be of an emancipatory, participatory and democratic nature. After decades of supine passivity under television's enthronement as the dominant form of mass entertainment and subsequent hegemony, people could create and share freely and easily. Citizens became citizen journalists, geeks became millionaires, and everyone with a computer could find others with shared interests. It was as if the age-old longing expressed in EM Forster's famous epigraph had been realised. The imaginatively stultifying enforced silence of the viewer was usurped by the possibility for a groundswell of active engagement at a grassroots, individual level. We could, in other words, at last upload, rather than solely download.

Like the Nietzsche's typewriter, then, the internet saw us creatively enabled by technology and began to shape the culture. It also, however had lasting effects on the products of this newly realised creativity. While there may have been a few halcyon days where a utopian free exchange of ideas reigned, and the chance for each of us to share the fruits of our labour on a newly leveled digital playing field seemed to be nearing, the dominant and most perceptive of the tech corporations and the government eventually caught up, and in recent years have tried to quell the anarchic freedom, like an irate parent at an illicit houseparty. And by and large, they have done a good job of stemming the flow of active participators and re-subjugating the participating public. The producer or potential producer is being subtly ushered away from personal, self-deterministic agency and activity, and turned once more towards passive consumptive practices.

The ascendancy of the tablet computer is arguably one of the biggest culprits in this recasting. Ever since Moses, tablets have been ways of conveying messages to an audience; of imposing an overarching universality on a heterogeneous multiplicity. Tablets, either with an optional (afterthought) keyboard or with the complete absence of physical buttons fundamentally reorientate our relationship to digital technology. They do not make content creation easy. As Steve Ranger observes, one "could retype War and Peace on [an] iPhone" but it would hardly be facile or gratifying, and the medium does little to encourage such activity.

Thus as more and more people embrace tablets and discard more traditional computers, the line between content creators and consumers becomes thicker and more indelible. Oligarchically, the power and the money becomes concentrated in the hands of the few with the means to easily produce, while the majority are once more saddled only with the compulsion to spend in order to read, watch, listen. The various marketing departments of different tech firms convince us to pay for the surrender of our own creative possibility, and henceforward channel our money to their coffers.

Tablets therefore seem to embody the neutralisation and monetisation of a technology's liberating potential. What is more, after the rise of hacktivist groups such as Anonymous, tablets certainly appear more conducive to placidity and less threatening to the status quo. You can almost hear the collective sigh of those at the NSA and GCHQ as people turn towards electronics that are designed to receive more commodiously than they are to send or produce. After all, the fewer people that can code, hack, programme and create digital content, the more valuable those skills become in terms of revenue and cultural suasion. The next time you fondle an iPad or find a Kindle seductively eyeing you, then, ask yourself whether it's really as good a deal as it first seems.

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