Making Hay

It is difficult to make an argument against the creative power and urge of people, which is a really good thing. In his Ted Talk on music and passion, Ben Zander begins:

Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. And they wrote telegrams back to Manchester. And one of them wrote: “Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote: “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

Now, there’s a similar situation in the classical music world, because there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Zander stands alongside those who look at any given situation and prefer to see the possibilities. There is an ever-present difficulty when facing any change, because with change comes an uncertainty about the outcome of the future. At any given point looking to the future, one can imagine either something very bleak or something filled with promise.

I’m of the opinion that there is an innate quality of mankind that drives toward improvement, so I prefer to look ahead to opportunity rather than dystopia. I hear what you are saying already: there is a danger to imagining only good things for the future, because this could cause a blindness in decision-making that opens the door to having all the good intentions in the world but still on average making the world a worse place. Surely, anyone who is serious about partaking in the human project needs to be careful about supporting changes whose outcomes are unknown.

A simple answer to this is that we have mountains of empirical evidence showing that the risks involved in taking chances are well worth it, and that the story of human progress is the story of the people who embrace change and move forward. But this is a sort of grandiose way to think about things, and misses the point on the individual and day-to-day scale. It is fallacious to imagine that we have much control over what will happen to us tomorrow, and a little absurd to imagine even more control than that. Things happen to me every day that surprise me, as I’m sure they happen to you as well. We may sometimes be in a better mood to recognize and respond to those things, but the surprises are there if we are open to them.

I would say that it is fairly easy and a little lazy to argue that some change in the way things are is going to lead to the demise of some sort of human potential. Thinking that a change in technology is going to limit our ability to realize our creative selves implies a fragility that I don’t think most people making such arguments take into account.

On the eve of the release of the iPad, Cory Doctorow wrote:

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.

This sounds like a pretty limiting take on kids’ potential. And a pretty limiting take on the adults those kids grow up to be. On a human scale, is the difference between growing up with an Apple II and a shiny new iPad the kind of difference that really makes a difference? If we have learned anything about humanity over the course of, well, recorded history, isn’t it that we’re a pretty resilient bunch?

And yet leading into this conclusion, Doctorow claims:

But with the iPad, it seems like Apple’s model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn’t too complicated for their poor old mothers).

Doctorow’s argument sounds a lot like “Here, finally, is something that’s going to stop kids from wondering about the world.”

John Gruber has a nice piece in response, “The Kids Are All Right in which he points out an email he received from 13-year-old Sam Kaplan who has a chalkboard app already for sale in the iPad App Store. In Gruber’s words, “Somehow I don’t think young Mr. Kaplan sees the iPad as hurting his sense of wonder or entrepreneurism.”

This is, in a way, how it always goes, and Gruber’s conclusion in his piece is on point:

Something important and valuable is indeed being lost as Apple shifts to this model of computing. But it’s a trade-off, because something new that is important and valuable has been gained.

All change is of that nature. Some attempts at change don’t catch on, and so don’t make a difference. Those that do inherently bring loss and gain. I don’t fault Cory Doctorow for standing on the side of concern - but looking ahead, pessimism is no more warranted than optimism. That being the case, I’d prefer to choose optimism. At least enough so as to try to promote a good outcome. To my mind, Doctorow’s opinion is based in the same kind of belittling view of people that he seems to be deriding.