Apr 262010

Here is a question to get your mind going. Has the evolution of computing been shaped by Western 20th century politics and culture or have our designs been more indebted to unchanging human psychology?

While this sounds like an abstract debate in which only academics would revel, it started with me tweaking Apple’s iPad in a tweet for what I believe to be ambivalence within the iPad’s file system design. The iPhone and iPad file designs do not exactly follow conventional and hierarchical folder/directory designs of yore. The reason is obvious. Most everyday users of ubiquitous devices have no need for the extra complexity. Many casual users of smart phones and now pads and slates do not understand the ins and outs of conventional file systems, nor should they.

My tweet excited my colleague, Dr. Chris Rice, a political science instructor and the social media strategist here at the University of Kentucky. He pointed out that the iPad advances a new paradigm that eschews the hierarchical and bureaucratic file systems that were rooted in the industrial metaphors of the 20th century. It also dumps the desktop metaphor, another aged metaphor, for a new metaphor that reflects a different cultural and political direction. He suggested I was bringing old political baggage to a new world order.

Much has been written over the past decade and a half on how the Internet enables the bottom-up organization of people, upsetting both the mainstream media’s ability to set the information agenda and some governments’ ability to exert control. While some have applauded the democratization effects of technology, others have noted that both corporations and energized governments have colonized the Internet, offsetting the downward shift of some power. Are the new technical designs within Apple’s products and example of the former?

Nonsense. Apple is designing the iPad to deal with two kinds of constraints. One is the constraints of human cognition. The other is the limitations of computing technology, including batteries. A file system where the application owns the files makes life very simple for both Apple and the user. An operating system without multitasking consumes far less battery life. An operating system without multiple windows open confuses far less people. Above all else, ubiquity requires simplicity. Moreover, if or when Apple wishes to extend the iPad to cover different and more complex use cases, they will have to bring in some of these concepts.

Bringing notions of a new political order into the discussion on the design of the iPad, while being a nice flash of rhetoric, is bringing together two things that don’t directly relate to each other. It reminded me of discussions of quantum physics and human consciousness. Not even wrong.

Or maybe not?

After all, all technical designs are done in a political-cultural context. Information technology, especially ubiquitous devices and the Internet, are enabling all sort of things never before done. Do our technical innovations co-occur with a shift in political and organizational ideology? Many Web 2.0 enthusiasts are in loud agreement. The optimists say the technology is dissolving old ways of organizing, old notions of hierarchies and bureaucracies and bringing about a new and better world.

Or are our computing designs merely an example of convergent evolution. File systems and operating systems are as old as the hills. There aren’t too many different ways to put these things together and still solve usual problems regardless of the organizational or political context. After all, computing works on information and information is deeply tied into human thought. The way we think is dependent on our neurobiology and last I checked, that hasn’t changed in about 60,000 years. Human minds and file systems have to do what they have to do, politics be damned.

The desktop metaphor, obviously created in a context of papers on the desk of an information worker, is clearly within the milieu of the 20th century workforce operating in a capitalistic bureaucracy. But desks and papers have been around for a couple millennia and across different cultures. Perhaps these metaphors persist more because of our cognitive biology than our sociology. If so, the evolution of technology is more convergent than we think. Computing is based on algorithms and data structures. Spoken language is based on nouns and verbs. This deep design pattern of human thought determines much more than we may realize. For those who disagree: imagine a spoken language, nay, a consciousness, without nouns, only verbs. How would it work? We think a certain way because that’s how our operating system was designed by nature. Our machines think similarly constrained.

The other critique the new technology fans make shows up in the disdain for organization hierarchies. Is technology dissolving hierarchies too? Or are social hierarchies also governed by our biology? After all, we all learn the most basic of hierarchies: the child’s dependence on the parent. This knowledge is deeply ingrained and highly tacit which leads to highly skilled behavior. We have had ample time to learn how to operate, more or less successfully, as children under caregivers. But have our notions of hierarchy failed to advance enough? Can technology really dissolve our sometimes dysfunctional dependence on hierarchies? And perhaps more germane to this conversation, does the new form of flat and simple file systems and the loss of desktop metaphor within the Apple products represent a significant change in the current political-cultural order? Are technology and politics co-evolving along parallel, if not intertwined lines?

I think enthusiasts of the techno-centric view of political change are overloading the iPhone/iPad operating system with kludgy baggage. The biological imperatives within us lead to convergent technical designs over and over again, despite and in spite of changes in culture.

What do you think?

(By the way, this post was written on the iPad in Pages, copied to WordPress via good old copy and paste and then the file was converted to Word and copied to my main store of documents on a Dell laptop via an iPad WiFi share. I sure wish the iPad had a more sophisticated file structure, with replication to the cloud so I could have maximum interoperability with all my other software both on my computer and in the cloud. But I still love my iPad.)


  3 Responses to “Politics, culture, convergent evolution and the iPad”

  1. Thanks for the post Vince. I would argue that instead of technology dissolving hierarchies it is the shift to knowledge work and all the nuances Peter Druker said this shift would bring that is dissolving traditional command and control hierarchies. After all, even open source communities such as the Ruby on Rails community has it’s own hierarchy of rockstars programmers, projects contributors, evangelist etc. Meritocracy and a passion for effectiveness guides the formation of this type of continuously changing hierarchy. Consider the world of Agile where again we see a desire to move away from command and control to self organizing teams for no other reason then the fact that they are generally more effective in the current state of software development.

  2. Agreed Vince. I thought it was a big improvement when the iPad was first announced that programs open with a menu of their files, so easy to understand. There are many elements of the computing experience that need to go away, here’s a blog post on it from last year http://michaeldain.com/2009.htm, I won’t spoil the surprise on what is #1.

  3. avatar

    I agree there’s no need to over complicate the issue at hand: the iPad provides tools most people use 80% of the time. It’s efficiency versus sheer power. While my laptop can process huge graphic files and video–something I rarely do on the road–there’s nothing like basking in the glory of 54 inches of sublime screen space in my office.

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