Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

The world is changing, fast and without relent. Some long-standing titans are being swept aside, their self-presumed permanence nothing but paper and happenstance. And in their shock — in their sudden obsolescence — they lash out; their last act, just before they sink below the waves, is a spasm of rage, a fist striking out at whatever it happens to hit. But the world will keep changing, faster and more relentlessly, and the only thing that will save them is to change with it.

So. Pop quiz, hot shot. Is this post about Old Media, the Tea Party or Cory Doctorow?

Is there any difference? All three have a vested interest in systems that are changing in ways they don’t fully understand and can’t control. And they don’t like it one bit.

Lord knows, more than enough has been written about Old Media and the Tea Party, but Doctorow recently planted himself in the same neophobic camp as the dinosaurs and the nutbags with a little rant on the unhackabiliy of the iPad. Cory’s not happy that what he’s comfortable with — what he finds value in — is suddenly going the way of well-heeled white men and well-heeled white men. And he thinks you shouldn’t be happy about it either. Alex Payne and Mark Pilgrim (and many, many others) have expressed similar sentiments.

My initial reaction is sympathy. I grew up in the same era as these guys. My first computer was an Atari 400, weaseled out of my parents after a year of camping at a friend’s house and playing with his Apple II. (Note: Apple II, not Apple II+, you newbie losers. We used Integer BASIC, and we liked it.) One of the very first things my dad and I did with the 400 was add a real, full-stroke keyboard using the instructions in ANALOG Magazine, issue 9, connected via a two-inch wide ribbon cable. It was a heavy, steel-cased thing, and you could have killed somebody with it if you had swung it at them.

God, I loved that keyboard. I loved that machine.

But there is exactly no way in Hell that I’d want to go back to soldering it into a 16K, 1Mhz computer spread across the kitchen table like the victim of a bad motorcycle accident. Just like there’s no way I’d want to go back to punch cards, or vacuum tubes, or mechanical rotors. Or polio, or fascism, or pre-agrarian nomadism. Or the Bush Administration.

There’s a reason most of us aren’t Cory Doctorow. We don’t want to open up our devices. We don’t want to hack them. We want them to just goddamned work, thanks, and if gluing the case shut makes that possible, bring on the Elmers.

Is that me abandoning my fate to corporate overlords? Is that an abdication of my responsibility as a goggle-wearing, becaped techno-citizen? Of course not. It’s me making a rational decision, getting something I care a lot about in exchange for something I don’t care quite so much about. It’s not dumb, and it’s not naive. It’s the market at work, and if my corporate overlords can’t make the trade worthwhile, then I’ll go somewhere else — the remainders bin at Fry’s, for example, or Richard Stallman’s office. But, honestly, the deal would have to suck pretty bad to get me back there. I mean, the smell alone. The freedom of the waves is great, but dying of scurvy sure sucks.

Hate that as much as you want, old-school corner-cases, but it’s the future, it always has been. It’s called “progress,” the continual refinement of the social contract. And it’s no more a betrayal of something vital than any other decision made in rational self-interest. Make your arguments about DRM and closed systems and “Wal-Martization”, but they still don’t come anywhere close to tipping the scale. The iPad (or something like it) is the future of computing for an enormous slice of the population — despite all its political and philosophical flaws — because it’s a pretty goddamned great future. It’s a future that we want.

Simplicity has a purpose, and complexity — “hackability” is just a form of complexity — has costs. The story of technology over the course of the past 20 years is the expansion of one at the expense of another. It’s been more than a fair trade, despite detours and disasters and greed and stupidity. To object to this positive (and historically inevitable) trend on the grounds that you maybe can’t trade comics anymore is to remove the benefits of technology from billions of potential users, for your own myopic ends.

This isn’t about the “easy enough for my mom” trope that Doctorow hauls out as a straw man. I’m an experienced technologist, and have been banging — often literally — on computers for twenty-five years. At least half of what I do, even today, is meta-work, effort that goes purely into keeping the goddamned things running. My wife is not a technologist, but uses a computer every day — and hates it. That she has to fight, constantly, to get her tools to do her bidding is insane. It’s all wasted time and wasted effort, and exactly none of it has anything to do with what she’s trying to accomplish. Her tools suck — all our tools suck — and there’s no excuse for it. Would she trade inscrutable and doesn’t work for inscrutable and does? In a heart beat. I would, too. Everybody would, and will.

Doctorow says that he learned to program using HyperCard — a program that was derided as a laughable toy on a comically closed platform at the time. I remember, because I was one of the arrogant SOBs doing the deriding. But HyperCard was a great programming environment, a sane introduction to a complex topic that expanded the population of programmers many, many, many times over. Some went on to bigger things. Some stayed happily where they were, because it got the job done. Excel, VisualBasic, HyperCard — these “toys” are all tools, and tools that work, for an enormous number of people. They offer a leg up, a start, a way in. Doctorow essentially argues that those benefits shouldn’t be available to others, now that he’s found somewhere that he’s comfortable. Infantalize that. If you need to change a battery to feel like a whole man, then perhaps you’re missing the point.