Friday, May 7, 2010

An Open Apple a Day

Probably the most over debated topic of the last month has been about Apple computer culture versus a more open computing culture. I have wasted my time on this on a number of websites. I think that the reason I became so interested in this is because somehow I was trying to work out for myself some more fundamental questions about  technology, art and modern society in general, which just happen to come together in this particular debate. The broader discussion has not been so much about the I-Pad versus a range of existing and potential competitors, but instead deals with something that we all feel much more personally invested in; expression. The argument can be boiled down to two philosophies, which I now maintain are less transparent than we think. Apple philosophy is based on control and intellectual property. This can be seen in three famous ways; the fee based system for buying media content, the Apple Apps system which prevents any application not approved by Apple to be used and Apple’s choice to not support Adobe Flash. This has been portrayed as an opposition to Google which promotes a more open culture in most ways. My instinct was to oppose the Apple closed structure. After all I love the idea that anyone can develop anything. I like the idea of an open internet culture. The problem I find though is that neither model is completely satisfying, as the fruits of contemporary content and creativity are now lost on opposing business models, rather than the creations themselves. There are two examples, both of which are personally both frustrating to me. The first is scientific knowledge.

Yesterday I spoke at a seminar with 5 other speakers in Paris, all of whom work in a very similar field to mine, which is the physics of polymers. I left the meeting with one thought, which is that everyone should be required to go to a scientific conference, regardless of whether they are scientists. In this group, despite the daily work I do, or Ph.D. I have, I was challenged and confused. The basic science of my field is so complex that no matter how much I work in it; there is an infinity of knowledge to be gained. By the way, it is not irrelevant to this that polymers like plastic and rubber (the things we were presenting on) make up so much of our world. It may not be important for everyone to understand the models, equations and experiments that all of these scientists were working with, but to know that there are people working on them at least gives the possibility of a deeper appreciation for them.

This reminds me of the Apple Google debate because our debating is basically from an uniformed user perspective. We don’t know how Apple or Google do what they do. We use these products every day, and even debate the validity of the ideology of them without understanding how the engineers and business leaders at these companies manipulate data and perception in order to profit. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be profiting, just that it is hard to judge a particular philosophy as superior if we come from a place of ignorance. Even if we look at what we do know the situation becomes more complicated than at first glance. Apple makes their money by selling products, whether it is I-Pads, I-Phones, and computers, or paid downloads of music, movies, apps and books. How and who makes these may be secretive, but what it is we are buying is not. Google by contrast gives away most of what it has. Google makes money through advertisement. This may seem innocent enough, but all of the algorithms Google uses for everything from search to books are controlled by proprietary algorithms, which if they are serving their customer (the advertiser) will benefit their customer (the advertiser). This example is to point out the complexity of choosing a moral high ground and the basis of openness. It is also to say that we should all dig a little deeper because it is interesting and enlightening to do so.

The second point is not scientific or economic at its core, but rather artistic. I am reading the book “You Are Not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier I am not sure how much of this book I agree with, but it is very thought provoking. One of the points he makes is a criticism of open computing culture in its ability to generate and promote originality. He mentions a belief that the last decade has failed to produce a unique musical style, which has not been true in one hundred years or more. I agree with this, even though it is impossible to quantify. Generally the access to music has been good for exposure, but has created such a mix and remix of styles that even new music sounds retro. That is not to say that there is not new music or new styles available. I work with a group called Wake Up! I think is very new. The problem is how that will be perceived when there is so much to sample. It is a game of statistics. The more music that is available the more the average will be the same. The outliers will be ignored, rather than seen as visionaries. This applies to the Apple Google debate as well, since the two models of music distribution will push listeners in one direction or the other. Wake Up! Seems to be trying to be a part of both camps, which is what it must do in order to be responsible to its own mission. They are giving their music away for free by playing in parks, and on their website. They are also selling it on I-Tunes. My worry is that neither system is supportive of the new; the hive mentality or the micro managed authorities. This makes the struggle to get new music heard exiting, as the possibility exists to work with and without the system, but the problem of finding an audience more difficult, as there is a new paradigm which is more concerned with the system of distribution than with the content itself.

This is all to say that I, and many others on the internet, am spending too much time arguing about how something is presented to us, than what is being presented. We care whether it is advertiser, stock market, or consumer based revenue, rather than the technology or the content. I don’t have answers, other than that we need to think and listen in retro ways. That is we need to look at the technology not just as users but as scientists. We need to listen to music and make music like people who love discovering music that represents us best. We need however to take chances in new ways. We need to ignore the new common wisdom, rather it is Google “openness” or Apple “sleekness”, and focus instead on what we want to say, see and hear.