Controlled Convenience or Chaotic Freedom?

Steve Jobs was responsible for revolutionising the computer age. When Apple released the Macintosh in 1984 it was the first time consumers were given a user-friendly means of interacting with a computer. The Macintosh introduced the first graphical user interface and was the first mass-market computer to be networkable. But while Apple brought us into the personal computer era their business model has practically reversed and seems hell bent on taking us out of it.

Apple products such as the IPhone have stopped being computing devices and have become simplistic information applications. They are incapable (by design) of operating anything outside of their designated software and they prevent users from accessing any internal elements; creating this shell of a computer that runs entirely off of face level applications. All content and the way you can interact with that content is controlled. You don’t own applications only pay to use them, you cannot change anything, install anything, transfer content and all the apps you can download have come from a centralised network that have gone through an intensive approval process.

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“It was easy to use, elegant and cool – and had lots of applications right out of the box… but the company quietly dropped a fundamental feature, one signalled by the dropping of ‘Computer’ from Apple Computer’s name” (Johnathan Zittrain).

“The fundamental difference between a PC and an Information Application is that a PC can run code from anywhere while Information Appliances remain tethered to makers desires, offering a more consistent and focused user experience at the expense of flexibility and innovation” (Jonathan Zittrain again).

While your phone not being a computer isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Steve Jobs himself proclaimed “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore”. It is important to keep in mind though that the mobile phone has actually replaced the desktop as the primary mode of access to the internet. For millions of people, particularly those in developing nations their phone is their computer.

The Alliance of Open Handsets offer the polar opposite to Apple with their free Android operating system that can run on any device, can be completely rooted or moded and grants users access to both an official app store and unofficial ones. Plus you are allowed to upload your own aps. Originally Apple dominated the smart phone market but Android has now captured 85% of it, just going to show that a long tail of many small units will inevitably always out preform a lesser number of large ones.

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When Google first announced the alliance and the concept of Android, Steve predicted that the fragmented nature and uncontrollability of the idea would be its demise “I think it hurts them more than it helps, it is just going to divide them”.  While he was right about the division he was wrong about it being a negative. Eric Raymond believes networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because you can accomplish more and faster. He compares Cathedrals to Bazaars noting that if you release content early and often problems are resolved quickly by the sheer many. “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. While Apples system of having a selected few make something perfect before release makes the task slow and monumental.

But in the end it all boils down to personal preference, Apples system ensures you are only buying something that has been carefully designed to ensure everything runs smoothly and easily whereas the Android system gives you everything good or bad; you have the power the chose and therefore the responsibility. It is just a question of if you want controlled convenience or chaotic freedom.

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Shrouding The Cloud: The Hidden Cost of Media Consumption

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While the images above may look like a charming series of Jackson Pollock paintings, the disturbing truth is that they are a mere snapshot into the reality that is Electronic Waste. E-Waste is made up of the tons of electronic devices we discard and dump each year and yes you read that correctly I said tons; 20 Million per year to be precise. (ifixit.org)

Seeing as electronic fads such as the latest I pod or smart phone last an average of 18 months before becoming damaged or obsolete, it is no surprise we are witnessing the rapid growth of mountainous wastelands within Asia and Africa.

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“The U.S. throws away around 400 million electronic gadgets each year — more than one per person and only about 20 percent of  that e-waste is collected for recycling; the rest goes to landfills and incinerators.”

What makes the rate of our electronic consumption so devastating is the harmful effect these electronics have on both people and the environment from their creation to their inevitable disintegration. Making all these gadgets takes an enormous environmental and public health toll. Rare earths are essential to the production of modern medias and to the illusive ‘cloud’ we store our lives on. Mining these earths causes irrevocable damage to the lands they are mined from. On top of this these rare earths include Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Beryllium and Arsenic which are credited to ailments such as Cancer, Brain Damage, Chronic Lung Disease, Poisoning and Infertility. Those involved in the manufacturing process of electronic products are constantly being exposed to deadly toxins and that goes without even mentioning the slave labor conditions they are forced to work under. (ewaste.com)

Not only does it cost the environment to create these products, it is just as costly to run them. As the virtual cloud these products operate on expands in terms of storage and processing capability, so to does the amount of hardware needed to run the cloud. This is leading to a growth in the creation of ‘Sever Farms’ where land in cleared to make room for massive electronic infrastructure. Sever Farms are enormous they use up acres upon acres of land and they require copious amounts of energy.

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Check out these images by Martin Schoeller depicting a Facebook server farm. After we have discarded our old electrical devices the damage does not stop there. Left to decay in landfills they slowly release the toxic chemicals inside of them creating toxic waste that renders soil barren, air polluted and water undrinkable. To make matters worse 80 percent of this stuff is shipped overseas where it is broken apart by workers to extract small bits of valuable metal. These workers (some of them children) are once again being exposed to the deadly toxins.

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What really frustrates me is that the rapid cycles of innovation and obscurity that are responsible for the extent of our E-Waste are not something that just happens. It is exactly what large companies such as Apple want to happen and even plan to happen. When they make their products they are not made with sustainability in mind. They are extremely fragile and break quickly and they are designed like this to entice you into continually buying a new ones. Its all about maximizing profits and we so easily buy into it. When the new I Phone comes out the old one suddenly becomes obsolete. Why? because marketing and social conditioning tell us we need the newest gadget to live and fit in; despite the fact the differences between it and the older version are miniscule.

We need to start designing gadgets with the goal of sustainability outweighing the goal of profitability.

The Digital Walled Garden: A Price on Entertainment

flanagan_walled_garden_03 “The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times.” (Kevin Kelly)

Previously wealth was built on the selling precious copies and as a result the instant duplication of data, ideas, and media undermines all major sectors of our economy. If reproductions of humanities best efforts are free how does one make money selling free copies? The truth is they don’t, so what is the solution here?…An advertising dominated online culture? Harsher punishments for copy right infringements? Intense DRM laws? An end to free streaming? Or the death of piracy?

All these things sound great (to businesses) however what this means for the consumer is the end of a free internet and the creation of a Walled Garden. Which in my personal opinion goes against the entire construct of what the internet is; a global data sharing service that facilitates the free flow of information.

For those not up with the lingo a Walled Garden is a closed platform or software system where the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and media, and restricts convenient access to non-approved applications or content (think Apple).

In Australia we have only just now gotten Netflix and at the moment it is very reasonably priced in an attempt to combat the competition of piracy (SMH). I was dumbfounded by the positive response it got and the sheer level of buzz it generated. A few of my friends got it and they couldn’t wait to tell me about how for only $14.99 a month they could gain access to the hundreds of shows Netflix had to offer. Off course my immediate reaction was: WOW that’s super awesome, did you know that for zero dollars a month you can gain access to every show ever?

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Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for supporting the industry and funding the artists but what I cannot understand is peoples willingness to buy into what is essentially a restriction of freedom. Let’s just say for arguments sake that in an ideal hypothetical future, piracy was non existent and access to the things we watched online were restricted only to paid streaming services such as Netflix. The price is cheap now because piracy is a threat but in a world without free downloading these services would have monopoly and therefore total control over price. This would be a world where the price of entertainment could fluctuate as frequently as petrol.

What people need to ask themselves is just what exactly they are buying into. While you are watching shows on Netflix, Netflix is watching you watching their shows. They know what you are viewing, when you are viewing it, how often you are viewing it and what sort of things you like. The luxury of private entertainment in the comfort of your own home is a thing of the past. The question here is, does knowing that someone knows what you are watching make a significant impact on what you watch? Would people stop watching porn if other people knew they watched it? Would manly men suddenly feel embarrassed about watching sappy romantic comedies? Would students start to have their study assistance rejected because their viewing data proves they are not putting in full time study hours?

When a service becomes an inhibitor to your daily actions as a person it becomes a breach of your freedom. Convenient solutions almost always come with an inevitable cost.