Darel Rex Finley in 888

The End of Elitism

2010.07.22   prev     next

THE iPad was inevitable, in the sense that a sealed market — i.e. one that doesn’t allow free copying of executables — one day was going to unite with a well-built OS, a slick UI, and a relatively easy, low-entry-cost app SDK. Eventually, it was gonna happen. and when it did happen, there was gonna be a whole bunch of developers who were gonna hate it, and come up with all kinds of reasons to say that it’s bad. But it was going to be successful anyway because there’re so many more developers who want freedom from piracy, and as soon as somebody came out with a system like that, then boom, it was gonna be a huge success. (The only question remaining is whether the government will legislate it out of existence, which would just postpone the transformation of computing for several years or a few decades, until some other leglislature repeals.)

It was inevitable — but it didn’t have to be Apple. It very nearly wasn’t. Apple almost died in the ’90s. Steve Jobs had a close brush with cancer before the iPad was even under development, then dodged another health bullet months before the product was announced. It very nearly wasn’t Apple, but it was gonna be somebody. Somebody, eventually, was gonna come out with a good computer with a totally piracy-protected system; one that there’s no easy way to rampantly pirate around. And once they did that, a ton of really good developers were gonna come out of the woodwork, and start writing a ton of great apps for it. And the other kind of developers, the ones who were developing just for the sake of developing, they were gonna be really pissed-off, because that’s not the kind of computer they ever wanted. I think Alex Payne put it quite succinctly:

The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing.

Is it cynicism to think that the great majority of potential app developers can’t be expected to hold down a day job at XYZ Corp. and also develop great apps in their spare time for little or no extra money? Or is it just realism?

To me, one of the epiphanic moments in the maturation of computing was when Betrand Serlet, deriding Vista in an Apple keynote, said of Windows hard-drive disk defragmentation utilities: “No end-user should ever have to know about that.” Precisely. A lot of computer nerds think that running a technical app that analyzes and defragments your hard drive, while showing you a schematic of what it’s doing, is really cool, and part of what computing is about. Apple is maybe the first computer company to fully realize that hard-drive maintenance, including defragmentation, is something that the OS should silently do in the background without the user (even if that user happens to be a skilled developer) ever knowing that it’s happening.

Aside from file fragmentation, another issue hard drives have to deal with is sectors that appear to be functional at the outset, but degrade and go bad over time. All hard drives, or so I’ve heard, come with a built-in set of spare sectors that aren’t included as part of the drive’s official capacity. When the drive’s hardware detects that one of the regular sectors is starting to go bad, it automatically copies that sector’s data to one of the spare sectors, then marks the original sector as “bad,” so it won’t get used again. This greatly increases the life and reliability of the drive — and it’s done entirely transparently, meaning that the OS (not to mention the human user) doesn’t even know it’s happening. Serlet’s observation was that defragmentation should be performed by the OS just as transparently to the user.

IT

As computing matures in the coming years, a whole lot of IT people’s jobs are going to disappear. And it looks like this is going to be intimately intertwined with the world using Apple’s products. Apple’s philosophy is that all of these technical issues involved with personal computing should be solved in advance at Apple, and then no one should have to jack with them elsewhere.

What’s going to happen to all those IT people? They’re going to have to go get a new job doing something else, and for a lot less money. And that’s why so many of them hate Apple. They can see it coming.

Access, and Humanity’s New Phase

The modern technology developed in the past fifty years or so — in particular the internet — has brought an abrupt and complete end to the phenomenon of elitism, at least in the advanced parts of the world.

Elitism in almost every area has been based on physical access. The elite consisted of those who had physical access to a particular thing. Of course, this elite always pretended (or sometimes really believed) that their elite position was based on superior comprehension and appreciation, when in reality it usually wasn’t.

For generations before the invention of the camera and printing, only a small minority of the population had ready access to fine art, and this elite art crowd of course presumed itself to have special understanding and appreciation of art, of which few commoners would be capable. When the camera and photographic mass-production ruined the privilege of access, by making fine art available to most everyone, then the elite art crowd had to turn its favors toward something most everyone wouldn’t like: the grotesque, the bizarre, the abstract, and the quixotic — i.e. what we now call “modern art” — to maintain its position as a passable elite. (See Mechanism pp. 133-35.)

Before the advent of the personal computer, an elite group of individuals had access to, and control of, computing. If you wanted to program computers, you had to get in the good graces of this priesthood, and go along with their pretense of superiority. Today, anyone who has a desktop or laptop computer (meaning most people) can download a development system like Xcode for free and start writing apps immediately. How much processor is your app using? Not anyone’s problem but yours. What percent of the computer’s processor are you allowed to use for a significant period of time? 99.9%, or whatever the OS isn’t already using. What finicky, annoying persons do you have to pretend to be friendly with in order to be able to code at all? How about none.

Higher education — while undoubtedly providing some necessary information (to become a doctor, chemist, or lawyer, for example) and necessary certification (i.e. the consequences of going to an uninformed doctor are a lot more than losing your money) — is badly riddled with elitist pomposity; whacky, useless, theories whose only real purpose is to elevate the theorizer to an apparent position of superior comprehension and mentorship. In generations past, if you wanted to have access to current, quality information generated by intelligent people, and you wanted to be able to discuss that information, and your ideas about that information, with other intelligent people, you had to have access to the university. And your access was based on whether the people controlling the university thought you should have it — period. Those circumstances have eroded tremendously in recent years.

Before the internet, scientific theorizing was something that could be practiced only by working scientists, who directly gathered data through experiments, then shared their results with a tight-nit group of self-reinforcing, like-minded, working scientists. In theory, technical science papers were open to everyone, but in practice most people would have had to go to a lot of trouble to access them, and then would have no way to discuss what they had read with the rest of humanity. Today’s internet has ended that situation.

Similar to science, journalism was practiced only by a mutually reinforcing network of like-minded reporters, who could easily, and without directly lying, spin or selectively report the stories to create the vision of the world as they and their ilk preferred that it be seen. Again, today’s internet has rendered that practice mostly ineffective.

Newspapers have declined badly in recent years, and are now trying to move to the web, because people are reading their news off of that web. The major papers of yesteryear now try to make money from a subscription pay-wall, but it doesn’t work so well — people just go somewhere else. It turns out that, no, you didn’t need a bunch of super high quality writers to report that a plane has just slammed into a building. You just needed reasonably competent people writing it, and that’s practically free. When there’s open competition for that, when there isn’t this good-ol’-boys network controlling it, then — boom — suddenly it turns out, it’s free. There’s no significant monetary value in it because lots of people want to do it for nothing. And some of them are pretty good. (Note that this phenomenon of free, intelligent contribution is the entire basis of Wikipedia.)

The old way that journalism worked was that a full-time reporter would investigate the heck out of an issue, then report on it. He could charge significantly for his work, and he could spin it the way he wanted, or even scrap the whole article if he didn’t like what he had found. The new, modern way of journalism is this: Lots of people gather information and it spreads throughout the internet rapidly. Anyone is free to write about what it means. The end. This is very similar to what has happened to science — there is no longer a priesthood with membership control and an enforcible orthodoxy.

Coffee and Coolness

Until the past couple decades, coffee shop patronage was a relatively elite phenomenon. Some of the individuals who frequented these shops considered themselves a special breed; cool in a way the rest of the population was not. But Starbucks, and a few other big chains such as Panera and Caribou, have distilled this coffee-shop coolness into a mass-producible package and spread it all over the country in great quantity and with great popularity. Some coffee shop patrons detest this development, and shun Starbucks as a sell-out to the masses. (I’m writing a little book* about that; wish me luck getting it published!) The people who patronize Starbucks are generally just as cool as the people who patronized the pre-Starbucks coffee shops. The exclusivity of those pre-Starbucks coffee shops was based on convience of access — if a cool coffee shop was conveniently located, you could frequent it. Otherwise you almost never could. Starbucks has made the cool coffee shop accessible — to the dismay of those who thought they were something special because they had special access.

I.G.Y.

The world of these elites is now gone. Any person of average means in a developed part of the world has access to computers, and to instantly disseminated information about any subject via the internet. Absurd theories are exposed. Bright new theories are allowed to blossom instead of being squelched as disruptive. Scientific data is available to be interpreted by anyone who takes the time to read about it and contemplate what it might mean. Professional journalists can’t spin or selectively report without being quickly exposed as distorters of information. Anyone can publish apps, music, and books to a wide audience, selling nearly directly to the consumer; with a minimum of fuss inbetween. And the rich aroma of dark-roast coffee beans in a chic, laid-back atmosphere is just around the corner.

Wealth

The most advanced personal conveniences and medical technologies are now mass-marketed to the general public at a price the average person can easily afford. Do rich people have a vastly better iPhone than the rest of us? Not at all. Do they have a substantially better chance of beating cancer at their local cancer hospital? Probably not. Do their TVs have a much crisper, higher-frame-rate picture than the average HDTV owner? No. Do they have access to a world of music, movies, and TV shows that the bulk of the population never gets to see or hear? Again, no. Modern technology has turned our society, in the words of Dinesh D’Souza, into one of “mass affluence.” The difference between rich and average has become vastly less than it once was.

The Remaining Elites

But there is one way that the wealthy still (and probably always will) get to enjoy their elite status: Space and time. The wealthy can afford much larger houses (plus boats), and they have their time — i.e. they don’t have to spend most of the day, most days of most weeks, doing drudge work that no one would touch who didn’t need a paycheck. They can travel more and enjoy life more. They may still work, but they work on things they want to work on, things they really care about. And if on any given day they don’t know what those things are? Then they have all day to find out.

And there’s another form of elitism that will persist in the face of technology: fame by exceptional action. Those who perform any action (creative, destructive, or just downright interesting) that stands out against the background of the general population, will always enjoy elite status. If only for fifteen minutes.

 

See also: The End of the Nerds

 

*Actually a cartoon parody book that touches on the subject of coffee and elitism; not really a book about that subject.

 

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