Friday, January 14, 2005

Simplicity, control and lessons from Apple

Dan Hill: The rise and rise of shuffle mode

What with all the chatter about Apple's latest fetish objects, and their continued love affair with simplicity, it's particularly refreshing to see Dan stretch the discussion to include issues of control. After all, it's difficult to disentangle simplicity from control. Simplicity means freedom from complication, from guile - but this freedom is possible only through reduction, submission, exclusion and control. Just consider how maps and models are used to simplify or control complexity so that we can master the mysterious and overcome our bewilderment, or how the "simple life" is modest, innocent and uncorrupted by the turmoil of modern society.

As Dan points out, with the iPod Shuffle we have "a device built principally for shuffle mode first, with sequential listening second" - something that pretty much forces us to "submit utterly to the random listening experience". He continues by saying that "we usually worry about enabling control. Here, control is reduced to the absolute minimum." In other words, instead of giving the user as much control over their device as possible, the Shuffle submits - or given their advertising strategy, seduces - the user to its system of control. As Apple says: "Random is the New Order."

At the same time as Apple (re)presents one system of control, the iPod Shuffle also undermines another system of control:

"[D]espite being able to take an album-based music collection in its stride, the iPod shuffle actually destabilises the album. It can sideline this 50-year-old mode of music organisation at the flick of a switch. 250 tracks - or fewer, with the smaller model - combined with the shuffle mode, is actually a jolly good size for a playlist, which in turn reinforces the importance of the collage, the mix, or iMix - rather than the album. Again, the mix is now 'the basic unit of music consumption', in the words of the New York Times."

Dan continues to discuss the seduction of the mix - or the collage - and I'm interested in how this relates back to control. He writes: "I love the white-knuckle ride of random listening ... I think the preference for randomness may also be about something else though - the increased preference for collage." Why collage? Partly because, as Brian Eno explains, with collage "an artist is now a curator ... This is why the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures. They are all people whose job it is to digest things, and to connect them together." This sense of authorship and agency - cultural production or sense making - is central to remix culture, yet as Dan adds, "even this is destabilised further by shuffle mode's ability to, well, shuffle a playlist. So a curator can't even necessarily guarantee a linear narrative for their non-linear referencing."

Dan cites Steven Johnson's thoughts on curatorial culture, ideas central to Interface Culture, my favourite of his books. Historically curators have had exceptional power to collect and create culture. (Imagine all you know about different cultures that you've learned only through museum exhibits.) And obviously, these practices have been the domain of an elite few. The type of curatorship that Johnson, Eno and Dan are advocating destabilises these power relations and puts the ability to collect and create culture in the hands of the many. And that kind of destabilisation threatens traditional power relations. Amateurs vs. Professionals.

Dan then claims that because "policy and commerce are [now] playing catch-up" to technological innovation, the "key frontier" is policy not technology - although I'm not sure if this effectively avoids the kind of techno-determinism he claims to be "overly, well, deterministic". (On the up-side, in my experience many determinists, when pressed, are more likely to claim that the technological and the social both shape and are shaped by each other; limiting, but not determining.)

Anyway, we'd agree that current public policy - around IP particularly - is not set up to accomodate curatorial culture; in many ways it sets up direct obstacles to, and harsh punishments for, individual creativity. (I mean, even Apple's corporate policy doesn't allow people to say or do whatever they want when it comes to their products.)

But to separate tech policy from tech development is not just a little dangerous and, IMHO, something rather ethically dodgy. It absolves designers, programmers, manufacturers etc. from taking responsibility for their actions and creations. When Dan says that Apple shows builders the virtues of "cheap to the point of disposable" devices, is he not also supporting Apple's less than innovative approach to e-waste? That reminds me of when I asked Bill Mitchell (after his techno-utopian wireless cities keynote at Ubicomp a couple of years ago) if we could say goodbye to ghettoes, and he replied that that was a policy issue and not a problem for architects and technologists. "Well, how convenient for them!" I snarked back.

So while I am intrigued and impressed by Dan's recognition of connections and tensions between simplicity and control, I think he falls short of a critical awareness of some broader social implications. If technological practice is as much a social enterprise as any other, both shaped by and shaping cultural values along the way, then how can there be a new "social frontier" at hand? And how does focussing on the social, to the exclusion of the technological, avoid the scenario that caused the supposed imbalance in the first place? You see, unlike Dan, I don't think that simple technologies are "doing just fine" and can be left well enough alone while we sort the "other stuff". I am wary of the tensions between agency and control that get ignored when we focus on layering control systems of a policy kind on top of control systems of a technological kind. Exactly what kinds of social and cultural agency are we able to foster and support this way?

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