About magic, possession and Jonathan Ive

The wrong kind of “magic”

Virginia Postrel at WSJ published an article on what’s making the iPad magical.

Something bothered me at the end of the reading, but I couldn’t say what.

She goes like this:

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company’s design chief, explains it this way: “When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that’s exactly what the iPad is.” Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The main idea here is iPad being a ghost in the machine: if machine becomes too complicated, it becomes impossible to be grasped, therefore it alchemically turns into a new category device: it transforms into a magical device, from a technological one.

This idea causes another one: because the machine is so complicated that it’s easier to be communicated as “magical”, the machine becomes “opaque” to its users:

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven’t the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can’t see the circuitry or read the software code. You can’t even change the battery.

Therefore, Paul Rosenthal writes in comments:

I’m not particularly happy that we seem to be encouraging this sensation of ‘magic.’ Promoting the practice of ignorance never bodes well for the future, and the less people understand about technology as it evolves, the less people have the opportunity to control it.

Wrong. There’s no ignorance in knowing your limits. Am I an ignorant I don’t start tinkering my Ferrari or my cat when she’s ill? I go to Ferrari and / or to the vet. I never start opening any of these two because of their complexity and not because I don’t posses them or because I don’t have enough rights over my possessions.. Knowing your limits usually comes with refraining yourself from going beyond them.

The confusion between “magic” and “tricking”.

Apple don’t trick us as a magician would by pulling rabbits out of the hat; they amaze us as in “this nature view is magical”.

The difference is even bigger when it comes to possessing things: while you are artifficially forbidden to possess a magician knowledge, you’re also forbidden to possess a tree by carving into its bark. You can ruin magic in both instances, but it’s only one of them that Apple wants to protect. And it’s not the tricking part, as all Apple products can be dissected and described thoroughly.

The wrong kind of “property”

Coming from “magic” versus “tricking” and their issues, the next logical confusion concerns property.

The most commonly used argument against Apple closing the doors to tinkerers is this: “We have bought the device but we are not allowed to even change its battery. This is against the idea of “property””.

Although it may look like a sound argument, it’s a mere mistake. “Property” is a very large word (as also is “magic”) that always comes in pair with “responsibility” or even “liability”, in a more or less apparent way: I may own a computer, but if I plug it into a wrong power outlet, I’ll lose the warranty without legal repercussions. On the other hand, if I own a cat, I can also start open it up when it looks ill, but I might be legally convicted. The highest liability that comes with some sort of property is parenthood. As parents, we usually say “I have a kid”, but our liability massively overcomes the property. “I have a kid, which is mine” never means I am allowed to do whatever I want to him / her. (You may find strange, but Apple is in a parent position.)

We also use the same word when buying music or movies: we have the DVD, although not its content. We may have thousands of Gigs of music and movies and not even one bit of these to be our “property”. We are not allowed to duplicate, resell, modify or edit in any way this content. [REVIEWED: A friend of mine says “Also consider the maps!”; he’s damn right]

While owning a PC may have the strongest meaning of “property”, owning music has the weakest meaning of “property”, from responsibility point of view.

Now, why do we buy music if so restricted its property proves to be? Because we like the music, we like its authors, we like its message and so on. Therefore, the more we like a thing, the more inclined we are to renounce our liberty degrees over it.

Why do we have kids? Because we love them, although they’re not our material property, but our greatest responsibility and liability.

Why do we buy iPads? Because we like them! As in music, or pets, or even kids. Not as in tools, cars or PCs.

The wrong kind of liability

We, as owners, are used to be made liable for a lot (or most) of the things in our “property”, from cars to music, pets and kids. For us, as we’ve seen, it’s an active and continuous balance between possession and liability / responsibility.

As strange as it may sound, the same strong balance between possession and liability is in Apple’s actions and products.

This is the missing feature most of Apple’s competitor have irreparably lost: their own liability towards their customers and towards their products.

Most of the tech industry builds products in “best effort” quality and capacity; this is the way things have become (it doesn’t matter now why). They build features on paper, service their customers in an arbitrary way, lack in innovation and always research and develop only when they have more than enough money, which, for a couple of years, is “rara avis”.

Apple built the iPads; they were surprised how well the product was tolerated by the market. So well, that people overlooked the weak sense of the property iPads are bearing: “you cannot even change a battery”.

Therefore Apple turned this up-vote into a responsibility problem, this time their own responsibility towards their customers and their products: we restrict the meaning of your property over your iPads as a cost for building them in our most responsible way. I.e.: we build products that you’ll never be responsible for, because it’s us who’s bearing this responsibility.

So, Apple’s message is “if you ever need to change the battery, we’ll do it for free, but not you”. Have you ever needed to change iPad’s battery and was it a show stopper not being able to?

I’ve written about this issue one year ago, and now I find it, sadly, still actual.

Instead of conclusion, I’d say Ive was dead wrong, in a pure sense of the word; iPad is not magical because it’s such a complicated and complex machine, not in a thousand years, but because of its hardware and software interface, on one hand, and because of thousands of developers that are able to make use of this interface, on the other hand.

Apple’s iPad is a common sense machine, the very same way Smart Covers are; what new horizons is Apple opening and how are you using its devices to reach to these horizons – that’s magical.

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