Sunday, April 04, 2010

If the iPad succeeds, will the Internet dumb down?

I think there is little disagreement that television is mostly a dumbed-down wasteland, with most programs targeted at the largest possible audience, thereby seeking the lowest common denominator.  Interestingly, the consumer of TV content have no means of producing content -- content production & distribution is an expensive proposition and is controlled by a relatively small number of operators. On the internet (or more correctly, on the WWW), on the other hand, every consumer is potentially a producer. Since the cost of production and distribution of content is very low, and since every consumer can in fact be producer if he or she so chooses, content on the internet need never seek the lowest common denominator. And while there is plenty of content that is of very low quality or of little or no interest to anyone, there is also an amazing quantity and variety of very high-quality of content. Indeed, this is one quality that the web shares with the written or print medium where the cost of production of content is also relatively low; indeed, the web is superior to print (which, in many ways, is better than television).

The magic of the Web is that most web content is consumed using devices -- PCs and laptops -- that may be used for both consuming and producing content.  The TV, on the other hand, is a consumption-only device. Quite alarmingly, Apple is nudging the market in the direction of consumption-only devices like the iPad. Sure, one can purchase a keyboard and use it to produce content, but the device's design is biased towards consumption, not production. PCs and laptops, on the other hand, demand that the user employ the keyboard and the user is hence already in a mode in which he or she is prepared to generate content -- a full-fledged keyboard, after all, is a device meant primarily to generate content.

If the iPad changes user behaviour such that people increasingly prefer to consume content on the web rather than produce it, there may come a time when the economies of scale make web content production oriented devices become relatively expensive to purchase in the market.  Note how this sort of thing has happened in other industries -- automobiles are purchased fully formed, and the vast majority of car owners do not modify or upgrade them.  With the Macintosh, Apple initiated the trend towards Sealed Shut devices and by eliminating the keyboard, we are being gently persuaded (seduced, in fact, by the beautiful technology) to just sit back and enjoy whatever is provided by application developers and Professional Content Providers and not bother ourselves with producing anything.  If this trend continues, I fear that the web will degenerate in a manner not unlike the sordid world of television. And what a great loss to human society that would be.