Despite working in digital media forever, and most recently mobile video, I didn’t buy an iPhone until this year. I stuck with the most embarrassing of all phones—the Blackberry—for long after I could justify the merit of the one feature I loved: a physical keyboard. Unless I met with a particular kind of invective, I was generally not wracked with shame in my supposed Luddism whenever I placed my phone on the table for a meeting. At least it broke the ice. Far more embarrassing was pulling out my Blackberry at a show or a party to take a photo. In San Francisco, it was akin to leprosy. So much for radical inclusion.
For me, the physical keyboard was an effective tool for writing quickly in less than ideal circumstances—under the table, in my pocket, while driving, after a night of heavy drinking (why does this sound kinkier than it is?). And anyway, doesn’t a real man hail a cab, call their dates, and put their phone away at dinner? In ignoring the iPhone, was I a dinosaur? Was I no different from the aging writer in 1990 who clung to his typewriter as a terribly heavy and ineffective life preserver while the good ship Word Perfect motored on past? We aren’t all going to be Tom Robbins with his lovely Remington SL-3.
My iPhone is better, but I miss having the keyboard for what the keys represent: production of ideas, not consumption of others. Freedom, not servitude. The apps lined up on my iPhone remind me of the hospital scene in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, based on McDonald’s cash registers, where a nurse can push one key for a broken arm and another for a severed head. Virtual keyboards suggest words that I don’t intend to use, and difficult though it may be to believe, I do think those words are dumber than the ones I planned to write myself. And all these app stores are walled gardens, yet still filled with weeds, and not the wonderful kind that fight back against zombies. (My favorite is the Starfruit! Cute and vicious.)
The relationship between society and technology runs one way and then back again, as James Boyle discussed in Shamans, Software, and Spleens. We create technology in an implicitly codified world as Larry Lessig wrote in Code, but influence goes back and forth—as we use technology, we reshape our perspective, explicitly and implicitly. Isn’t it best though to limit the number of things that change our perspective without us knowing? There’s a good chance that we’ll opt with our reptilian brains for that which is easy or wrong, because it’s easy, or because it’s popular. What happens when the one tool in our hand all the time is great for reading but not so great for writing? What happens when our wide webby world is guarded by an Apple gatekeeper? To harken back to another post, thoughtlessness can lead to dehumanization. Lack of attention can lead to less moral choices.
Okay, yeah, I’ve gone way too far again in my polemic. Heck, I used Uber myself for the first time today, and the virtual keyboards are getting better. Nevertheless, here’s a vote in favor of more wild growing brambly plants, like the blackberry, and fewer zombies!
P.S. At some point, I’d like to discuss one excellent book that deals with this subject, The Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain, while also contrasting it with two that I feel miss the mark, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (who seems to have good philosophical intentions) and To Save Everything: Click Here by Evgeny Morozov (who strikes one as reasonable for thirty pages before he decides to settle every academic grudge he’s ever had for the next three hundred).