iPhones vis-a-vis Open Source: implications

This is a normative view of technology, i.e, what – in my opinion – technology ‘should be’ or ‘should do’. As we know, technology is the means by which we interact with the world around us, and with ourselves as well. However, one gets the feeling that technological developments nowadays are being driven not by the necessity of invention, but the invention of necessity. Addressing people’s needs ostensibly seems to be the purpose of new technological developments, but what is more likely is that technology is pushed down consumer’s throats with relentless advertising pressure.

Complaints and heresies apart, my focus here is how the technology gets developed and what normative view does it subscibe to. Technology, even if may be developed in air-conditioned offices or clean rooms, has a distinct political dimension to it, and it is this dimension that this post deals with. From the time of the germination of an idea to selling it in the market, many aspects of the nature of the consumer and their relationship with the creator are assumed, implicitly or otherwise. A rough genealogy of the development of a product can be given by:

  • Top level design/Wish list (sometimes preceded by surveys)
  • Detailed low level design
  • Implementation
  • Packaging/aesthetics
  • Marketing
  • Feedback and start all over again.

Testing and review is usually there in every part of this list, especially in pharma, chemical, civil works. When this cycle is no longer felt as required, one can say that a technology has been ‘commodified’. It still carries the same politics and relations that were internalized during its development, but one cannot do much about it, since it gets ‘black boxed’. The only time that these politics re-emerge or are made explicit is when things go wrong with the product, or things don’t go according to plan (These two things may not always mean the same thing). While technology is the heart of any product, the role it plays during the product’s lifetime is very small, since it is considered a ‘black box’. To elaborate on this point, one can take the politics surrounding the Apple iPhone as a very good example, which I have been following on (where else!) Slashdot for some time now. The iPhone is a Pretty Thing and all that, agreed, but Apple’s response to active tinkering instead of passive consumption of the iPhone reeks of stupidity and snobbery. The battery is not easily replaceable (as bad as it gets!), people can only buy using credit/debit cards (to ensure a paper trail), limited to two per head, no SIM changing facility, warranty being void if SIM unlocking is tried (which was found to be infringing US warranty laws). None of this actually is concerned with the technology of the iPhone, but more with the control and profits that Apple gets. Where is the user an active participant in how the iPhone looks, feels, performs ? The user cannot even do what he/she likes with the phone after buying it! Though some people may say warranty may go to hell and play around anyways, it is not everybody’s inclination. The power that such blatantly unfair conditions to own an iPhone gives the manufacturer is quite considerable, and the feel-good factor more than overwhelmed such considerations, driving Apple to one of its highest share prices ever. The invention of necessity is extremely important to mask such asymmetric power relations, and the multitouch screen (and supporting interface) practically did this on its own. From a ingenious piece of technology, it becomes an instrument to legitimize the asymmetric balance of power. The iPhone may provide most things a user might ever need, but it precludes the possibility of choice. I fail to see how this is different from the burqa system. A Muslim woman may be comfortable and even proud to wear one, but does she have a choice whether or not to wear it ?

In contrast is the Open Source phenomenon. I did not mention ‘Free Software’, since it brings in its own ramifications, but simply any piece of code that is viewable by a potential consumer. The most important factor that comes in here is choice, like I mentioned earlier (Software is a nice example to take up simply because it is one of the most flexible of technologies mankind has developed). Freedom to do what one pleases with available technology radically flattens the structures of power. Though this is quite a libertarian sentiment (We have made it possible to modify software, but if you don’t know how, too bad!), it has many consequential implications also. Software potentially becomes better, more diverse, responsive to user needs and a person who modifies it to her needs feels a sense of ownership. None of these can happen with the iPhone, API or no API. This is an evolutionary, organic model of growth, while the former is a more totalitarian, ‘silver bullet’ kind of approach. One must however concede that even with the iPhone kind of technology development, large players can still tailor it to their needs. Here, the power structures even out because of the economic backing the client has.

Which one can be more effective ? the participatory model of development, of course. Which is more efficient ? the consumerist model, of course. Which is more important ? here comes one of the major points of conflict in any sphere of human social life: should we let people have a part in shaping their future, or do we do what we somehow know is best for them ? From the conception of the State to planning cities, all questions implicity or explicitly (but quite fundamentally) answer this question in their own manner. Technology, being a product of the social world that we live in, rather than the clean room temples that technologists would rather have us believe, also hinges on this crucial question. Are people mere consumers or should they be participants as well ?

A question that we answer in our daily lives, without ever realising it.

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