Creative Reformation

February 3, 2010

Faruk Ates responds to Mark Pilgrim’s Tinker’s Sunset by trivializing tinkering and claiming that the ease-to-use devices like the iPad are fostering a Creative Revolution:

The simple matter is that these guys are old, and they grew up in an age where tinkering was the only possible course of action if you wanted to use the latest and greatest technology to its fullest potential. The Mac, in 1984, shifted that paradigm of creativity and creation towards average consumers a little. The iPhone and iPad are shifting it even further towards consumers, away from the tinkerers of old, the small little “elite” that excludes the vast majority of people.

He may be right about fostering creativity, but he’s missing the point. Making the iPad accessible to non-tinkers and making it untinkerable are completely orthogonal.

Imagine that the iPad worked exacly as Apple has already presented, but it also had a “tinker” switch. When on, this switch allowed users to run applications not signed by Apple, with appropriately dire warnings. Problem solved, without impacting typical user experience.

“Tinkering” is easy to trivialize, but doing so ignores what its prevention represents technically. What we’re talking about on the iPad is an impenetrable cryptographic shield which gives Apple absolute control over what code is allowed to run. Apple, not users, determines what applications are appropriate. Apple is free to censor not only content which fails to meet their technical standards, but also content which conflicts with their business interests or they deem to be “obscene.” No matter how light the shackles, on the iPad (and iPhone) you are not free.

On the flip side, like Pilgrim I do see “tinkering” as valuable in itself. Software stacks more than any other engineered systems are inherently knowable, and one can learn from them. Fully free systems (in Stallman’s sense) are the most knowable and most instructive by virtue of the source code for every component being there for the asking. With a cryptographically shielded platform like the iPad this is impossible, and the system is unknowable and there is nothing to be learned even for the “elite.”

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