Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Could locked-down tablets be good for us?

Argh, I promised I'd stop writing about the iPad, so consider this a more generic question about an entirely-hypothetical tablet computer with more limitations than power users are used to, made by an entirely-hypothetical company. Whose name rhymes with "Snapple".

Here's my thinking: with devices like iPhones, etc. there's a benefit to the user for a lot of functions that might happen through a browser on a desktop (gmail, youtube, google maps) to become their own apps: less intensive resource use, and faster results for the user. Even if the picking and choosing of apps is open and transparent (i.e., not "Snapple") the fact that the UI is app-based naturally predisposes the user to choosing apps instead of the theoretically less constrained Web.

The result, if I'm right, is that the Web becomes something more like TV: a limited (though still very large) number of channels instead of a limitless field to wander in. (If the web was ever really like that in the first place.) Furthermore, browsing the web from something like a dedicated browser becomes, in the scenario where mobile tablets become the norm, something akin to using your computer through a command-line interface: sure, you can do it -- but why?

So why would this be good for us? Simply put, we may be running out of neurons for the firehouse of information that is being sprayed at us. W. Russel Neuman et al (PDF):
Our key conclusion is drawn from Figure 10. Indeed, it represents another growth curve, in this case the simple ratio of media supply to media demand. Such a curve follows, naturally enough, from the disjuncture of a nearly exponential growth in supply paired with a linear growth in consumption. But it is worthwhile to pause briefly to consider the actual metrics we have been at some pains to calculate. Take the ratio of supply to demand in 1960. It is 98. That represents the number of media minutes available in the typical American household in 1960 divided by number of minutes of actual consumption. It represents the fundamental a metric of choice. And it is a human scale choice. ... But if we take the ratio of supply to demand in 2005, we find a very different metric. The ratio is 20,943 – over 20,000 minutes of mediated content available for every minute to be consumed. In our view that is not a human-scale cognitive challenge; it is one in which humans will inevitably turn to the increasingly intelligent digital technologies that created the abundance in the first place for help in sorting it out – search engines, TiVo’s recommendation systems, collaborative filters. We see this as a historical variant of Beniger’s widely cited “crisis of control” in the 19th century (1986a, 1986b). Briefly, Beniger argued that the growth of automated intelligent control systems in transportation and manufacturing were not just a technical artifact but a necessary development as mechanized process speeds and complexity challenged the capacity of individual humans to control them. He cites frequent train crashes in the late 19th century resulting from human error as a particularly dramatic exemplar. We may not be confronting equivalent dramaturgy in the realm of media flows, but it represents nonetheless a critical shift in how individuals will negotiate the mediated world.
Neuman et al don't explicitly mention iPhone-like interfaces, but it seems to me this is very much part of the evolution of the web: using it in a way that narrow down the options to something humane.


ADHR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ADHR said...

Isn't there a questionable assumption in play here? Namely that there's somehow a problem with off-loading some cognitive computation into tools. I find it questionable because we've been doing that ever since we came up with public language. Language seems to both structure and support our (complex but limited) brain; why can't other tools do it, too?

(Sorry, commented from the wrong account. I try to keep blog comments tied back to my own blog somehow, so there's no question of who I am.)