There’s all sorts of interesting arguments about the inherent politics of the iPad out there, like Cory‘s and Aaron‘s, or maybe most interestingly, Dale‘s. But none of that has to do with why I won’t be buying an iPad. I didn’t get as far as those thoughtful concerns. I simply don’t have the money.
I’m known among my friends for generally having less money than they do, for living hand to mouth, and for having thoughtful critiques of the American Poverty Trap, but from the inside. (In some future post I’ll try to explain why there is no point in me (& many others) trying to save or work my way out of the Trap, but that’s for another time.)
I have a laptop, and a car. But like many poor people, my big ticket items are old and I need them to survive. The poor make their durable goods really durable. People are resourceful, and the poor have ways of getting what they need that generally trade time for money. It falls down sometimes, and we can’t get what we need, but in general it’s amazing what someone will eventually lay their hands on with enough time, thought and determination. Increasingly I am seeing a lot of homeless people with older laptops, some of the straight up street people, huddled near public outlets and presumably open wifi. It’s exciting, because it opens up worlds of knowledge and communication that were always closed to the poor. The net is becoming simply a part of everything, to the point where taking a break and moving back into early 90s technological life seems to have the feel of going on an Arctic adventure. Did bears try to eat Aaron in his month off? Mysteriously, he never says.
I live a really rich intellectual life and get to do lots of things most poor people don’t, and I appreciate that it’s because almost none of my social group are poor. But sometimes my social group kind of goes crazy and forgets that while they have a lot of power, my class is a whole lot bigger than theirs. And none of them will be buying iPads.
A few of them do have iPhones, because phones are one of those durable goods we need to survive and that’s most of their meager disposable income. A few probably have iPod touches that they got as gifts, hand-me-downs, or because that was their one nice thing they wanted. But the iPad does absolutely nothing vital, and nothing a cheaper piece of electronics doesn’t already do well enough to get by. I’m pretty sure Apple knows this, and couldn’t care less. Poor people do buy iPods, sometimes even new, but they’ve never bought anything else Apple has ever made. And that’s fine. I’ve never felt the urge to get me some Tiffany, and they’ve never felt the need to try to get my money. Similarly, Apple’s just not a brand very open to the poor. But why does this mean anything to the political arguments? Because other vendors out there do want to take our money. We don’t have much, but there’s a lot of us, and unlike the other classes, we’re getting a lot bigger.
These vendors squeak by on razor thin margins, especially in electronics, and their value adds are generally rip-offs of features from more expensive products. We don’t have any walled gardens in our world, because there’s no margin in controlling things for poor people. When the iPad becomes old news and is massively ripped off, no one is going to wall in anything.
This is important, so I’m going to say it again: There will always be people trying to get the disposable income of poor people, and there will never be a margin in maintaining a walled garden for us. You might reply to this by saying ‘Sidekick’ and I’ll point out that was a lesson in there being no margin in it. Just because something doesn’t work doesn’t mean people don’t try it occasionally. This is also the failing of the Zittrain argument. Even in his worst case scenario, it really is just you rich people that get locked up for your own safety. We will still be free, and living in dangerous lands1. Just like in the real world, our neighborhoods online will be built from crap materials, mildly dangerous, old, and interesting2.
Which means that it will always be true for you as well. Like fashion, technology is primed for occasional revolutions that come from below and are recycled from the top. Those will impact many parts of society- and even change the walls the rich3 build around themselves as well. As the internet devolves knowledge to something we can get, you’ll decide something else is required for accreditation into your class. Oh wait, you already did that. You’ll do it harder the more knowledge we get. But I’m so excited about seeing everyone get your used netbooks. I think the halcyon days are ahead for the life of the mind among the poor, and we’ll do it with the same freedom we’ve done everything, the freedom of the forgotten.
Don’t worry about freedom going away because of the iPad, just becoming the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t visit.
- For most poor people, the idea that the net is dangerous is pretty laughable. We actually do live in dangerous places, and mostly the police don’t really protect us so much as protect you from us.
- Also, the iPad seriously looks like thief bait. We’re not idiots, we know what our drunk uncles are going to do with it if we come home with one.
- Rich includes the middle classes. You all look the same to me.