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Why the iPad is a creativity machine

o Mike Elgan
19.04.2010 kl 18:26 |

You've heard the case against Apple's iPad. It's a media consumption device for mindless couch potatoes. It's a step back in the evolution of computing, because it turns users into passive consumers of content, rather than creators.

 

You've heard the case against Apple's iPad. It's a media consumption device for mindless couch potatoes. It's a step back in the evolution of computing, because it turns users into passive consumers of content, rather than creators.

"The iPad," journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis proclaimed, "is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again." His evidence includes the TIME Magazine app, which lacks links and reader commenting, and the iPad's lack of iPad camera and USB port.

O'Reilly Radar blogger Jim Stogdill argued that "the iPad isn't a computer, it's a distribution channel."

The Slate Culture Gabfest podcast attempted an "audio unboxing" of the iPad. Unfortunately, they didn't know you had to plug it into a PC with an updated version of iTunes to activate. (They should spend less time watching The Wire, and more time on this Web site -- maybe they'd know these things.)

The cultural gabbers knew their "unboxing" was an epic fail. But they didn't seem to realize that the conversation about the tablet that ensued was an even bigger failure. They accepted as fact the false idea that the iPad is for content consumption only, and spent the remaining 20 minutes or so talking about whether a device useful exclusively for creating content is OK. One gabber talked about how people need to write e-mails and other things, adding, "I just don't think people are going to give that up."

Slate employs some of the most brilliant journalists working today. Where did they hear that using an iPad means giving up e-mail? They didn't. It's wishful thinking.

Does the tone of all this sound familiar? This is exactly the kind of irrational, knee-jerk opposition that greets all democratizing new forms of content creation.

When blogs first hit, professional journalists slammed the medium as dumbed down proof of the coming idiocracy. But now nearly all journalists and news publications have blogs. TV news commentators first laughed at Twitter as a place where people only broadcast the minutia of their daily lives. Now CNN has entire shows built around Twitter.

It's important to understand who these people are. They're the same kind of people who said automobiles are just a fad, who said nobody wants to hear movie actors talk, who said graphical computing isn't real computing. They believe themselves to be enlightened skeptics. In fact, they're just the kind of people that always come out of the woodwork when something breathtakingly new emerges. They can't see -- refuse to see -- the obvious possibilities in the new because it threatens their advantages in the old.

Where the urban legend comes from

Critics of the iPad argue that it's closed, and that open platforms such as Android or Linux should predominate. Others say the iPad is the ultimate point-of-sales device, redirecting sales of content to line Apple's pockets.

Those are legitimate concerns. But they have absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether the iPad can be used for content creation.

The truth is that, yes, the iPad is closed. Yes, its popularity places enormous power and money into the hands of Apple. But yes, it's also a fantastic device for the creation of content.

The iPad-can't-create-content insanity tells much about how far we've drifted off course as a creative animal.

Kids who grew up writing "research" papers by copying and pasting from the Wikipedia, listening to sampled music and buying their teen rebellion at the mall may not know what creativity actually is.

We content-creation professionals have come to resemble Saturday morning cartoon super villains, with massive control-room displays and global information at our fingertips. My "control room" features two 21-inch monitors side-by-side in portrait mode, plus an 18-inch laptop. I've got my Buzz feed streaming on one display and multiple Twitter streams on another. I keep two browser windows open on my laptop, each running dozens of tabs. I use electronic or online versions of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook and a smattering of other writers' tools open when I'm writing.

All these tools and capabilities are nice. But are they necessary for every step of the writing process? Are they conducive to creativity?

In Japan, millions of novels have been written on cell phones. My great-grandfather wrote his Ph.D. dissertation with a #2 pencil. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Jefferson wrote their brilliant works with bird feathers. Yet the iPad's critics say creation is impossible using a device that would have been a Pentagon supercomputer 20 years ago. The computers that today's writers say are absolutely necessary for writing didn't even exist 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Is that when they think literacy started?

Why are these incredibly brilliant people comfortable saying things that are obviously not true?

How the iPad opens new doors

The iPad is a great writing tool. What do you need for writing, anyway? You need a screen, a keyboard and a word-processing program (in my case one that does spell-check). Guess what? The iPad screen is incredible. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard is one of the best keyboards you can buy. And Apple's Pages app is perfectly adequate for writing. You also might want reference materials and Internet access. Of course, the iPad has that, too.

And it's better than other tools for writing in odd locations, such as in cars, restaurants -- even in bed. It's silent, instant on and it auto-saves everything.

Although multi-tasking is coming to the iPad in the Fall, not having it helps focus attention. When you just want to focus on crafting language, it's a nice relief from the clutter of big screens demanding your attention. Sometimes I grab my iPad and head for the local coffee joint just so I can concentrate more easily on one task at a time.

The iPad is inferior to a computer for research, but superior for the creative work of writing. In fact, it's not only useful for some existing forms of content creation, it represents a brand-new form. It's a computer that combines input and output on the same glass surface -- one that invites innovative, simple application development. The possibilities for creation are breathtaking.

For artists, the iPad's touch interface removes a layer of separation and abstraction. Instead of using a Wacom tablet or mouse or some other device where you touch here to make changes to something over there, the iPad's touch interface enables you to directly manipulate objects on-screen. Thousands of applications will emerge for creating sounds, images, words and other works that cannot be done on a laptop or desktop PC.

The iPad can and will be used in combination with other tools to enhance creativity. For example, it's ideal for photographers looking to show off instant digital proofs or for video playback. It can and will be used as a collaborative tool for group content creation.

Even Adobe, which sells product suites for professional content creators that cost thousands of dollars already offers a free iPad app called Ideas. You draw something by hand on the iPad with free-flowing creativity, then e-mail it to yourself for refinement in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Another app called iMockups lets you "sketch" Web designs to be later refined on a desktop or laptop computer. These are just two examples of how the iPad is where a creative project starts.

Elites no more

Elite content creators who have mastered yesterday's complex tools don't see those tools as a barrier to creativity for some people. In order to create using a computer, you need to master a whole range of IT management tasks. The computer revolution has advantaged those comfortable with computers and all the frustrating complexities they force us to overcome. And it has quietly sidelined less technical, but still creative, people. (You'll notice that the iPad's critics tend to be technologically savvy content creators.) iPad is the content creativity device for people who hate computers. It brings opportunities to people previously locked out.

A million children and teens will open an iPad on Christmas morning this year. They'll use it to do things they're already doing -- watching TV and movies, chatting with friends, listening to music. But many of them will use iPads to do something they hadn't been doing. They'll write stories, draw pictures and make music.

You can throw an iPad with a two-dollar drawing app at a 5 year old, and 10 minutes later you'll have a nice finger-painted picture. No manuals. No drivers. No scanning message boards for answers. Just instant, intuitive, unconstrained creativity. It's better than paper, because you can undo, and because you can choose any "medium" (chalk, crayon, etc.). And no mess!

The reckoning

Will the content-creation elites admit how absurdly wrong they were when the tidal wave of content-creation apps really hits, or when the first bestselling novel written on the iPad is published, or when they see their own kids expressing creativity on the iPad?

The notion that iPad can't be used for content creation is patently, provably, laughably false. Those repeating this absurd notion owe their readers, listeners and followers an apology, followed by a correction. It doesn't matter if you want the iPad to exclusively serve content, the fact is that people are creating content on it every day. And the avalanche of creativity apps hasn't even started yet.

Yes, the iPad is closed. It's OK to hate the iPad, and prefer other devices. But don't say it can't be used for the creation of content. It's just not true.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Keywords: Hardware Systems  
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