Too Automatic? (Herding Apple Users)

What would she have thought?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a young man of about twenty-two. We were working side-by-side on two turn-of-the-century Macs (the blue ones), entering data, some of which came from the previous turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) into the database of UCI Arboretum’s herbarium. It’s quite a heady experience, but a difficult one as well. Some of the source material is barely legible. I do a lot of searching when I’m trying to decipher the correct place or plant name.

So, on this one specimen, I threw a guesstimate of the spelling on an obscure location into Google and pushed enter. Safari promptly crashed. It has been doing this lately. It will successfully load a full web address, but will crash a Google search.

I sighed and commented to the student working next to me, “I think Steve Jobs must be haunting us.”

Well, I thought it was clever, but he looked confused. He asked, “What was the big deal about that guy, anyway?”

I had heard that response before from younger people. They didn’t grow up expecting or considering the personal computer. We older folks grew up thinking we would be waited on by robots, and would drive flying cars. Instead, we got the personal computer and all its babies–cell phones, digital music players, etc. We had to learn computers at a later age. We remember what frightening and intimidating objects the first personal computers were. Some of us, including me, became increasingly frustrated by how difficult they could be to use. Quite a few of us found Apple products so much easier to use. I came to see Steve Jobs as the person with the vision to make computers, cell phones, and music players better than I ever dreamed they could be. He insisted they not only work well, but be beautiful, effortless machines that a person would enjoy using. What a concept.

My life and environment are messy, but when I use my computer or one of my devices, I feel free and easy. I feel I have stepped into a House of the Future.

Except for the iPad. And this Cloud business.

The iPad is populated by Apps, short for applications. We’ve always had applications. Word, iPhoto, iTunes, et cetera. An application is supposed to perform a specific task, and these three are excellent at what they do. When I open Word, I don’t think about anything but writing. In iTunes, I can perform a bunch of functions, buying and downloading music, playing it, ripping it, and organizing it. I can also download podcasts (what a great invention), and also movies and TV, if I want. More importantly, I can find things on iTunes–not everything, but a lot–including some fairly obscure musical items. When I use iTunes, I don’t think about anything but being entertained. iPhoto gives me a central location to load my photos, old and new, and a way to organize them. This is a bigger deal than it seemed at first, because I find I look at my photos more often in digital form than I did when they were in albums, and certainly more than when they were in a shoebox at the top of my closet.

The lock screen of my iPad shows a turn-of-the-20th-century formal portrait of my grandmother in full Gibson Girl style. I never expected to have such a thing as this. And yes, that’s the photo at the top.

When I use all these applications, I feel free. I don’t run up against many roadblocks that limit me. I don’t have to choose between 5 fonts; I have hundreds to use. I can upload photos from any source, not just one or two; ditto music.

When I open iBooks on my iPad and go to the store, I am offered a display of featured books and best sellers, a display that reminds me, in its content, of one of those soulless chain bookstores I groaned about a couple posts ago. If I go to “Categories” and browse the list of authors, many of my favorites appear to be absent. Sometimes, however, if I search the author’s name, I find he/she indeed does have books for sale on iBooks. Practically, this means that if an author whom I like but who has slipped my mind has a new book out, I will not see it. Psychologically, being aware of this problem gives me unease, the same kind of despair I feel when I step into a bookstore featuring nothing but celebrity bios and the like. “Yes, but where is the real stuff?” I want to say.

In iBooks, I feel the real stuff is being hidden from me, as if the app is herding me and my fellow readers into the little app icon-box. Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with Ann Beattie on her new book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life. It was there, but you had to know a writer with the name Ann Beattie existed to find it. Amazon is faster and better at finding books, and of course, gives you more options as to the format. If, however, I want the digital equivalent of bookstore browsing, I need to go to an online bookseller of non-digital books.

And then there’s this Cloud thing.

I love the idea as a backup, as another layer of security, so that I don’t lose my photos and libraries, but I do not want Apple to take away my computer (i.e. my hard drive) or the CD slot on the side, and just access everything “in the cloud.” I have a reasonable amount of trust in Apple. Whenever I have had an issue with any device or content, like content that disappears, or gets garbled, or fails to download, they have been nice and quick to put things right. A book or e-zine I’m only likely to read once is fine in the Cloud. The rest of it is not.

But the latest Apple ads and promotions seem to be preparing us for a future without our own large hard drive, and without the CD drive (or the CD). We won’t have to “worry” anymore about synching or carrying around fat, heavy laptops. When anybody tells me not to worry, I worry about exactly the thing they tell me not to worry about. That’s only common sense.

I worry that Apple, leader in telling us what we want before we want it, may be going too far. It’s as if I am looking at a Cat Carrier App. They are trying to put me into it. I, limbs splayed, am resisting. They may be taking me somewhere I want to go, but somehow, I don’t think so.


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