First, the chutzpah. The “tablet.” On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments written on twin “tablets,” then climbed back down into the desert wilderness and explained the new law to the Jewish people. Clutching his own “tablet,” Steve Jobs orchestrated his appearance before the world press last Wednesday along Mosaic lines, presenting his device as if it heralded the dawn of a new age. Not only that, but the hyperventilating media went on and on about Mr. Jobs’ talent for “shrouding” his announcements of new gadgets in secrecy. The Tablet. The Shroud. Who says that technology is any less mystifying than religion?
Second, the irony. A tablet is for writing; Apple’s new device is for consuming. Typing on its electronic touchpad not only robs you of a tactile connection to writing; it makes it almost impossible to write at all. The iPad spells the end of the participatory phase of Internet culture.
You remember the participatory hype. To borrow a term from Alvin Toffler, we were all going to become “prosumers”: busy little combos of production and consumption as we strengthened the Internet by building our bloggers’ niches in it, or by writing reviews for Amazon, or by Twittering or creating a profile on a social networking site. Excluding gates were going to be thrown open. Hierarchies were going to be shattered. The basement blogger and the garage musician no longer had to make the arduous social journey into the coveted “inside,” where, as everyone knows, connections rather than talent decide an aspirant’s fate. Now you could speak directly to the crowd (that “wise” crowd) without the polluting factor of dying institutions, with all their corrupt rituals of initiation. The record companies, the television networks, the book publishers: They were all going to be flattened by the coming army of prosumers.
Except they weren’t. Not a single blogger has attained anything like the prominence of journalists who made their names in print. (Andrew Sullivan doesn’t count. He carried the reputation he made for himself in print into virtual space.) Name me one successful musician who burst from obscurity onto the Internet and from there into fame. There are so many YouTube sensations happening minute-by-minute that if Jesus Christ himself appeared, Steve Jobs–like, in a cute two-minute video raising a kitten from the dead, he’d be lucky to get a two-minute spot on satellite radio. And Twitter has failed to deliver the next J.D. Salinger.
It seems that the digerati—a.k.a. the new moguls—drew us in with the illusion of participation, only to entrap us and disarm us, turning us all into captive prisoners. The iPad is the next stage of Internet evolution. Just as Homo sapiens emerged from the water, shed his flippers and fins and finally started walking upright, Homo Interneticus has emerged from his study or bedroom, shed his keyboard and finally begun stepping back into the world—this time as an entirely passive consumer of tens of thousands of apps, the best of which will probably be twice as expensive as the apps for an iPhone.
The keyboard-weak, camera-less iPad simply won’t allow you to easily construct a blog, make a video or comfortably make extensive revisions to your Facebook profile. The new gadget exists solely as an instrument of the new digital hierarchy, which has to create new passive audiences in order to survive, just the way the old hierarchy did.
This time, though, we are no longer in our protected homes watching TV, or in a cafe or park working on a laptop that makes it hard for someone to see what we’re doing without standing behind us and looking over our shoulder. The iPad exposes our private screen to the public gaze. In a sense, it’s a throwback to those ancient times when people did not yet read silently to themselves, but aloud, for all to hear.
The iPad’s panoptical physical openness is also a step into a future where there is no longer the pretense of wise crowds. Rather, we are at the mercy of digital elites who impose their products and values on a crowd that is infinitely malleable and manipulable. Carrying our new tablets under our arm, able to use them to consume but not to create—to receive, but not to retort or dissent—we are all members of the new Consumertopia. It may be a flashy new wilderness, but it’s a wilderness nevertheless.