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iPad and The Diamond Age

by Mark W. Hibben
7/12/2010

A Meditation on the Future of Mobile Computing

Almost six months after the iPad’s announcement and three months after it hit store shelves, the iPad remains alone in the marketplace.  No direct competition, no comparable product has emerged.  HP’s  Windows 7 tablet and Microsoft’s Courier have been canceled.  Recent analysis indicates that iPad sales are coming at the expense of the Windows netbook and low end notebook market, which does at least confirm my initial impression that netbooks were the economic competition for iPad, even if they don’t provide a comparable user experience.  Many observers still don’t get the appeal of the iPad, citing the fact that netbooks offer all the same computing capabilities such as web browsing, watching videos, checking email, playing games etc., with faster processors and a more capable operating system.  They’re right, of course, but my own experience using (and programming) my iPad 3G has convinced me that they are also missing the point.  More than ever, I’m convinced that I placed my development bet on the right horse.  As Jobs has stated, the user experience is what makes the difference.  With a Windows computer, you are usually very much aware that you are using a computer, with iPad, you hardly ever are.  This does give the iPad a somewhat “magical” cast, though in the illusionist’s sense, and with a willing suspension of disbelief.   So, the iPad doesn’t come across like a computer, a selling feature that computer lovers and geeks have understandably overlooked, but what exactly does it come across like?   The closest answer I can come up with doesn’t even exist yet, but is described at length in the science fiction novel of the near future by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.  This is the excitement of the iPad, that it offers a glimpse of the mobile computing future, and everything else, especially everything with a keyboard or a stylus, just seems passé.

The World of The Diamond Age

Readers familiar with The Diamond Age (TDA) may well suspect that I’ve chosen a dubious platform for an analogy, since most of Stephenson’s predictions of mid-Twenty-first Century life will almost certainly not come true.  The novel’s title comes from the fact that the construction material of choice has become diamond-like carbon, assembled on an atomic scale by nanotech “matter compilers”.    Stephenson describes a future dominated by nanotechnology in which most machines, structures and even household goods are fabricated at will in matter compilers, and microscopic robotic “mites” perform functions such as surveillance and even combat.  These nanotech creations are generally mechanical, even the computers, which are also mechanical devices, but at a near molecular level.  Stephenson also assumes a somewhat anarchic future in which the nation-state is on the decline, a thematic continuation of his novel Snow Crash.  Neither nanotech nor the decline of national governments are likely to be as important as Stephenson predicts, but most novels of the near-future rarely get things exactly right.  This doesn’t detract from the value of TDA as a work of imaginative fiction, which I rank among books such as Gibson’s Neuromancer, Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Even when these “serious” sci-fi novels don’t get the future setting right, they often provide prescient glimpses of future tech and future culture.  For instance, in Neuromancer, Gibson invented the concept of the Matrix, which was subsequently twisted into a mechanism of human oppression by the movie of the same name.  In Neuromancer, individual participation in the Matrix was entirely voluntary, and the AIs were not in the least malevolent.  The Matrix was simply what the human interface to the Internet had evolved into, as the capability to directly wire into the human brain was developed.   Today, more and more of human interaction over the internet is some form of fictional virtuality: multi-user Role Playing Games and other forms of virtual online communities.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

The technological centerpiece of TDA also offers more such prescient glimpses.   In the novel, a fast-rising engineer for a global nanotech company is commissioned by one of the company’s founders to design what amounts to a very advanced mobile computer, which is intended to be a present for the founder’s granddaughter.  The founder’s intentions are somewhat subversive: he sees the culture of the corporate elite as stultifying original thought (so what else is new?) and wants his granddaughter to be more “interesting”.  Whether any computer or other device could actually achieve this is a question the novel leaves open.  Through the wonders of nanotech, the computer emerges in the form of a traditional book, with pages and a cloth binding, called the Young Lady’s Primer.  Each of the “pages” is really digital paper, capable of displaying text, graphics or video and generating audio output.  Processors are concealed in the paper and the book’s binding.  The book has video and other sensors that provide the book’s limited AI with local situational awareness.  This allows the book to adapt its educational program to the needs of the user, as well as get user feedback, mostly in the form of speech.  The AI is only up to fairly mundane educational chores with the real intelligence provided by humans connected wirelessly to the Primer and secretly paid to act out certain character roles in the stories and tales that the Primer imparts.  The Primer is actually the portal to a massive role playing game, the purpose of which is to educate the young user.   That the book seems magical is partly due to lack of technical sophistication by the user as well as ignorance that the multi-user RPG is taking place.  All the little user knows is that the book contains a series of stories that star the user.  The book’s operating system is sufficiently advanced that no prior knowledge or skills are required to begin using the book.  All that has to be done is open it.  If the child can’t read, the book will narrate the stories, while surreptitiously beginning the process of teaching the alphabet.

The Primer for the Rest of Us

While the iPad isn’t nearly as sophisticated as the Primer, it has many of the same capabilities.  Its design approaches “digital paper” that can display text, graphics, video, and produce audio.  It can recognize speech, though not very well, using Dragon Dictation.  It can contain not merely one book, but an almost limitless supply of books. 

Through its wireless connectivity, it can be used for on-line RPG (ORPG), although I can find only a few games that currently exploit this capability.  The iPad doesn’t contain any AI, of course, and is not quite simple enough for a four year old to use unassisted, but it’s very close, and this is a key difference with netbooks.  While the Primer achieved nearly perfect integration of its multimedia capabilities through the RPG, the iPad’s are necessarily somewhat compartmentalized, with various media functions hosted by separate programs.  The iPad also is not so narrowly focused on educating a single child user.

The educational potential of the iPad certainly has yet to be developed, but should provide an extremely lucrative market for the device in the coming years.  One can imagine a time in the not too distant future when the iPad (or future offshoots) is the only “book” that a child carries to school, since it will contain all the books the child needs, as well as all class assignments, homework and tests.  The iPad will afford the ability to interact with teachers, tutors and other students on-line, whenever and wherever the child is.  Paper will still be used, of course, but mostly to provide written input which can be scanned by the iPad’s camera before electronic submission to the teacher.  Unlike Linux based Netbooks, the iPad could be the device that really brings universal education to the children of the Third World.  This is one of the surprising outcomes of TDA: a modified and more stand-alone version of the Primer is mass-produced and distributed to thousands of children, rather than being merely the toy of a rich man’s granddaughter.

The on-line RPG appears to be another under-exploited capability of the iPad.  The ORPG is an entertainment and artistic development that is still in its infancy, but may become as important or more important than movies or television.  Today, most ORPGs have simplistic plots that are mostly vehicles for the action and special effects, but, wait, isn’t that the case for most movies and television?  The lack of serious artistic and intellectual merit in ORPGs is due in part to the newness of the medium.  When “talkies” were introduced, it was considered a setback for “serious, artistic” films as the industry struggled to master the technical requirements of audio recording and reproduction.  Anyone who has seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis might well agree.  But it was not a permanent set back.  Similarly, as content producers become more capable, and audience/participants more sophisticated, the intellectual quality of ORPGs will progress.  Modern Warfare 2 showed how technically sophisticated ORPGs can be, and plot construction and storytelling will certainly follow suit. 

The challenge will be to create interesting stories that are also non-linear, multi-ended, and amenable to outcome modification by the participants.  The ORPG is a kind of collaborative authoring process, and traditional fiction writers may find it difficult to cope.  The iPad provides a powerful platform for mobile ORPGs, which I’m sure are in the works. 

  • 1.
    Diamond Age
  • 2.
    Matrix Voluntary
  • 3.
    Illustrated Primer
  • 4.
    iPads in School
  • 5.
    ORPG Challenge
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