Tara Brabazon: Preservation orders

In a technological environment built on planned obsolescence, history matters, argues Tara Brabazon

May 18, 2011

Robin Williams, in stand-up mode at the height of the 1980s, proclaimed that “cocaine is God’s way of saying that you are making too much money”. Fast forward a quarter of a century and the drug of choice for the new media age is technology that is obsolescent before its public release.

The iPhone is the heroin of the tech world: users are lashed to a beeping umbilical cord. The iPad is cocaine: expensive, wasteful and selfish. While class-A tech is sold online and in gleaming Apple stores, the Budweiser of the media world has been destroyed by its affluent owners.

Cisco’s corporate killing of the Flip camera left technology journalists confused and amazed. The Flip represented the best of democratic and pedagogic technology. Created by Pure Digital, a small San Francisco start-up, at its peak – including the month it was crushed in March 2011 – one-third of Amazon’s video camera sales were from the Flip range. It was intuitive to use; software was resident on the platform; footage was easy to upload to social-networking sites; and it proved ideal for academics and students creating innovative assessment options and open educational resources.

It was useful, productive and popular, yet it was deleted by Cisco to “consolidate” its business. It predicted that stand-alone video cameras would become redundant in the smartphone age. That premise may or may not be correct, but the Flip enabled practice-led research and digital storytelling. For three years I have seen students connect knowledge with application, exegeses with film, intelligence with imagination, thanks to the Flip.

While Cisco deleted an intellectually useful platform, Apple has given new meaning to Thorstein Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption. Instead of Cisco’s practice of eating its young, Apple products chew up and spit out their parents. The iPad 2 is a very unfunny joke.

The first iPad nestled into particular scholarly and lifestyle niches. It took over the tasks of academic diary, timetable organiser, calendar and calculator. I used it in small-group teaching to display sonic and visual media. It became my primary e-book reader and the way in which I engaged with refereed articles online. Enhanced by the mobility of the platform, I used it most during short research trips, conferences, plus doctoral and external examinations. I was able to maintain contact with students via email and monitor Blackboard discussion forums without packing a laptop. It was a worthwhile purchase. I used it every day.

International examples of innovative practice included reference librarians who – literally – moved the iPad around the library to assist users. But there were and are weaknesses. The missing USB slot, inadequate memory capacity, inability to play Flash and – most importantly – the absence of an in-built camera reduced its usefulness. Therefore it was no surprise that, in a deployment of Veblen 101, iPad 2 arrived within one year of the first model.

The differences between iPad 1 and 2 are – to be frank – banal. It is one-third thinner (irrelevant), slightly lighter (immaterial), has a “smart cover” to save three seconds when waking it (yawn) and comes in white and black models (thanks for sharing). On the upside, Apple has incorporated dual core processors (helpful), HDMI connectivity and mirroring from the iPad to a television or projector (important), and a forward- and back-facing camera (crucial).

The resolution from iPad cameras is low for still images. While adequate for video, a separate camera remains necessary for photography. Even noting this weakness, the cameras matter. While Apple is busy promoting FaceTime for iPad 2, it is Microsoft’s recently purchased Skype that makes the difference for university teachers and students. The capacity to conduct virtual office hours, accommodating the multiple time zones of distance-education scholars, facilitates truly mobile learning.

The cameras were the reason I upgraded. It felt wasteful to do so, but the capacity to conduct Skype meetings with students in the dead time spent at train stations, airports and hotel rooms was the reason I returned to the virtual shopping trolley. I am angry I had to do so. The planned obsolescence to extract more money from Apple consumers by leaving a camera off the first model was poor (or astute ?) business behaviour. It can be justified as brilliant marketing or you can call it what it is: a corporation taking the mickey out of its consumers by leaving out crucial hardware. Therefore, I have branded my new iPad with a reminder of the waste and a warning to myself to use it well, rather than comply with the vagaries of Apple’s marketing.

It is no surprise that a corporation develops technology built on waste, excess and extravagance. Of greater interest are the attendant accessories that blossom to service these changeable platforms.

I remain fascinated by the relationship between analogue and digital. It is more important to see how hardware and software circulate in daily life than monitor the marketing to the faithful. Chairman Jobs is not St Steve. He has applied Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum to advertising, or seen The Matrix too often for comfort. Apple is the Nike of technology companies. It does not sell products: it sells affluence, aspiration and elitism.

In such a culture of atrophy and obsolescence, preservation matters. Ironically, the iPad, the most ephemeral of objects, has provided opportunities for the survival and profit of old skills and an old industry.

Dodocase, as a company, provides an example of how supposedly outmoded ideas and practices can be brought into a cutting-edge environment. Like the original Flip start-up, the business is based in San Francisco and celebrates its status as a local industry. Its goal is to continue the culture of bookbinding in the age of iPads, Kindles and e-readers. Artisans hand-make Dodocases and covers to appear like aged notebooks. It is an extraordinary example of how analogue abilities and talents are sustained and enhanced for digital products.

The archetypal post-Fordist company, Dodocase customises iPad, iPhone and Kindle cases so that transitory tech objects become part of a larger reading, learning and thinking culture. The slogan of the company is “Protects from extinction”. The connotations of that phrase are resonant. Dodocases protect platforms from damage, but also provide innovative applications for older knowledge. They dampen the gleaming chrome and plastic of “new media” so that they appear like notebooks. It is a remarkable transformation, like dressing Katie Price in an understated Chanel suit.

Even more innovatively, Dodocase uses social media to advertise its products and connect with consumers and supporters. It maintains a YouTube channel, a Facebook page and is active on Twitter, not only being followed but also following. It shows consumers the sustainable processes and practices that make the cases and manage the business.

Dodocase moves smoothly between old and new, analogue and digital, preservation and ephemera. While Apple promoted the iPad 2 as being thinner and lighter, Dodocase proves that the iPad is not – and never will be – about functionality. Our task as teachers and learners is to transform the slick iPad into the foundation for thought and reflection.

The Dodocase confirms that memory and history are necessary to build knowledge. There is a balance between art and technology, craft and commerce. Centuries of bookbinding frame and shape the bubbling obsolescence of tablet computing. By encasing an iPad in a Dodocase, it is a reminder that respect for history can accompany any enthusiasm for the marketed and the temporary.

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