Comments on

The Console Model Is a Regressive Tax on Creativity

Original entry posted: Tue Nov 23 16:06:53 2010

peterb @ Tue Nov 23 20:43:32 2010 EST

Your attempt at a conceptual leap from "There exist platforms that
limit the amount of hacking that can be done" to "Those limitations
are a barrier to entry for minorities" rivals Evel Knievel's storied
jump over the Snake River Canyon, and ultimately it is no more

First off, encoded in your article are the following assumptions:

First, that coding or "hacking" is the most meaningful way to interact with technology.

Second, that a "running homebrew code" is a valuable form of experimentation for a statistically significant number of people.

Third, that making a platform more amenable to end-user coding is cost-free (and here I'm using "cost" not in the monetary sense, but in the sense of "cost to the end user in terms of the usefulness of the platform")

All three of these assumptions are not simply incorrect, but woefully so. To borrow the words of Wolfgang Pauli, "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong."

Regarding the first assumption: while those of us in the technology sector like to romanticize our early experiences with our various Apple IIs, TRS-80s, and other hackable platforms, the fact is that the skills we learned from doing that work had a narrow effect: it made us marginally more likely to enter into one particular career track in the tech industry. There are, not to put too fine a point on it, thousands of other equally valid, fulfilling, and financially rewarding career tracks in the tech industry that don't involve the specific aspects of software development you are rooting for. Put another way, the assumption that hacking is an intrinsic good in and of itself seems to me morally equivalent to bemoaning the fact that most people who buy modern cars aren't using them to brush up on their auto mechanic skills.

Regarding your second assumption: to the extent that one decides to make the (incorrect) choice that Everyone Should Be A Computer Engineer, it's not clear to me that bemoaning the existence of less-hackable platforms is in any way effective. Risking a second analogy, you are complaining that it's hard to use hammers as screwdrivers, and really, those hammer manufacturers are HOLDING US BACK by not putting a Phillips-head socket on the handle.

Regarding your third assumption, end-user electronic appliances have expected use cases. Presumably, both the people selling these devices and the people spending money on them think that these use cases are important. Making a platform "hackable" is not simply a matter of "don't put DRM on it". In many cases, what you call "hackable" I call "dangerous", in the sense of a gun manufacturer who sells a handgun without a safety. If leaving a platform "open" or "hackable" means that developers should compromise the experience of 98% of their users for the benefit of the 2% of users who desperately want to use their hammers as screwdrivers, then I have to say that "open" sounds like perhaps one of the worst ideas I've heard of. If, on the other hand, you're positing that we should refuse compromise, and perfectly meet the needs of 100% of everyone, and make an open platform that in no way compromises the user experience, then I look forward to eventually eating and/or cleaning my kitchen with your combination floor wax/dessert topping.

In summary: even if I accept the (flawed) premise that "careers in technology" are driven by, specifically, the ability to write software, you have in no way made the case that degrading people's experiences with technology is the best way to get them to write more software. Optimizing technology for openness is almost never free, and if in making a product more hackable you end up interfering with the job the product was intended to do, you will, in the long run, do more harm than good.

Thomas @ Tue Nov 23 20:52:42 2010 EST

Um. Okay. Thanks for the wall of text, I guess.

You're attributing arguments to me that I didn't make. I never argued that hacking is the most meaningful way to interact with technology. I didn't say that "Everyone should be a computer engineer." I'm also not saying that any computer platform should be 100% open in the sense that it should absolutely privilege user over usability.

I don't even know how to respond, since you're literally arguing against things that I never said anywhere in this post. Maybe this reminded you of someone else who did make those arguments. Regardless, I didn't. If you'd like to criticize the arguments that I did make, I'd like to read that, because I think you're smarter than this.

peterb @ Tue Nov 23 20:53:09 2010 EST

I've posted (and edited) this reply here:

peterb @ Tue Nov 23 20:59:20 2010 EST

I guess I'm leaping off from this sentence of yours:

"But I think it's hard to argue that the console model--locked-down, walled-garden systems running single-purpose code--doesn't contribute to the problem."

I don't think it's hard to argue that at all. More bluntly, I don't see how the positive claim ("The console model contributes to the problem of there being so few African Americans, and specifically African American men, in the tech industry") can be argued at all.

It was unclear to me from your article whether this is an argument that you are making, or one that Latoya is making. Certainly, DeSalvo's article makes the opposite argument: that in the "Glitch Game Testers" program, consoles were used as a tool to encourage minority youths to seek a career in technology. So I assumed that this was your argument, and that's what I am replying to.

Thomas @ Tue Nov 23 21:15:01 2010 EST

In response to the comment at 20:59 EST:

It's true that consoles were used in DeSalvo's program. But it should be noted that her students were not being exposed to an XBox for the first time. Instead, the curtain was pulled back, and they were being shown that the software they were used to thinking of as a single retail unit was, in fact, the product of a long, iterative development process. This is in direct contrast to the way that they had previously viewed software. From the top of page 6:

Yea, before I just played. Now it’s like you start
to think about it I wonder what they did to do
this. Or how did they make him do that. It is
like, you just think about it more now. Like ‘oh,
he must have used this coding’. – Goblin

I learned certain things in Glitch, if I go home
and play a football game. I used to just try to
play the game, win the game, now I just take my
time and mess around with the game. - DramDel

Now I know how to break a game, I am definitely
going to use it to get the best score get to
another level…Now I am going to pay more
attention to the little details that everybody
passed over. - Spiderman

These quotes indicate that participants are now
looking at games as objects of inquiry, things to be explored and taken apart.

Is that a result of the console model itself? I think it helps. I guess I would agree with you that it's not a direct relationship--but I think I've couched the claim in pretty vague language. It's not like I'm blaming Nintendo for poverty here.

Look, I understand that various people (ahem*Cory Doctorow*ahem) may make similar arguments, as a part of a wider--and much more extreme--view of software freedom. I assure you, I find Doctorow as exhausting as I'm sure you do. But not everyone who argued against the Iraq War was a crazy hippie absolute pacifist. Likewise, just because I don't think walled gardens are the cat's meow, please don't act like I'm one of those people who thinks we should force poor people to run Linux from the command line because it builds character.

Thomas @ Tue Nov 23 23:27:26 2010 EST

Incidentally, part of Latoya Peterson's comments (which, to be fair, I didn't reproduce here, and probably should have) addressed the question of open systems like the PC. Like you say, they'll always exist. But Latoya was discussing her experiences with educational programs, like a Super Y lab, whose students often can't afford computers. Or if they can, they can't afford to fix them right away when they break.

So yeah, open platforms will always exist. But not everyone gets access to them equally--that's the whole problem of the digital divide. If disadvantaged kids only get access to computing through the completely-closed model, does that change the way that they'll think about their own agency? I think DeSalvo's research raises the possibility that it might, and we might want to be concerned about it. That's all.

I might have said it a little more delicately, sure. It's an aggressive title on a piece that I think is actually fairly moderate in terms of rhetoric.

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