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April 5, 2010

Filed under: tech»mobile

Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release

The iPad will not save journalism. Beyond that, I can't really bring myself to care about it. It's tempting to be worried about the trend it represents--the triumph of walled-garden content consumption instead of creative computing--but I already sound enough like a cackling lunatic on a regular basis. And at this point, nothing I say or do is going to make much of a difference anyway, right?

But in no small part I'd also rather not get upset because I feel like it would put me in the same class of lunatic as Gizmodo's Joel Johnson, who responds to critics of Apple's device with what appears to be a complete mental breakdown:

The old guard has The Fear. They see the iPad and the excitement it has engendered and realize that they've made themselves inessential--or at least invisible. ... It all just kills me. It literally makes me sick to my stomach.
Uh, yeah, okay there, Sparky. When Cory Doctorow's consumer choices make you physically unwell, it's probably time to step back from the brand identification and stop taking pulls from the crazy juice--although I suspect Johnson is "literally" ill because he's a terrible writer, and not because he's actually nauseous.

Here's a tip for keeping your sanity, kids: maybe the whole argument is a sideshow. Maybe the real trend here is something different. Maybe what we're looking at isn't the Tinkerer's Sunset, but the computing equivalent of the Casio VL-1.

The VL-1, for those who aren't avid readers of electronic music blogs, is an incredibly crappy little keyboard from the 80s. It's two and a half octaves of kitsch, essentially: a cheap, mass-produced synthesizer with a built-in speaker and an LCD that doubled as a calculator. The sound engine was based on the Walsh function, which is a fancy name for what is essentially a square-wave generator. The VL-1 was a toy, although it did find some modest success a few decades later as a sound effect for people who wanted a specific kind of annoying beep.

Casio's little white box didn't just represent the sound of trendy underground electronica bands. It's also a symbol of the time when synthesis--thanks to the wonders of transistors and Turing machines--took two paths. On the one side, the expensive and finicky studio synthesizers with their complicated FM math operators, oscillators, MIDI ports, and modular bays. On the other, throwaway consumer gadgets that are technically synthesizers, but don't offer the kind of patching or playability that a serious instrument does. It's the difference, in other words, between consumer- and professional-grade equipment.

This is largely how I've started to think about the whole walled-garden computing model. It's the VL-1 of information technology. When you look at it that way, why get bother to get upset? Its success won't mean the death of open machines, any more than the Casiotone synths killed off low-end synth hardware. Just as with the VL-1, some creative work will be done on closed systems (see: the famed New Yorker covers) because an artist likes the quirkiness or the feel of it, but serious creatives in any field are still going to need--and can probably buy, for less money--a full-fledged computer.

Likewise, predictions that such simple devices are the "future of computing" are self-evidently ridiculous--like saying that the VL-1 swept in a new musical future via Hallmark's tinny audio greeting cards. Indeed, if you look at the music production landscape today, the state of traditional synthesizers is ridiculously strong, even though they share many of the same "pitfalls" as a desktop OS: complicated user interfaces, intimidating technical specifications, and hackable hardware, to name just a few. The development of pre-programmed, "appliance" synthesis only added to the prestige of modular synths. I think it's not just possible, but even probable that the same will be true for the open computing model that's most common today.

Maybe this is just a way of stroking my own ego ("I'm kind of a big deal. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of low frequency oscillators and shell scripting."), but the more I think about it the more it rings true. In the end, standard open systems tend to win out, both because they're desired by pros (or those who aspire to professionalism) and because closed systems are more expensive to design and maintain over time (after all, we wouldn't have netbooks if not for commodity parts). So let's not hysterically overreact in either direction, but especially let's not make claims for a utopian paradigm shift. There's room for both open and closed devices right now, and if the fate of the post-VL-1 synth is any indication, this is nowhere near the death knell of the computer as we know it. Far from it, in fact.

Future - Present - Past