David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.
Here's a little treat for anyone who has so far underestimated the potential of the iPad. Some of us were hoping Apple would call it the Slate, because it truly is a blank slate whose potential will only be limited by the ideas that people bring to it.
Pianist Lang Lang playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on an iPad, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco CA April 19, 2010.
By now, we've all heard much about the elegance and dynamism of bottom-up systems: how the "wisdom of crowds" creates a powerful collective intelligence (a "hive mind") that infuses the internet, free markets, and other large, collaborative groups.
I am not here to contradict that notion. There's no question that bottom-up is real and exciting (and sometimes terrifying).
But recent events remind us that excellence is often about ruthless top-down standards and discipline; that, ultimately, great works usually require a very tough-to-please person on a throne.
Why is the iPhone insanely great? Why was "60 Minutes" the most important show on television for so many years? Why is Barack Obama on his way to being the best president since FDR?
In these and so many other instances, it often comes down to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true, wisdom of one.
Now, even Wikipedia, the epitome of the bottom-up web ethos, is adding a top-down, quality control component. In a few weeks, Wikipedia will begin requiring each change to a page about a living person be approved by a certified Wiki editor before going live. "It is a test," Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told the New York Times. "We will be interested to see all the questions raised."
Meanwhile, Apple seems to be having its own strange top/bottom crisis -- a first for the company. With the famously intimidating Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple has always been top-heavy. Jobs's Apple invented personal computing, then spurred the digital audio revolution, then introduced the first genuinely smart phone, and then, with the App Store, created an entirely new mobile information culture. No one disputes that these advances (any one of which would make Apple historically important), are largely due to Jobs's freakish demands of unparalleled quality and innovation.
(And we perhaps haven't even seen the best Apple product yet: the possibly game-changing tablet.)
Apple now finds itself in a bit of pickle, though. Its App Store success, which exists only because the iPhone is such an extraordinary top-down device, has created such expectations among so many people that many have come to think of it as a tiny Internet universe -- and therefore expect it to assume similarly bottom-up, democratic values. This sense of public entitlement reached a peak recently with fury over Apple's high-profile rejection (or non-approval) of the Google Voice app. Some software developers have even begun to boycot the company.
Joe Hewitt, one of the founding developers of the Firefox web browser and the creator of the iPhone Facebook app, is not boycotting. But he has written a compelling piece insisting that Apple should drop all app control, opening it up to the same peer-review jungle that the rest of the internet lives by. "The review process needs to be eliminated completely," declares Hewitt. He continues:
The fact is this: Apple does not have the means to perform thorough quality assurance on any app. This is up to the developer. We have our own product managers and quality assurance testers, and we are liable to our users and the courts if we do anything evil or stupid. Apple may catch a few shallow bugs in the review process, but let's face it, the real things they are looking for are not bugs, but violations of the terms of service. This is all about lawyers, not quality, and it shows that the model of Apple's justice system is guilty until proven innocent. They don't trust us, and I resent that, because the vast majority of us are trustworthy.
Hewitt may well be correct when he says that, at present, Apple isn't really instituting strict quality control on iPhone apps. Apple itself revealed recently that they receive 8,500 new applications and updates every week, and that each one is reviewed by at least two reviewers. With only 40 full-time reviewers, that comes to an average of five and a half minutes per reviewer per app.
But I disagree with Hewitt's proposed solution. I think Apple needs to go the other way, instituting much more quality control on the process. Far too many apps either don't work or turn out to be a waste of time and money. And while no one seems to be confusing independent apps with Apple's own products, bad apps drag down the user experience. With their enormous royalties from the App Store, Apple could easily have ten-fold more reviewers, with many supervisors taking a tough line against substandard apps.
(As a strange example of how broken the app system is right now, you can visit one of Apple's own promotional web pages highlighting an app called Gpush, even though Gpush -- according to hundreds of people who've paid for it -- simply doesn't work).
Demand quality and you will get it. That's been Apple's mantra, and should continue to be. And it's one we can all learn from.
[PLEASE WEIGH IN: SHOULD THE APP STORE BE MORE BOTTOM-UP OR TOP-DOWN?]
Correction (8/27/99): Wales is co-founder, not founder, of Wikipedia.
Belated full disclosure (8/27/99): I own Apple stock, and my filmmaker brother Jon has done extensive work for Apple.
there such a thing as too brilliant, too successful? Among individuals, being an outlier can come with its personal costs.
In the corporate-democratic world, the problem is somewhat different; the costs are likely to be born by consumer/citizens. Google announced today that
they will soon go after Microsoft's bread and butter by introducing a free new
operating system for PCs: Chrome OS.
is so smart and so successful that they're starting to get a little scary. It's
a strange thing to so admire a company's products and at the same time be
worried about their influence, but that's where many Google admirers currently
find themselves. Google is famous for their corporate credo: "Don't Be
Evil." But is that enough? Google's reach and power may be problematic for a number of reasons, according to media scholar
and Google-watching blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan.
Here's a spirited discussion on the subject between Vaidhyanathan
and Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would
Google Do?, courtesy of The Brian Lehrer Show:
Let's stipulate that relatively few people out there understand anything about how today's computers actually work. (I am one of the multitudes of non-understanders.)
And let's recognize that this is not a good thing. As we lose connection with how our tools work, we become alienated from them and from ourselves.
So it's great when, every once in a while, a piece comes along that helps explain a little about how these amazing machines work. This explanation by Weldon Dodd of recent advances in computer processors is such a piece. I don't follow everything he says, but it's clear enough for any neophyte to learn a lot about what's behind the latest advances. Dodd then explains how Apple is adapting to these advances.
hard not to see the product of so much effort as anything but a sincere
gesture, perhaps the last sincere form of expression we have. But there are
those for whom social papers are simply an expression of economic muscle, or a
poignant example of social anxiety."
"The Lettered Set,"
an article about elites shunning email in favor of high-quality
Szántó, twelve years ago, in the book Data Smog:
the future, elites are more likely to express their tastes through purging the
data around them. To be involved in a data purge culture will be to show that
you are a sophisticated user of data, that you know where it comes from, you
know how to pick up on the little info that matters and to how to get rid of
the rest. [Meanwhile] the have-nots are going to end up with the data
dumped on them."
is highly-ambivalent about technology. We wrote Data Smog, after all. If you read us long
enough, you will see some tough skepticism on whether the newest tools are
always put to the best use.[i]
GeniusBlog is also a gadget lover, and thinks the iPhone is a fascinating
window into the future. Here, then, is the first an occasional series. Five
Great iPhone Apps for the Mind:
1. DocsToGo: A long
way from perfect, but still a very good tool to create, edit, and share
Microsoft Word docs with your computer and with others. $4.99.
2. Chess With Friends:
I cannot stand playing chess with a computer, and it's not just because I
always lose. I always lose against the humans too, but there's an indescribable quality that makes human-to-human games more satisfying. Here's an
outstanding chess app that lets you play live with other iPhone owners. (If you
need to learn about what chess can do for the mind, read this book). FREE.
3. SleepStream. A good
night's sleep is crucial to an alert and productive life, and this app actually
works. I know, it sounds crazy. You won't believe it until you try it. $1.99. (There's also a free
"lite" version for you to sample.)
4. Kindle and Stanza. Two very
good book-buying and book-reading apps. I'm not saying its the best way to read a book. But the portability often makes it very worthwhile. Free.
5. Public Radio Tuner and NPR Addict Two
very good and complementary public radio apps. ("Addict" was actually
built by a listener, and allows you to peruse and listen tostories according to a specific
show or a particular correspondent.) For those who haven't experienced it,
radio over the iPhone works pretty darn well when you have a decent 3G
Ok, we admit that was seven apps. We'll work on our math.
Which apps do you like?
[i]GeniusBlog occasionally enjoys the royal We. It makes us feel importanter.
McLuhan[i]was right. A new study published
in the journal Cell Biology provides the first direct proof of a longheld
notion among technologists: tools fundamentally alter the way we perceive our
be accurate in doing an action with a tool, you need to make the tool become a
part of your body," lead researchers Lucilla Cardinali and
Claude Bernard told The Scientist.
implications of this idea are staggering, and it is something every high school
student needs to learn. Using tools intelligently and appropriately is
essential to a balanced and successful life. That begins with an understanding
of our relationship with tools and how they alter our way of seeing the world.
For more on this idea, start with the science here. Then delve
into the idea here.
wrote that tools are extensions of the human body. A detailed investigation of
McLuhan's inspiration for this idea can be found in the footnotes
for Richard Cavell's McLuhan in Space.
More on the McLuhan here.
It appears that
Steve Jobs, the Great One, praised be He, has returned to his perch at Apple.
His name showed up yesterday on an Apple press
release for the first time since he took medical leave in January, and Reuters reported that he
was spotted on the Apple campus.
Aside from empathy
for another human being's pain
and suffering, why do some of us care so much? Why are we so fascinated by
this man? Is it because we're still trying to figure out how one guy could
create the first truly personal computer (Macintosh), and then change the way we think about music (iPod and
iTunes), and then put the
Internet in a person's jeans pocket (iPhone)? Is it because we fear Apple can't
thrive without him? That as soon as Steve Jobs goes away, the magic new
machines will stop coming our way?
Speaking for myself,
I think it's because I'm still hoping that I will somehow grow to genuinely
like the person I have so long admired. It is vexing that this man who has done
such extraordinary things is such an (allegedly) nasty
and unpleasant person. Maybe this is the year he'll grow out of his
petulant narcissism, and will become as decent as he is brilliant. One can
Or perhaps the
darkest possibility is also the true one: that to be that extraordinary a
leader, you must be a tyrant. From a recent Fortune profile:
"Jobs' personal abuses
are also legend: He parks his Mercedes in handicapped spaces, periodically
reduces subordinates to tears, and fires employees in angry tantrums. Yet many
of his top deputies at Apple have worked with him for years, and even some of
those who have departed say that although it's often brutal and Jobs hogs the
credit, they've never done better work."
may have spectacular personal taste. But his true greatness, it seems, is in
his ability to get the most of out of his subordinates. He has found a way to
blend an artist's style of vision and discipline with the practical realities
of being a corporate leader. But while his products are amazing, his methods
are not very pretty to behold.
Today's the day. If you live in one of the 2.8 million homes still reliant on a purely analog TV signal, you may be losing your signal right about now.
But maybe that's not such a disaster. Perhaps today's digital switchover is a good opportunity for all of us to reevaluate the role that TV plays in our lives.
I admit: I called for the coupon and bought the converter box. And I acknowledge that there is plenty of excellent TV out there. More channels has led to more choice and more innovation. I'm even willing to yield to Steven Johnson that some TV, in moderation, helps expand our brains.
Still, TV is pretty much a giant suction hose on our time and our brains. Very little good comes of it. I'm all for a daily dose of entertainment -- some escape, some silliness, a good heaping dose of belly laughter. But a little decent TV goes a very long way. We'd all be better off if we watched a lot less.
Remember: none of us are ever fixed in our intelligence or abilities. We are all works in progress. How we spend our time and attention matters.
It is possible to live without TV. People do it. I love the story of über-agent Ari Emanuel and his client Larry David in New Hampshire just before last year's big primary. Ari introduces his niece Gaby, a Dartmouth undergrad, to David. There is no glimmer of recognition.
"What do you do?" Gaby says.
Larry David says, "Well, I was the writer and creative force behind Seinfeld."
Gaby says, "And what was Seinfeld?"
Gaby's father, Zeke Emanuel, later told Washingtonian magazine that he’s never had a TV in his home. “It’s one of the greatest things I ever did,” he said.
Ten years ago, on an extended visit to Japan, my wife and I saw the future, and it was a very disturbing sight indeed. TV screens were everywhere -- jumbo screens all over Tokyo, large flatscreen TVs in shop windows and restaurants, tiny TV screens on phones, even TV goggles. Wim Wenders warned us all about "the disease of images" in his 1991 film Until the End of the World. Now it's actually happening. We are saturating our lives with moving video images.
you feel the earth slowing down a little this weekend, that's because Apple is
getting ready to stop time and make its next big iPhone announcement. Do
yourself a favor and don't try to talk to any Apple geeks (me included) from 1pm-2pm EST
the iPhone, the MacBook
Air, and a few other products, Apple is in a curious position: It has
raised the bar so high on itself by turning out such extraordinary stuff, it is
now under exceptional
pressure to keep improving -- or else.
it doesn't, two things happen:
Others start to catch up, and these competitors will charge less for a similar product.
Apple loses its luster, which threatens customer loyalty (zeal) and its ability to recruit and motivate
the best talent.
the past, I have
railed against the "upgrade mania" of Silicon Valley, and I still
despise it when companies cynically manipulate the customer by using PR and lousy improvements to make their yesterday's whiz bang tool seem like today's embarrassing fossil.
But now I have to acknowledge that there is a positive version of this same
phenomenon:when companies find
themselves under great pressure to continually improve their products or fall
behind, quality wins.
did Apple first develop its culture of greatness? That's another matter which I
will address in future posts . . .