I think it’s fair to say that Scott Greenfield is not a fan of Apple’s iPad. From reading his banter with Brian Tannebaum, I gather there’s been a lot of hype about how the iPad is a “game changer” for lawyers — I guess because it can serve as a thin client front-end to some sort of “virtual office in the cloud” web application. Whatever. As criminal defense lawyers, Scott and Brian have no need for such things.
That seems reasonable, but sometimes Scott’s hatred for the iPad goes a bit overboard. I always assumed it was an act — hyperbole for the purpose of emphasis — but his latest post seems pretty serious:
When President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that America would put a man on the moon within ten years, it began a commitment to the future that drove us to create innovation which carried us to great heights and banal depths. And with the last flight of the space shuttle, it’s over. And we have given up.
Actually, I’m with Scott here. We stopped going to the moon almost 40 years ago, and the shuttle has been hideously expensive to operate because it has to be human-rated, and we never developed any sort of unmanned heavy spacelift vehicles, which is why the space station is small and pitiful compared to some of the earlier plans for a permanent station. More recently, I believe they just postponed plans to develop a sort of space-tug for moving stuff around the inner system.
(We don’t post about it here, but my co-blogger Ken and I have been complaining about the state of our space program since the 70s. And I’m sure he can correct anything I just got wrong.)
But the most significant thing represented by the last shuttle mission is America’s abdication of concern with our future. To the extent something as self-serving as American Exceptionalism exists, it does so because of our drive to find the future, to dream big and achieve our dreams. We have no dreams anymore.
We have no goals. As a society, we think we’ve accomplished something by putting out a fire, never considering that at best we’re stagnant. At worst, we fool ourselves, as the first isn’t really out but just left smoldering, waiting for someone else to shoulder the burden of putting it out later.
We’re a nation of big shots, every one of us too important to get our hands dirty doing hard work, or suffering personal sacrifice to achieve a future goal.
That sounds a lot like “national greatness,” which is how Republicans used to waste our money (and sometimes lives) when they weren’t busy complaining that Democrats were wasting our money on social programs. Of course, in our modern times, both parties seem quite flexible as to how they waste our money.
Anyway, guess what Scott sees as a symbol of all that is wrong with us today?
The lovers of technology hold dear to shiny gadgets like the iPad in the belief that they are the future. They are toys, which suck money out of the pockets of those least able to afford toys and give back nothing. Do you really think a great future exists because we can check our emails anywhere, or watch television shows we missed while we were twitting to each other?
I don’t have an iPad, but if it’s anything like my iPhone, it can also keep a list of everyone I know, and it can show me where they live, and give me turn-by-turn directions to get there. It lets me view a map of all the visible stars, showing exactly what they look like from where I am on Earth, or it can show me the Earth from space and zoom in to show me a single building, and pictures people have taken of the area, and all the nearest restaurants, ATMs, police stations, and hospitals. Or I can take my own pictures and movies, edit them, and share them with my friends.
My iPhone can keep a list of groceries, which my wife can update as I drive to the store, and if I’m not sure what she wants, I can send her pictures of what’s available. Then I can find the nearest theater that’s playing a movie I want to see and reserve two tickets. And if we’re too far from home, I can find the nearest hotel and book a room.
I can read all the world’s newspapers, watch all the world’s news feeds, find the current prices of all the world’s commodities, and read all the world’s public domain books. I can lookup the population of Connecticut in 1950 or the address of a good sushi bar in Avalon. If a friend has a book I like, I can scan the bar code and have a copy delivered to my house, or maybe I can just download it directly to the phone. Of course that’s only after I’ve read a few online reviews.
And I haven’t even mentioned that it holds every song I own, lets me buy more from a catalog of millions, and recommends other I might like. It also lets me manage my bank account and cash checks just by scanning them. I can track my wife’s flight as it approaches Chicago so I can pick her up within minutes of landing. I also have access to the world’s largest encyclopedia, photographs of every landmark in the world, weather reports from anywhere in the world, a notebook, a calendar, a voice memo recorder, and several types of calculators.
In the 1980’s, I participated in a government funded educational program that made supercomputers available to students at universities too small to afford their own. The absolute top-of-the-line supercomputer was the Cray 2, which cost $17 million in 1985 dollars. An iPad 2 is just as powerful as a Cray 2, except that it’s smaller, produces less waste heat, runs on batteries, and you can carry it in your pocket. For about 1/70000 the price.
And I know this sounds like an ad for an iPad, but remember that there are at least two other vendors making products that directly compete, and most laptop makers have a small footprint model aimed at the same group of consumers.
We are easily played by emotional appeals that distract us from hard realities, the ones the require some small amount of thought. We’re a nation of marketers, liars who string together meaningless words and pretend that by making stuff up we can somehow slip past the mess all around us without contributing anything of substance, without actually doing anything that will achieve a needed goal.
Oh my God. Scott, dude, you’re a friggin’ lawyer! Talk about people who don’t contribute anything of substance…most people would put lawyers very near the top of that list. Those aren’t lawyers on that Space Shuttle.
And yet, lawyers are completely necessary in our society. They may not fly spaceships or cure diseases or invent cleaner sources of energy, but they’re a part of the vast cooperative enterprise we like to call civilization. As are we all. (I don’t talk about my job much on this blog, but trust me, as fascinating as it is to me, it’s nothing that will ever be in the history books.)
The space program was only partially about space, though the vast unknown around us offered the potential to survive the damage we do to our own planet because we’re too lazy to pick up our own garbage, and too enamored of our shiny toys to worry about where to put the nuclear waste. As long as it’s not in our backyard, we just don’t care.
This is nit-picking, I know, but the Space Shuttle only goes up into low earth orbit. It never really got out into the vast unknown. I mean, if you knew where and when to look (something an iPad could tell you) you could see it from your backyard.
The space program gave us a wealth of opportunity along the way, as scientists and engineers created things that could be used to create more things to solve previously unsolvable problems.
That’s pretty much the process behind the iPad as well. In addition to the pocket supercomputer aspect I mentioned earlier, iPads also have state-of-the-art LCD displays, state of the art digital cameras, state-of-the-art batteries, state-of-the-art 3G transceivers, and even state-of-the-art glass panels. It’s not like Apple spent billions of dollars to invent these things from scratch, they are just one of many products that can be built from high-tech parts that are becoming ever more common.
There was a time when Mr. Fusion might have been a reality someday, instead of oil from the mideast.
Uh, no. I loved Back to the Future, but Mr. Fusion was fiction inspired by cold fusion research, which also turned out to be fiction.
There are still people who have the knowledge and interest to create a future out of the mess that swirls around us today, but the death of the space program reflects our nation’s decision to look backward rather than forward. We have been seduced by the shiny toys, and they are good enough to make us forget that we are doing nothing as a society to invest in our future.
Enjoy your iPad 5. There may not be many new toys on the horizon because the drive that brought us this far is gone. We’re too cheap to pay the price of innovation, and we’re too lazy and preoccupied with our transitory self-interest to put in the effort necessary to change. There will be a few tweaks to our shiny toys, which will be touted as wonders and snapped up at exorbitant prices by young people spending their daddy’s money, so that they can sit on their couches and eat Cheetos while surfing youtube.
Is this enough of a future for you?
The iPad is nothing less than a personal pocket supercomputer that gives you instant wireless access to a multi-million-node world-wide computer network. That’s about as science fiction as it gets. I know we don’t have the flying cars, but we are living in the future.
Do you not realize that you’ve bet the farm that some kid in Cambridge or Palo Alto, with no help from you, is going to come up with some truly incredible brainstorm that will create an industry, revitalize America, drive our economy in a direction that we can’t conceive of today?
If I did something like that, I’d be an idiot.
Consider Scott’s example of fusion power. Scientists have been experimenting with nuclear fusion for 50-60 years. Getting hydrogen to fuse came early, but the process required more energy than it produced. I believe scientists reached technological breakeven in the 80’s, but only on a small scale, and at great expense. Creating industrial-scale economical fusion power systems will be a long, slow process. It’s unlikely there will be any giant breakthroughs, just hundreds or thousands of small engineering breakthroughs that eventually advance the technology far enough for us to benefit.
So, what I’m betting on is that millions of people in thousands of cities will come up with millions of ideas, each of which improves our life a tiny, tiny bit, and that this process of continuous improvement will slowly grind away to make our lives better. After all, that’s how we got this far.
When you’ve got that many people working together, an awful lot of effort goes into dealing with the complexities of communications and organizing, and while each of those people is a specialist, an awful lot of their productive time is spent doing routine activities outside their area of specialization. Anything that makes those routine activities less time consuming is going to leave more time for people to do what they’re best at. This is why we need lawyers and accountants and garbage collectors and teachers and dog walkers. It’s also why we need overnight mail and photocopiers and email and iPads. Every little bit helps. It’s the story of civilization.
Besides, unless the medical folks figure out how to solve that death problem, it’s not like we’re going to live much longer than our great grandparents did. And if we can’t live longer, than at least we should use our vast technological wealth to live better. And if living better means streaming kitten videos while you’re sipping a Frappuchino at Starbucks, what the hell is wrong with that?
Irony Addendum: The last shuttle flight is not the last manned space flight. We’ll be using foreign spacecraft to get into orbit for a little while, and there are about five private companies developing various forms of spacelift, several of which will be man-rated.
Meanwhile, the astronauts on this last shuttle flight took a pair of iPhones:
Why the iPhone and not the iPad? “There’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t have done the iPad,” Rishikof says. Yet, the compact size of the iPhone gives the device less mass and volume, and therefore a smaller footprint when calculating measurements. “In the future, the iPad is definitely on our list,” he says.
It’s a supercomputer that talks to a world-wide cloud of supercomputers. Of course a bunch of rocket scientists can put it to good use.