another problem for the Zittrain thesis — old people!

by on April 12, 2008 · 59 comments

I swear I’m not trying to pick on Jonathan Zittrain, but I continue to find examples that create problems for his thesis from The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It that the whole world is going to hell because of the rise of what he contemptuously calls “sterile, tethered devices.” Again, in his provocative book, Zittrain argues that, for a variety of reasons, the glorious days of the generative, open Internet and general-purpose PCs are supposedly giving way to closed networks and closed devices. In my lengthy review of his book, I argued that Zittrain was over-stating things and creating a false choice of possible futures from which we must choose. I see no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds–a world full of plenty of tethered appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness. In a follow-up essay, I pointed out how Apple’s products create a particular problem for Zittrain’s thesis because even though they are “sterile and tethered,” there is no doubt that the company’s approach has produced some wonderful results. As I said..

Personally… I prefer all those “general purpose” devices that Zittrain lionizes. But, again, we can have both. Let Steve Jobs be a control freak and keep those walls around Apple’s digital garden high and tight if he wants. There are plenty of other wide open gardens for the rest of us to play in.

In my original review, I briefly mentioned another problem for the Zittrain thesis: old people! I was reminded about this when I was reading this New York Times article today entitled, “At a Certain Age, Simplicity Sells in High-Tech Gadgets,” by Alina Tugend. Tugend argues:

All right, everyone under the age of 40, go run around the block or something. This column is not for you. It is for people like me, inching toward 50, who are, let us say, not technology-averse, but do not embrace it with the unquestioning love that our children do. For them, no gadget is unnecessary, no add-on excessive, no upgrade superfluous. Now, I know this is not just a generational divide. Some people of any age — we all know a few — buy every new gizmo, the more bells and whistles and buttons, the better.

And some people in their 20s and 30s are not enamored with the high-tech side of life. But for those of us who remember getting off the couch to change the channel, technology is not necessarily as innate a part of our lives as it is for those chronologically behind us. I’m sure many of you have played the game with your children, seeing what most shocks them: “We had to watch movies in theaters!” “Phones were attached to the wall!” “We only had an AM-FM radio in the car!” And my personal favorite, “I typed my college senior thesis on an electric typewriter, and used Wite-Out for mistakes!”

O.K., enough dawdling on memory lane. The point is that technology does not always come naturally. And everything seems to be getting more diminutive and more complex just as I am getting older and slower. “There are folks who are feeling that things are getting too complicated,” said Jim Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. “The good news is that you have a lot of choices. The bad news is that you have a lot of choices.”

What this proves is that preferences cannot be generalized. What’s good for tech geeks and the digerati may not be best for everyone else. Here’s how I put it in my original review of Zittrain’s book:

put yourself in the shoes of a mere mortal. It’s easy for many us who are tech geeks to look down our noses at those who seem to want to have the hand held through cyberspace or digital experiences. But there’s nothing wrong with those people who seek stability and security in digital devices and their networking experiences—even if they find those solutions in the form of “tethered appliances.” Not everyone wants to have the same cyber-experiences we do. Not everyone wants to reprogram their mobile phones, hack their consoles, write their own code, or even just write a blog or join a social networking site. Millions upon millions of people live perfectly normal lives without ever doing any of these things! (It’s true, I even met a couple of these people… They are called my parents!) Still, many of those mere mortals WILL want to use many of the same toys we tech geeks use, or take cautious steps into the occasional cold pool called cyberspace—one tippy toe at a time. Why shouldn’t those folks be accommodated with “lesser” devices?

Tugend’s NYT article points out that the market for such devices is developing rapidly because there is hot demand for “simpler” devices (i.e., Zittrain’s much-lamented “sterile, tethered devices”):

Consider the ubiquitous cellphone. Two models of phones, Jitterbug by GreatCall Inc. and Coupe by Verizon, offer the most basic services available. One version of the Samsung Jitterbug, for example, has only three buttons: one you can program to call one number, say a friend, work or home; another to call a live operator; and a third to call 911. The other Jitterbug is more like a regular phone, but both have dial tones and larger keypads. Each Jitterbug costs $147, with minutes extra. There is no contract required.

Although the Jitterbug is being marketed primarily to older people (hearing aid compatible), with no cameras, games or confusing icons, I can certainly see the appeal. My children, however, laughed when they heard about the phone. “What’s the point with no games?” my older son asked. Consumer Reports, in fact, called the Jitterbug a cellphone “for the technology weary.” The Coupe ($40 with a two-year calling plan) is aimed at a similar market. It has a few more features than the Jitterbug. Both phones have received mixed reviews from users.

Microsoft and Apple have certainly noticed this growing market. Last year, Microsoft began selling the SeniorPC (Memo: may want to think about a name change). Hewlett-Packard’s computers, available as desktops or laptops, come with mental acuity games, prescription software (that provides reminders when to take medication at the correct dosage and when to reorder, as well as medical history), financial software and the option of a keyboard with larger buttons. They can also be used with a simplified desktop screen that hides options, for those who need just a few functions, said Rob Sinclair, director for accessibility at Microsoft. “A lot of technology was originally developed for people with severe disabilities,” Mr. Sinclair said. “But these solutions are proving valuable to a much broader range of people.” Many of these features, known as “ease of access settings,” are automatically available with Windows Vista, like screen readers that audibly describe what is on the screen, screen magnifiers, colors and fonts for easy reading and speech recognition, which allows you to direct the computer with your voice. We have Windows XP, the earlier version of the operating system, and it is easy to click into the accessibility options, which do not include speech recognition, through the control panel. But it has a wheelchair icon, which has been eliminated in the later version. “We now talk about ‘ease of access’ to a computer rather than ‘accessibility,’ ” Mr. Sinclair said. “The subtle change in language reflects a significant change in our approach.”

And what’s wrong with this? Answer: Nothing! People are getting the choices and configurations they want. Older generations are simply not comfortable with the “general purpose” devices that tinker-happy gadgeteers like Zittrain and me prefer. Shouldn’t those people get to enjoy some of the same digital experiences and communications options that the rest of us do without being expected to configure their cell phones or program their PCs?

Again, markets are responding to these needs, but not in ways that Prof. Zittrain prefers. Perhaps in another 25 years, when today’s generation of techno-geeks are grandparents, we’ll all be perfectly comfortable with the devices and networks that Zittrain (and I) prefer. For now, that is not enough. People demand more choices–even if they are “sterile and tethered.” They should get them, and luckily they are.

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