Apple Makes Useless Products*

I went to a parent education night at my kids’ school the other week. The first session was on the kindergarten reading curriculum. As I sat trying to keep my butt centered on the impossibly small chairs, my phone buzzed. One of the moms sent me a text: “this is boring.” A short, silly text conversation ensued. There I was, a grown up doing the same thing I did when I was in grammar school 30 years earlier — passing notes to a girl and trying not to laugh. The only difference was that I was using a piece of technology to do it that would have seemed like a miracle in 1980. Ok, I also wasn’t cracking a thin film of Oxy 10 when I smiled, or raking out the Martin Riggs ‘do with my fingers between messages.

As it happened, the next session was on using technology in the classroom. Two teachers demonstrated a number of iPad apps to the small gathering of parents. There was an app that taught kids how to form block letters, one that allowed kids to collaboratively read a book, and a couple of math games.The parents dutifully took notes and poked carefully at the devices, like chimps with a new treat in their pen. As the session loosened into a discussion, the group seemed to resolve that the iPad was integral to their children’s education, that it was important for kids to have access to this technology, and – of course- that we were holding a sleek glossy slab of future in our simian hands.

This is crap. No iPad app, no matter how whizbang the graphics or euphonious the sound, is going to have the slightest bearing on my children’s academic performance, their college readiness, professional success, future earnings, or emotional well being and happiness. And as a middle class white parent  I know that all of those things are  intrinsically linked.

I’ve seen this future before, in the past.  BASIC class on the Apple IIe in 1985 and IIGS in 1988.  Word processing on a PS/2 in the early 90s. Accessing the early internet on a VT100 terminal in 1993. Teaching myself HTML 1.0 in 1995. All of these things were supposed to be “the future,” and would no doubt ensure my academic success, college readiness, well-being, appeal to women, etc. by increasing my “technological literacy.” Except that I became fluent in languages that no one speaks anymore.

10 ? “Waste of Time”
20 GOTO 10

Humor at its most BASIC level. Ha. What if I’d taken trombone, or woodshop, or French instead? The language or tools I’d learned to use would still be useful. Does anyone think that when our kids enter the workforce in 15 or 20 years they’ll use anything like an iPad? Are you reading this on Netscape Navigator running on Windows 3.1? Meanwhile, the school will spend gobs of money in a cycle of buying, maintaining, and replacing obsolete relics of the future past. In 1990 or so, my high school eliminated 1/2 the floor space of its library for an IBM PS/2 computer lab. Three years later (or less), they were wholly obsolete. I’m sure my parents and all the others thought the lab was a great idea. I didn’t retain a single thing from that lab, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  Though, to be fair, the only thing I retained from high school was that one shouldn’t pick on things, a lesson that applies both to skincare and interpersonal relationships.

The only technology experience I got that was useful for longer than six months was when I worked in a satellite office and the tech support in the main office realized I could work a Philips screwdriver and a speakerphone at the same time (working with a lot of Jews sets the manual dexterity bar low). I replaced case fans, hard drives, and added RAM – in the process learning how to poke around the inside of a computer.

This is where current  technology – particularly Apple – fails. The alleged beauty of Apple products is that they’re simple to use – because Apple hides all of the technology in a slick interface and tightly sealed box you can’t poke around in at all. There’s no problem solving, no creative solutions. There’s apps for that. Learning how to tap your fingers on a piece of glass and trace letters with  your finger isn’t learning a damned thing about technology. You know how I know? Because my dad can use an iPad. In a land of digital natives, my dad is a Roanoke settler. He resisted automatic online bill pay because he wasn’t sure what would happen if the payment date fell on a Sunday. He waits until the SD card in his camera is full, then takes it to Walgreens and prints all of the pictures. In a Spotify world, my dad is an 8 Track of “A Question of Balance.” And he can use an iPad.

There’s no question that tablets are fun to use, but the slickness of the interface seems like it would actually inhibit learning. There’s no exploration, no problem solving and no room for happy accidents — Apple’s entire ecosystem is designed to avoid such things. The games are repetitive, linear, and mostly rely on pattern recognition and a feedback mechanism as unsophisticated as a slot machine – press a button, something happens, and then lights and sound!  Swab the drool from your chin and do it again.

At one point during the workshop, the teacher gestured to the bookcase along wall. “Those things, they’re all going to be gone. All the books are going to be on this,” she said, holding up her iPad. She’s probably right. And I don’t have a problem with e-books. But is my kid reading the same text on a screen versus a page advancing his STEM skills? Does it matter if the flat surface with letters on it glows or not? Is my school spending boatloads of money on tablets and fancy apps to share books when they could do the same with a three dollar paperback and some sticky notes? I mean sure, if the experience of reading on a screen is going to positively impact my sons’ academic performance, college readiness, future earnings, and sperm count, I’m all for it. But I have serious suspicions.

Are we absolutely certain that parents and teachers don’t like these things for the same reasons the kids do? They’re new, they’re shiny. Apple creates aspirational goods that are relatively affordable. All the cool kids have one, and Steve Jobs equals GENIUS. At least, that’s what they said about the Apple IIe.

I probably could’ve had a business like Steve Jobs if only I’d played Lemonade Stand more seriously.

*a friend told me I could drive traffic to my blog by baiting Apple fanboys. Seemed worth a shot.

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8 thoughts on “Apple Makes Useless Products*

  1. Jefe Birkner says:

    “There is a whole generation of people who find computers intimidating,” says Rene Ritchie, editor of tech blog iMore. “They would buy a computer from Best Buy and have to have the neighbor’s kid come and show them how to use it. That’s the market Apple still dominates: the mainstream market.”

  2. Beth says:

    “The games are repetitive, linear, and mostly rely on pattern recognition and a feedback mechanism as unsophisticated as a slot machine – press a button, something happens, and then lights and sound!”
    I AGREE! Our kids are learning that they should be congratulated (and given virtual treats and presents) for completing even the most mundane of tasks in these games. You know the red apple goes with the red wagon? Great! Do you really also need a dancing sticker to reinforce you had the right answer?
    We need more old school games – like PacMan. When you screw up, you lose. Period. You don’t get a huge virtual hug from a big eyed teddy bear telling you how awesome you are for every ghost you ate. You get the joy of being given the opportunity to even play the game. When it’s over, you don’t go to your virtual store to buy virtual stuffed unicorns to sit on your virtual canopy bed.. You just hope you get the chance to play again. And you get the quiet personal pride when you beat your last score. And that’s enough positive reinforcement.

    • Oddly enough, I’d originally had a line in here about how our parents thought that repetitive games like Pac Man were ruining our brains, and 30 years later we’re “teaching” with them. But I didn’t think about the rewards or lack thereof. I keep circling back to the fact that we’re increasingly teaching kids that everything should be fun and that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.

    • Yampy says:

      That might be the best thing Ive read all year

  3. Dr. Frey says:

    I can’t recall the last time one of my paper books refused to open and I had to call tech support at $20/hr. Or needed recharging before I could read it. Or needed to be read indoors to avoid glare from the sun.

    But then I’m sure manufacture and support of all these iPads make for thousands of jobs for Americans, right?

  4. […] known nothing else but our national love affair with Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.  Innovators? Maybe. Colossal jerks? Definitely. But we celebrate them and make movies about them because they got to […]

  5. […] gangs, the futility of peace negotiations in the Middle East, and the absurdity of the American consumer next week. For this week, something […]

  6. David Hovgaard says:

    I agree, shiny trinkets will not teach anyone anything more than how to be a rat in a maze. This is snake oil and apple has always been good at that. It’s why all the colleges have mac labs problem is the labs are usually antiquated leaving the students with no up to date skills. Better to teach them how tot build a computer or how to fix one at least then they are learning how to solve problems not just press buttons.

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