On Premature Obituaries

The PC Officially Died Today,” announced Nicholas Carr in The New Republic and on his blog.  The cause of its death?  The Apple iPad, of course.

To Carr, the iPad represents a new era of personal computing, where users access the vast database of the Internet and all the media of the past, rather than using their computers primarily for software like Word.  The new computers are “portable, flexible, always connected.”

Although I was starting to think my college education was almost useless (practically speaking), it turns out that a few key ideas from the field of media studies can help understand Carr’s article.

Most strikingly, the declaration of the PC’s death – though it makes for a great article title – may not be entirely accurate.  When TV came along, it made filmmakers uneasy about their industry; by some accounts, the book should have perished by now.  Granted, Carr is talking about two forms of a particular technology, but the general point is that we should be hesitant to proclaim sharp breaks and total replacements (the media-studies term is “supercession”) rather than examining the ways in which old and new forms of media interact with and adapt to each other.  Maybe we’ll get tired of constantly being wired to the Internet (emails alerts ringing, Skype windows popping up) and desire a simple device where we can work, uninterrupted, on things like art and writing.

The same applies to the view of the computer as the ultimate multimedia device, “absorb[ing] the traditional products of media—songs, TV shows, movies, games, the printed word.”  It may be able to transmit all the entertainment we could ever want, but it can’t mimic the social experiences and cultural traditions of watching TV, going to the movie theatre, or reading a book.

But one of the most important points that Carr makes – a point that’s been made about journalism as well – is that periods of transition create instability and confusion, a jumbled mass of solutions to questions like “What’s the future of computing?”  Carr cites Acer and Asus netbooks, e-readers like Kindle and Nook, and smartphones like the iPhone and Nexus One.  “In some ways,” he writes, “personal computing has returned to the ferment of its earliest days, when the market was fragmented among lots of contending companies, operating systems, and technical standards.”

Well, good.  To figure out a solution – or, at least, the current path to take – we need lots of options.  We need to try things out, and see how they work, how they fit into our lives, how they shape our experiences and interactions.  If the iPad emerges victorious, then maybe we can start talking about the death of old PC’s.  Maybe.

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