Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why is an iPod like a Model T Ford?

By Gene Rochlin

As I mentioned in my previous blog (Beware of Geeks bearing Grifts), Apple seems to have greatly reduced its online support for the iPod. Several online bloggers have suggested that, in retrospect, the purpose of the iPod was not only to capture the earphone-music market, and to promote the development and growth of iTunes. It also opened up the market for smart mobile phones, namely the iPhone, which has now expanded to take over the iTunes market as well. That is, it is a product who purpose was to create new markets for the manufacturer.

Has this ever happened before in America? Is there at least a vaguely similar prefiguration? In its earliest days, the automobile was affordable only by the privileged few. And the suppoting infrastructure was almost completely lacking. When Henry Ford created the mass-produced Model T and sold it a a price that made the automobile accessible to workers and farmers, he created the automobile market as we know it today. And that growing market eventually created demands for better roads and better highways. With the increasing density of usage, governments were called upon in turn to create such other infrastructure as speed limits, traffic police, and traffic controls such as the stoplight. What evolved was a complex socio-technical system, built around the individual use of the motor car.

Anyone who has gone through the history of the automobile as a system, not just an artifact, can see similarities between the growth and promotion of the car-road-highway system and that of the computer-network-internet one. Among the many similarities is the way in which extensive social change was promoted as nothing but beneficial, with the benefits pre-counted and the possible social and political costs played down. Critics were dismissed as romantics and Luddites. In the meanwhile, the barons who owned and ran the auto industry reaped incredible profits and created for themselves a particular life style that set them above and outside the lives of the consumers whose interests they claimed to be promoting. Sound familiar?

The Model T and Model A were manufactured for years without major changes. Over time the automobile industry learned how to market with style and color, and wrap itself in the magic cloak of planned obsolescence. Once that was done through body design and occasional new engines or transmissions. The General Motors Futurama exhibit of the 1939 World’s Fair extended the reach of the industry into the infrastructure, cities were to be reconfigured and recreated around the new automobile. Sound even more familiar? It should.

But there is more. One thing the tech industry has managed to do that the auto companies could never master was to actually make your present product not just outdated, but obsolete, in the sense of becoming increasingly incompatible with the system as it evolved. I confess to having bought an early model of Apple’s Powerbook, only to be told a couple of years later that it could not run the new Apple operating system, and was now worthless junk. After years of pretty stable use, my Windows XP system has now been declared not only obsolete but dangerous (no more security updates). And some programs, including some well-known and popular ones, have changed their data format so that old versions of the program have to be dumped and replaced to read the new files at all, under any operating system - if they can be run at all. And Apple is shortening the iPhone product obsolescence cycle to a degree no auto company could ever have matched (although they tried, in the 1950s).

But the matter of planned obsolescence is trivial compared to the possible social upheavals that are imminent under the new regime of interconnectedness. Self-driving cars? What could ever go wrong when they are zipping down the highway at intervals much shorter than allowed with human drivers? Apps that turn traffic lights green ahead of you as you drive through town at night, with no other cars on the road? What of pedestrians in crosswalks? Will every pedestrian require a red light app? Internet payment schemes that deprive states and local governments of sales taxes? Just an extension of what is going on now with Amazon PayPal and others

I am not exactly a neo-Luddite. I worked on computers before the first integrated circuit was designed. I have wired ferrite cores, programmed a mainframe on a flying ball typewriter, and was once fluent in Unix and Vi (♥). Now I am forced to stay on a perpetual learning curve as a requirement, not an option. There is, in sociology, a concept called the “knowledge burden.” I am not only bearing it, I feel like Sisyphus.