So I’ve taken a bit of ribbing for my Chromebook purchase since the PRISM leak (although it’s increasingly looking like PRISM is overstated, and other aspects not tied to providers are understated — so I guess we’re all going to stop using the internet and phone service now…). But as quirky as my little $250 Chromebook is, I think it’s reaffirmed a feeling I’ve had for a while now.
You see, your normal thin-client device nowadays (phone, tablet) approaches the world through apps. Ugh. The Chromebook is lighter than an iPad or a Galaxy Note and it gives me a full featured browser.
Why does that matter? Well, you know the whole “there’s an app for that problem” schtick? Here’s the thing — a fully featured browser can solve almost anything. Apps push you to look at problems as being “solved by products”. Browsers push you to look at problems as solved by process. And while it may seem a purely semantic distinction, I think it has a psychological reality to it that you feel pretty keenly when you switch devices.
I loved my Galaxy Tablet I had for two years, but now that I’ve replaced it with a Chromebook I feel that I lost something by carrying it around. You can’t quote Illich nowadays without being accused of misreading Illich, but it did remind me a bit of this:
Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion.
There’s a balance to be struck, of course. I’m sure many would point to the cloud-based nature of the Chromebook and its corporate intent as arguments against its conviviality, and laugh outright at putting “Google” and “convivial” in the same sentence. Fair enough. For many people conviviality means dialing up autonomy to eleven, and it’s not satisfied until you’re running Ubuntu on a home-brew laptop through a mesh network using GIMP and an Apache mod to share your photos. I get that, intellectually at least, but that’s not where my line is.
Apps, on the other hand, and the culture around them, are something I feel quite viscerally. There is almost no difference nowadays in terms of efficiency between dialing up an HTML 5 website to do most tasks and clicking an app button. But there is a huge difference in the psychological experience. Browsers empower you as a reader-participant; apps reduce you to a consumer — even when they let you participate. I’m willing to accept the other stuff (corporate, cloud-based) if it can help us get back to the original humanity of a browser-based web, and so I’m rooting for this alternate Chromebook vision of the gadget-web pretty hard right now.
Which probably means it will die, given my history with such things. But thought I’d mention it.