The Tablet “Productivity” Problem

“Consumption”, Reading, Utilitarianism, and Human Flourishing

February 25, 2015Filed under techMarkdown source

I’m thinking this one through out loud. I rather hope that I can take these nascent thoughts and turn them into a more fully-fledged essay over the course of this year, so if you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Hit me up on Twitter, ADN, or via email. In the meantime… consider this a rough draft of a larger idea I’m working out.

I saw a post by internet acquaintance Jason Irwin (@matigo on ADN) yesterday about how he doesn’t find tablets especially compelling. There were quite a few things he said in the piece that did not resonate with me (and even a few suspicions I think are out and out incorrect), but generally on technology things like this I simply say: to each his own. So what follows is not so much a response to Jason’s post as some thoughts inspired by it.

Jason hit on a meme that’s been extremely common about tablets in general and iPads in particular: that you cannot do real work on them, only “consumption”. What is meant, nearly always, in such discussions, is that it is harder to write, develop software, and other keyboard-intensive activities using an iPad than a traditional laptop or desktop form factor. This is certainly true of those activities. Even of a few other activities Jason mentions, iPads do very well.1 But there is another, more important issue here.

We (quite readonably) tend to define productivity poorly in terms of output. In that sense, there are many categories for which the iPad is not as capable as a laptop. It is true, for example, that I do not do a lot of writing or software development on my iPad (a retina Mini)—I’ll start drafts of blog posts (part of this was dictated on my iPhone!), and occasionally log into and do administrative work on a server via SSH using an iPad client. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable device for me, though. It simply means that “valuable” and “productive” are not synonyms.

Less helpfully, however, we also tends to define “value” in terms of “productivity”. People say that iPads are not valuable to them because they do not specifically allow them to be productive in the sense outlined above… but then, there are a great many valuable things that are not producing content. I use my iPad daily for a wide array of things, and find it enormously preferable to a laptop for nearly all of them. True, many of them are “consumptive”—but since when did that become a bad thing?

I recognize that the answer may seem obvious against the backdrop of a consumerist culture against which many an anti-consumerism critique has rightly been levied. But think about what we mean by “consumption” in this case. Nearly every day I use my iPad both for reading and for displaying (and for learning) music. To be sure, I also watch the occasional YouTube video, interact on Twitter and, and so on. But the vast majority of what I do with an iPad is best summed up as learning.2 Whether it is reading through a few carefully selected RSS feeds in Unread, reading the news in Circa,3 working through reading for school in iBooks,4 perusing the EmberJS docs in preparation for a major project I’ll be starting with the tool in a few months, or reading the Bible every morning, I do a lot of reading on my iPad. Add in the fact that I use it for music as I practice piano, and I get an awful lot of mileage out of it every day.

Now, none of this negates Jason’s post in particular. If he doesn’t get that kind of traction out of an iPad, that’s no skin off my back. But I do think that the criticism of devices which are primarily “consumptive”—perhaps implied in Jason’s post; certainly stated outright in many other responses to the iPad—is misplaced. Whether simply for entertainment (joy in the arts is good!) or in reading (joy in the arts or in self-betterment is good!) or in the myriad other ways that people put the iPad5 to use that are not making something new, there is value in the kinds of consumption done with it.

Are there valid critiques to be offered of tablets, including that certain kinds of consumptive habits are problematic? Of course. But reducing things to their productive utility is ethically flawed, and reducing human pursuits to their productive output even more so. It is just fine if @matigo isn’t the sort of guy who loves an iPad. It is not fine if tech pundits want to slam the iPad and other tablets because they have a misanthropic view of human flourishing—and make no mistake, the utilitarian calculus so often levied against tablets is just that. People are more than what they make; their time is valuable even (and sometimes especially) when not producing anything tangible at all.

  1. Notably, his point about keyboards that differ for different applications has been addressed quite thoroughly in that market! Most music apps ship with music-oriented interfaces, not traditional QUERTY-style keyboards.

  2. Yes, in theory I could do that on another, less expensive device—but I had a Nexus 7 and nothing I have seen about Android tablets since then convinces me the Android tablet ecosystem has meaningfully improved in the last couple years. The experience factor in using things really does matter to me, and iOS gives me an enormously better experience in every category, even with its foibles and flaws, and nowhere more so than in the massively better app ecosystem.

  3. An app my friend Stephen Carradini and I like so much that we did a whole episode of Winning Slowly on it!

  4. I like ePUB way better than Kindle’s proprietary, and haven’t gotten around to finding a replacement for Readmill yet.

  5. And yes, with plenty of other tablets, too! If you’re a Microsoft Surface person, that’s splendid as well.