Like a lot of people in my generation, I am system administrator for my parents. That’s okay – I’ve been one in real life, so I don’t mind it very much, and I try to think of it as a learning opportunity. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to update my father’s computer, a Mac Mini, and it was instructive in unexpected ways.
Most experienced systems admins will tell you they abide religiously by several inviolable rules, one of which is: upgrade applications when necessary; operating systems, rarely. The problem with an OS upgrade is that it often changes how people work with their computers, not just in one application, but across the board. Throw in a random number of incompatibilities and surprise, forced upgrades in both peripherals and utility software, and you have a predictable nightmare. Yet sometimes, pain is necessary, and I knew that upgrading my dad’s Mac Mini was going to mean a move to Mountain Lion. I read John Siracusa’s review and got ready.
I keep system privileges for myself, and it was after I created his “standard” user account that I found myself surprised. When you create a new user in 10.8 and open up the finder, you get a very simple menu. In the left hand panel, “All Files” will show you a flattened view of your account; there are the customary folders for “Music”, “Pictures”, and “Movies”; plus “Documents” and “Downloads”. Snarkily, I didn’t expect to find “Books”, and it wasn’t there.
But nothing else was there either. The root of the user file system was absent as a navigation point, and if I wanted to create a new directory at the user account’s root, there was no out of the box way of doing that – I could only create new folders via the Finder interface within the extant Apple-created and privileged ones. In order to create new root level folders, I was forced to “opt-in” the display of the new account’s file directory by adding an explicit pointer to my Dad’s /home, or to the system hard drive itself. Apple doesn’t make that difficult – it is just not obvious to a new user.
That’s an amazing thing, because it means that most people will simply work within the folders that they have when they start up their machines. Apple is slowly but determinedly shifting our understanding of how to work with computers to match the most common interaction we have with them – phones and tablets that work primarily through touch interfaces. Reaching into a contemporary mobile’s underlying file system is very difficult. In Apple’s iOS, users access movies, music, and pictures where the applications place them. If you purchase content through iTunes, then iTunes is the parent and takes care of it. You don’t create your own Pixies music file folder on your phone, but you are free to create a “Playlist” within iTunes. Within Apple’s OS X, the Applications folder has long been privileged; now this blessedness is being bestowed on other folders. Nor is Apple alone in this: Microsoft is pursuing the same trend of owning more of the user’s file experience, and Google’s Android is also typical of mobile operating systems in hiding the underlying file structure.
As Siracusa notes in his 10.8 review, the combination of powerful desktop operating system services with the interface designs of portable devices makes traditional computers simpler to use, particularly if people are willing to live within the walled garden of a chosen vertically-integrated vendor, such as Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Amazon is trying hard, for now, to be a friend to all comers – placing Kindle and streaming apps on as many platforms as possible, although they are continually assessing potential markets for Kindle tablets and possibly phones. Increasing vendor control of computers means that Users can stop being their own librarian and archivist, and let their applications take care of file management. Apple’s App Store and iTunes will keep track of things – don’t worry.
But this has really huge ramifications for books, as well as movies and music. When we purchase books through Kindle, iBooks, or Google Play, we are acquiring a license to download and access a file – usually in an EPUB or Kindle format, but sometimes as a binary app. Yet we cede the management of those files to the vendor’s content management system. If you asked people to find the physical file of the movie “Farewell, My Queen”, or the book “Bring up the Bodies”, they wouldn’t know where to begin — and probably wouldn’t even know what you were talking about. People think of movies and books as icons they click on, not as files they can manage as the owners of computers and phones.
When we accede this transfer of control, we cede part of our ownership over books, music, and movies to technology companies that are controlling an increasing degree of our digital and networked lives. They write our license agreements, provide and manage the content, and in exchange promise to make our enjoyment of it as rich as possible. But we begin to forget that we have also lost something very significant that we formerly possessed with print books, DVDs, and CDs – we owned the media itself, enjoyed it in the privacy of our homes, yet also bore the responsibility of managing it.
This transition in the management of media ultimately makes provisioning digital content through libraries a kludge. It’s a kludge that an increasing number of responsible librarians are turning away from. It is possible that a clever mechanism for leveraging libraries could come into the market, and thus it may be worth keeping a hand in ebooks for now. But libraries should not fool themselves: the world in which they thrived is passing out of their hands, and through the hands of all of us, to others. There are good reasons for this to be so; there are better reasons why we would do well to bear in mind all we are losing.