Archive for January, 2010

iPad iBad: A Backward Step for Software Freedom

Thursday 28 January 2010

Yesterday Apple announced their latest technological offering – the iPad – which is something between a phone, a laptop and an e-reader. Like all Apple products it looks extremely slick and shiny, and will certainly be popular with Apple enthusiasts, probably overtaking Amazon’s Kindle e-reader before too long.

As someone who enjoys reading (very slowly) and travels quite a bit, never quite knowing which country is really our home, the idea of having all our books on an e-reader -type device is quite appealing (especially with ever-increasingly airline luggage fees). In principle I like the idea of being able to read content – books, magazine, blogs… from a tablet, which is specialised for reading.

However, the problem with the iPad is a frustratingly familiar one when it comes to Apple’s business model. Everything is controlled by DRM, or Digital Rights Management – which basically means that even after you buy the device, and any content, Apple still controls exactly what you can and can’t do with the device and content.

Image: theregister.co.uk

The same thing happened with DRM music from the iTunes store, which has only recently become DRM-free (following years of criticism, and competition from DRM-free Amazon). My friend Andrew posted a link to this concise summary of the issue a couple of years ago:

Image: xkcd.com

Lifehacker has this to say about DRM in the iPad:

What’s dangerous about the iPad is that it’s much closer to a “real” computer than the iPhone is. If you dock it with the keyboard accessory, it really is just a laptop, probably powered somewhere along the lines of a MacBook Air. And yet this is a computer over which you have absolutely no control. And the question is: If we all continue to buy Apple’s locked-down products hand-over-fist (Jobs went so far as to talk about Apple as a mobile device company yesterday), what reason does Apple have not to keep moving forward with that model—a model that, to many, is defective by design.

Apple’s saying to consumers: “Trade in choice for a guarantee that this will work exactly as we designed it to, and you’ll never be upset with a computer again.” Unfortunately there’s no reason to believe the trade is necessary. At the very best, it seems like Apple’s extreme and obsessive control over what you’re allowed to run on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch is maybe delaying the point at which your software demands outpace the hardware, but even that’s is debatable. With the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, you’re trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises. read more

As I said before I love the concept of electronic e-readers, the problem is in the proprietary software and media formats. When you buy a book you read it, lend it, and keep it on your bookshelf to read again or just browse through in 20 years time. If it’s really good it might inspire someone else in 50 years.

DRM media is designed for you to read now. You can’t lend it to someone else. You can’t even transfer it to another device that you own. If you upgrade to a different device made by another company, you lose your content. And there’s no guarantee that your proprietary format will be readable in 5 years, let alone 50.

If the iPad follows the iPod, Apple will make billions from selling the iPad to Apple enthusiasts and others who like its slick appearance, other companies will produce their own versions, and then eventually everyone will agree on a format that can be played and transferred between any device. While not entirely open and transparent, the mp3 format for music functions in this way to a great extent – once you buy an MP3 player and music you can do what you like with them, provided you don’t break copyright rules.

The iPad is the latest fashion in our culture of instant gratification and short-term thinking. I’ll be waiting for an open source version where I know what I’m buying, and I know that the device and content belongs to me and isn’t still owned and controlled by a multi-billion dollar company.

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Onesimus Online

Thursday 21 January 2010

I have a new favourite blog to follow: Onesimus Online, written by William Black, a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.

William is originally from North America, but is a strong critic of the arrogance of western theologians in assuming that Europe and North America has all the answers about God. Here’s a great explanation from a recent post about why a western perspective of the Bible isn’t sufficient for Africa

So thorough is the westernization of my African students that they don’t seem to notice that all of their education, all of their theology, all of their assumptions, can be traced to the efforts of well-meaning western missionaries. These missionaries came (and sometimes still come) with an assumed posture of superiority, namely that they are here to ‘help’ these Africans escape their darkness and get saved like us. Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely, that our sin makes us guilty before God and deserving of his condemnation and wrath. Christ resolves our problem by becoming our sin on the cross, bearing our punishment and thus freeing us from the penalty of the law. We are no longer under condemnation, but are accepted into fellowship with God, with the end result that we will go to heaven and not to hell.

This is standard fare for Western Evangelicals and their predecessors. And while a solid case may be made from the New Testament that this is indeed an aspect of our salvation, our polemical stance against the perceived ‘works righteousness’ of Roman Catholics has meant that this becomes increasingly, by over-emphasis, the only aspect of our salvation, or certainly the most important, and certainly what is preached from Sunday to Sunday.

The problem is that Africans on their own don’t perceive that their main problem before God is their compromised legal status. So in order to get them to understand ‘the gospel’ – or at least our Western understanding of the gospel – we missionaries must first teach them about God’s law and what sin is and what Christ has done to satisfy God’s law. Once they understand these things, then they are in a position to ‘accept Christ as their personal Savior’ and be forgiven. To this end, evangelists urge congregations to respond to the ‘free’ grace of God in Christ so that their sins may be forgiven and they be reconciled to God.

Again, this sounds so normal to our Western Evangelical ears that we may be immediately suspicious of anyone that seems to have a problem with it. But as mentioned above, most of my African friends don’t first and foremost worry about their legal standing before God. Rather, they are far more concerned about demons which seem to afflict every aspect of their lives, they are concerned about people who manipulate spiritual power for good and ill in other people’s lives, they are concerned about sicknesses and barrenness, for which there seems to be no cure, they are concerned about capricious weather that makes their crops fail and their cattle die and causes them to go hungry, and they are concerned about death. The tremendous irony that I observe is that our Western gospel has come full force into Kenya (and many other African countries) through the ministries of thousands of Western missionaries, resulting in the majority of people here and in a number of other countries professing faith in Christ and testifying to having been born again. And yet this gospel does not touch those aspects of their lives that reflect their deepest needs and most profound concerns. read more

I’m looking forward to keeping up with William’s posts as he critiques western theology and hints at alternative African perspectives.The church in Europe and North America can tend to be extremely mono-cultural in its judgement of what is and isn’t a correct reading of scripture, so it’s good to look outside of our little box occasionally to get a better perspective.

Avatar: A Clash of Cultures

Wednesday 20 January 2010

After commenting on a couple of blog reviews of the new movie Avatar, I thought it was time I wrote some thoughts myself. We saw the movie in 3-D a couple of weeks ago when we were in the US, and I have to say that although the combination of science fiction and crazy computer effects doesn’t normally make me very excited, I was moderately entertained by the 3-D-ness.

The plot was fairly predictable, but what I thought was interesting was the overall message of the film, which dealt with interaction between very different cultures. Without wanting to spoil the plot for people who haven’t seen the movie, it basically looks at how two cultures, which are very different with no previous contact, interact with each other. One culture is very dominant and aggressive, always fighting its surroundings to achieve its goals, and the other is more passive and at one with its environment, content to maintain the status quo.

Some Christians have expressed concern at the way paganistic rituals are glorified in the movie, but I think this criticism actually proves the point the movie is making. It’s very easy to sit and point out faults in a very alien culture to us, when we haven’t made the effort to understand people in it, and when we’re blissfully unaware of the problems of our own culture. How many of the people who were shocked at the pagan aspects of the minority culture also complained at the greed and consumerism in the majority culture?

I think the movie is an allegory, so I wouldn’t take the details of the pagan rituals of the minority group too seriously, just as I wouldn’t take the “science” part of the movie too seriously. Both the questionable science and the questionable paganism are parts of the story, and set the stage for the overall message of the movie. While I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that holding on to a huge tree with your tail will solve all your problems, I thought the movie did very well in portraying the unseen relationships, values and wealth in so many minority societies around the world.

There are plenty of things to find fault with in the movie, but my concern is that those who criticise it are doing so for the wrong reasons. The movie doesn’t fit into a worldview of accumulating wealth, seizing opportunity and fighting against whatever or whoever stands in your way, but I don’t think that makes it a bad movie.

If you’re looking for something that reinforces this way of thinking, go and watch any other Hollywood movie. But if you’re open to thinking from a different perspective you might enjoy more than just the 3-D effects of Avatar.