Dongle prisons, or how iPods pull society apart

On an American Airlines flight inbound to Chicago, light fading as wings shredded fog outside, we noticed about 80 passengers in various stages of reading, typing on laptops, punching numbers into smart phones (should be off? oh never mind), listening to Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, little screens glowing everywhere … and it occurred to us: We have entered a world of dongle prisons.

A dongle, as futurist Jaron Lanier explains on page 109 of “You Are Not a Gadget,” is a proprietary mechanical device that acts as a key to make software or content work. Think of the CueCat in the 1990s (a pen-like scanner that allowed early web users to tap magazine ads for more online information), or more recently Kindles or Google Droid phones (complete with hard key for booting Google Search) — all are gadgets meant to lure you into content prisons. “Prison” may be a harsh word, but the strategy is obvious: The aggregators who profit off the sale of information (Apple with iTunes, Google with search sponsored links, Amazon with print or electronic books) can only thrive if they convince you to become chained to their systems and avoid competitors. To lock you in, they convince you to buy a shiny piece of glass that unlocks their content. Lanier notes that all such material — music, ebooks, search results — really is just bits that could conceivably be accessed from any device with a headphone jack and screen, but “dongles” create the illusion of artificial scarcity. Laugh at CDs and vinyl records all you want, technologists: The iPod in your pocket is just as antiquated a delivery device, cleverly designed to limit access.

Societal costs

Attempts to build “sticky portals” are nothing new, but the proliferation of new dongles tied to content ecosystems is starting to cause rifts in how the Internet, and society, function. Trouble is, by limiting access to content, such devices create incentives for consumers to create self-centered feedback systems that in turn polarize society. Do you read the entire daily newspaper anymore, or just RSS feeds and blogs from people who think like you? Do you watch straight-up news, or a cable channel that leans in your political direction? Tech gadgets are bifurcating Western culture. We are building self-service walls, of political opinions or content tailored only to your specific needs that draw you into extremes of mental behavior at odds with your neighbor next door. No one wants the middle anymore; CNN is plummeting in the ratings as liberal MSNBC and conservative Fox News lap viewers up. The desensitization of consumers by free, limitless content means they require ever stronger stimulants; the fluid access of online tools makes it simple to find the content that bolsters preconceived prejudices; this hunger and access in turn drives polarization of content, as the producers of video, news and writing find that extremism builds audiences that might, with the proper dongle device, be tied down to pay.

More is splintering here than the Internet, as Josh Bernoff suggested: content portals are fragmenting society into isolated islands filled with groupthink opinions. The great irony of our age is that in the rush to build mass audiences, the economic winners are instead creating clans who want only to believe what they want, and ignore other opinions. Perhaps this is the next evolution in humans, a division of the gene pool guided not by speciation to survive the elements but by minds trying to weather the storms of too much content. We see macro shifts with the Taliban fighting Western culture; we see national shifts as the Tea Party and Democrats accuse each other of radicalism; we see relational shifts as moms, dads, and children get pulled into different gadget-fed virtual worlds personalized to their demos, insulating family members from each other.

Until we figure it out, plug in your earphones, and enjoy that dongle in your hand.

Image: Swami Stream

4 thoughts on “Dongle prisons, or how iPods pull society apart

  1. Great, thoughtful post. It’s so rare to see anyone writing anything against the stream of computer gadget and social media “Boosterism.”

    What are we plugged into, anyway? What is so important about that text message that it can’t wait until after your dinner with friends?

    What are we learning on Twitter that we couldn’t learn from reading a book?

    The greatest human need of the next couple of decades will be to figure out a way to unplug – not get plugged.

    You’re right to be concerned.

  2. Thanks, Michael. I’m toying with the idea that technology is accelerating narcissism, which in turn pulls individuals or likeminded clans away from others in society. It’s not that technology is bad; it’s the temptation to serve ourselves only materials that reinforce our fears and prejudices.

    I could be wrong, but Glenn Beck did make a lot of money last year.

  3. Thoughtful and thought provoking.

    I work in a Mac shop, and we have countless issues traveling to client sites. We maintain a “togo” bag of the necessary dongles, but somehow we still encounter issues through human error. Wouldn’t it be nice if our vendors helped insulate us from ourselves by designing for interoperability without dongles….of course, there’s good business reasons not to, which is a shame.

    I also agree that filtering the media we consume to be self-reinforcing keeps us from learning and insulates us from the moderating effects of discourse from folks with other opinions.

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