When all roads lead to Chrome

God, is there any genre more tedious than the historical counterfactual?

By and large, they’ve been obsessions of the Right, beloved of big beasts such as historian Niall Ferguson and, yes, Newt Gingrich. That they overwhelmingly conjure up a world in which the Nazis won the war – or, in Gingrich’s works, where the Confederacy won the Civil War – tells you all you need to know (as does the rule-proving exception of Harris’ Fatherland, in which post-Holocaust Nazi Europe recedes into the dun background of a murder mystery). Counterfactuals seem to have started appearing because, while the Right appeared to win much of the twentieth century, many Rightists are convinced they lost it, in the cultural field at least. Now that the forward march of the Left appears to have been permanently halted, we may well find ourselves taking more interest in the possibilities of a world where the worst never happened. One could suggest that The West Wing is a minor example of the genre, depicting the challenges faced by both Clinton and Bush as handled by a principled liberal. Counterfactuals usually fail because they cannot generate the realness of the real, the thinginess and thereness of the world. Reality has buried within it the rhetorical proposition that things could not be otherwise.

Sometimes, however, objects will drop through the charged field, and give you a sharp impression of how things could have been otherwise.

Thus it was two weeks before Christmas, when your correspondent’s travelling laptop died beyond all saving – specifically, its wires having been exposed for months, it caught fire behind the screen. With the prices already jacked up for Christmas, I had been hoping I could run the old one, an HP Nothing that I’d bought at Tesco, until the January sales. Though I kept it for a couple of days, trying one last time to turn it off and back on again, it was obviously gone. So I decided to buy the cheapest possible working unit as a stopgap.

That turned out to be a Google Chromebook, a standard-looking laptop with 16GB flash memory and no hard drive but a superfast system, up and running within two seconds of switch-on, connecting instantly to the wifi signal. And, of course, the Google Chrome operating system pre-installed – or really just sort of there.

I’d had some vague misgivings about signing on with Google, but the next model up – from that libertarian-anarchist outfit, Windows – was an extra $200. I thought I’d get the Chromebook, install Firefox and OpenOffice and bypass Google altogether.

Yeah, not so much. There may be ways to do all that, but they weren’t apparent. Google Chrome supplies the OS and the word-processing (via Google docs, so you are essentially working online) and Google Play for media and so on. The environment is a total one, the entire system bound within the Google world.

That is a stunning thing, really, because it reminds us what could have been. From the development of the ARPAnet and other nets in the 70s, to the internet in the 80s and the web coming out of CERN in the 90s, our internet environment has been created by the willingness of key people, at several points, not to copyright their innovations. That was an expression of the collective academic/intellectual culture from which they came … and it could have gone otherwise. The US system will patent anything, and so patents could have been applied to everything from the web’s html language to the protocol by which one computer connects to another.

Had that occurred, we would live in – and be accustomed to – a pre-enclosed and subdivided net, one in which major networks used entirely different systems for global interconnection, with each offering a series of available websites. Crossing between the systems might have become regularised by now but there would be no guarantee that any of it would be cost-free or easy – remember back when transferring a word file from PC to Mac was a wayward alchemical process?

Of course, in the counterfactual the net would never have developed as it has, because it took a system of total openness to encourage things like Wikipedia. Instead, the net would have been much more like the ‘information superhighway’ that Clinton and Gore had spoken of, back when the world wide web was still half a dozen sites at CERN.

The Chromebook is a taste of what that world would have been like, a counterfactual in a box. After no more than a couple of weeks, I was already comfortable and relaxed about the totality of the working environment – signing in with my Gmail password, working online, and using the ‘incognito’ button, which presumably flags my secret searches when they are sent further down the line.

This was all happening through December, as the further revelations from the Edward Snowden documents rolled into the media. Essentially I was typing directly into the NSA. It’s not a situation I intend to continue for long but it is disconcerting how beguiling it was.

Furthermore, this totalitarian system – private control of the interface, plugged into state control of the system – is only made visible by the fact that everything’s running on a laptop, which is recognisably a working computer, the type that was once wholly self-enclosed.

But that doesn’t apply to tablets, of course, which are for already for the most part bonded systems – and which people accept as such. They are to be stocked with apps, to be sure, but the connection to an open and neutral environment is one step further away. To get an open system tablet – one where you can easily install and work off different systems – you have to go all the way up to a Windows Surface Pro, as expensive as a computer in its own right and so defeating the purpose.

As tablets replace laptops – with, perhaps, stylus handwriting replacing the keyboard – the idea of an open system desktop will be forgotten. And this will be occurring as the complementary principle, that of net neutrality, comes under increased attack. The track we’re running on will culminate with us connecting through bonded tablets to an ‘inner-net’ – a sort of city-centre of paid, fast running applications, with independent sites exiled to a figurative ‘outernet’ of slower-connecting sites, slower running ISPs, etc etc. At some point, Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest will be all but total and separate environments.

Interestingly, most people who might be expected to care about such matters have made rather less fuss than might be expected about the total environment offered by tablets. Tablets are simply too cool, too sexy and too seductive to people who like culture and want it close to hand.

That makes the Chromebook a harbinger rather than a counterfactual. To turn it into the latter will require a turn towards the concerns we collectively abandoned two or three iterations of the technology ago – debates about who controls the networks and the interfaces, and how it would be possible to maintain autonomous connection within them. I’ll be dumping the Chromebook – but not before I’ve finished my magnum opus The Golden Age, in which, after a last minute coup, Ralph Willis wins the 1996 election …

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. It may be overreaching to speak of tablets replacing laptops. I suspect that as long as people find it convenient to work at desks, the 15” laptop computer or something like it has a future. It’s just small enough to be portable, and just large enough that typing is comfortable and you can have a couple of documents open on the screen at once and still be readable. (I don’t deny that a lot of ‘serious work’ gets done on tablets, but it’s in the nature of work that it frequently demands more real estate than is available on a tablet screen.)

    The walled-garden nature of the ChromeBook is an outcome of Google’s business model, which is all about squeezing advertising revenue out of cloud-based services where they can track your habits. So it’s all about tying you to their apps, where Apple will tie you to their hardware and Microsoft to their operating system architecture. On those platforms, I suspect much further infringement on users’ control of their data, or what software they can install, would rapidly meet a consumer backlash.

    Meanwhile, the move toward ‘bound’ systems on tablets and smartphones may be as much about defending against malware as it is about overt control. The essence of these devices much more than PCs is always-on communication via a smorgasbord of online services, so any such device is a huge target for malicious attack. So vendors’ motives here aren’t clear-cut. But the problem for the Apples of this world is that when you appoint yourself gatekeeper over what apps are permitted on the platform – whether it’s for the good of consumers or from ulterior motives – you’ll be taken to implicitly endorse anything that is let through the gate. This isn’t great for the freedom of the platform, but having as a consumer to fight an ongoing war against malware, spyware, data theft and data loss could be worse.

    Really, the whole question of ‘bound platforms’ versus ‘free platforms’ comes down to asking what we find valuable about IT and the internet in the first place. It’s kind of like the evolution of broadcast media from the days when people would build their own crystal sets and amateur transmitters, to today’s radios and TVs which are literally black boxes. The real concern of most people with IT is about control of their data, and IT vendors haven’t exactly been paragons of virtue here. But if we could once again be assured of full control over our data, need we be concerned that we don’t control the platform itself, as long as it meets our needs?

  2. On counterfactual novels: My own favourite is Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, another (the first?) Nazis won WW2, but typically Dickian, with its interest in small-time everyday people. Kim Stanley Roboinson’s Years of Rice and Salt imagines that capitalism developed first in the east, as the black death in this imagined version has wiped out most of Europe. I liked the idea more than the reality. Both were coming from the Left, though.

  3. On counterfactual novels: My own favourite is Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, another (the first?) Nazis won WW2, but typically Dickian, with its interest in small-time everyday people. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt imagines that capitalism developed first in the east, as the black death in this imagined version has wiped out most of Europe. I liked the idea more than the reality. Both were coming from the Left, though.

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