Why We Prize That Magical Mystery Pad

Virginia Postrel, WSJ 2011 Mar 12

When Apple introduced the iPad last year, it added a new buzzword to technology marketing. The device, it declared, was not just “revolutionary,” a tech-hype cliché, but “magical.” Skeptics rolled their eyes, and one Apple fan even started an online petition against such superstitious language.

But the company stuck with the term. When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, “People laughed at us for using the word ‘magical,’ but, you know what, it’s turned out to be magical.”

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company’s design chief, explains it this way: “When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that’s exactly what the iPad is.” Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven’t the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can’t see the circuitry or read the software code. You can’t even change the battery.

The iPad represents the final repudiation of the original iMacs that in 1998 heralded Mr. Jobs’s return to the company. With their translucent, jellybean-colored shells, those machines seemed friendly in part because consumers could see their insides. The iMacs’ “translucence celebrates those inscrutable internal components that most of us think of as black magic,” wrote the influential design theorists Katherine and Michael McCoy in a 1999 Fast Company article. Back then, the challenge was to make technological magic seem benign—white (or Bondi blue) rather than black.

A closed box offends geeks’ tinkering impulse, which demands swappable components and visible source code. But most of us aren’t looking to hack our own computers. In fact, the very characteristics that empower enthusiasts tend to frustrate and infantilize ordinary users, making them dependent on the occult knowledge of experts. The techies who so often dismiss Apple products as toys take understandable pride in their own knowledge. They go wrong in expecting everyone to share the same expertise.

Hence Mr. Ive’s second boast about the iPad’s magic: “I don’t have to change myself to fit the product. It fits me.” A capable machine makes you feel powerful even if you don’t understand it and can’t fix it. The perfect tool is invisible, an extension of the user’s own will.

With its utterly opaque yet seemingly transparent design, the iPad affirms a little-recognized fact of the supposedly “disenchanted” modern world. We are surrounded by magic. Clarke’s Law applies not just to technology from advanced alien civilizations but to the everyday components of our own. We live in a culture made rich by specialization, with enormous amounts of knowledge embedded in the most everyday of artifacts.

Even the “maker ethic” of do-it-yourself hobbyists depends on having the right ingredients and tools, from computers, lasers and video cameras to plywood, snaps and glue. Extraordinarily rare even among the most accomplished seamstresses, chefs and carpenters are those who spin their own fibers, thresh their own wheat or trim their own lumber—all once common skills. Rarer still is the Linux hacker who makes his own chips. Who among us can reproduce from scratch every component of a pencil or a pencil skirt? We don’t notice their magic—or the wonder of electricity or eyeglasses, anesthesia or aspirin—only because we’re used to them.

“Between a wish and its fulfillment there is, in magic, no gap,” wrote the anthropologist Marcel Mauss in “A General Theory of Magic.” Effortlessly, instantly, the magical alters reality with a tap of the finger or wave of the hand. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, that magic operates only in the world of bits, where metaphors rule. In the world of atoms, a new iPad won’t materialize free.