October 28th, 2007


The Knowledge Navigator arrives

It's 1997. I'm a proto-Nathan Barley prancing around Clerkenwell in a Carhart camo jacket, military cargo pants and Converse shoes. Slung over my shoulder is my fluorescent yellow "digital bag", which contains a Nokia 9000 Communicator -- a QWERTY-keyboard-equipped cellular telephone capable of surfing the web, but with excruciating slowness -- a Panasonic PV-DC 1000 digital camera (which takes 320 x 240 snaps at maximum resolution, causing me to focus on big, bold, clear shapes) and an Apple Newton Messagepad 130.

It's on gadgets like these -- and London rent, of course -- that I've frittered away my Kahimi Karie royalties. Lots of them. The Apple Newton is particularly useless, or, I should say, exhibits the worst use-to-exchange value ratio. It costs me £600 and does pretty much nothing. I enter a few addresses on it, send a fax, doodle on the touch-screen, then prop it on my shelf as a tech-curiosity-cum-paperweight. A year or so later I give it to my ex-wife Shazna, who wants to prop it on her shelf instead, or perhaps use it as a slimline doorstop. The Knowledge Navigator (proposed by Apple in a 1987 video) this ain't.

I thought about these clunky 1997 gadgets when I got my iPod Touch in New York a couple of weeks ago. I was shopping for a digital camera, and happened to be in J&R Computer World when the first bag of iPod Touches arrived. It seemed like destiny, so I bought one -- the first they'd sold in the store, but surely not the last. Gadgethead friends in Tokyo had, it soon became apparent, made the same impulse buy. Jean Snow started formatting his page in iPod Touch-readable format (slightly annoying, since I'd rather see his page in its normal format, even on an iPod Touch screen), and Digiki declared the machine "overall, one of the best pieces of technology I have ever owned".

It was Roddy Schrock who showed me my first iPhone, at a dance performance in Berlin just before I left for the US. I knew I'd never get one -- cellphones, for me, are hellphones. I also hate iPods, and have never been even remotely tempted to buy one. But, as Digiki points out, the iPod Touch is "not an iPod, ie a digital audio player with additional photo/video capacities, it’s a completely new platform, already open to many an experiment via an easy to install hack, and soon with an official development kit".

This is very much the point. The iPod Touch is a small tablet computer that puts Google in your pocket wherever you are. Google is perhaps the biggest breakthrough in human knowledge since the Delphic Oracle, so the ability to have it with you at all times is pretty incredible. What's more, you can usually access the web via your Touch on whichever continent you find yourself, without the need for a contract with one of the robber barons of our time, the mobile telecoms companies. All you need is a prospector's nose for open wifi (something I've become very good at divining, I have to say). Not an iPod, then, more a mini-internet tablet; the ideal amalgam of that Nokia Communicator and Apple Newton I spent ridiculous sums of money on ten years ago.

It's true the iPod Touch lacks a camera (its big brother the iPhone has one). True too it lacks the Newton's handwriting recognition. But once you've hacked the system with iJailbreak you can install tons of interesting and useful software, from a scribble pad to Oblique Strategies. Who knows, maybe there'll even be a way to run Skype (and RealPlayer) on the Touch one day, and it can become a telephone and a radio without contracts or license fees. In that sense it's the perfect "mean machine" -- connectivity on the go for poor people who don't want to pay fees. One lean, mean slab of elegant digital power.

I've already used my Touch to play the backing music for a live show in New York and to navigate the streets of Wedding on a trek around a series of art openings. I've run Google Maps on it, and zoomed right down my Berlin chimney from high up in space. It's a great conversation piece at parties, but I doubt it's going to be a doorstop any time soon. Everyone I've met these last two weeks wants one the moment they touch it (and the re-discovery of tactility is one of its greatest assets: this machine lets you "feel" the digital world with the tips of your fingers). The only danger I can see is that suddenly there's nowhere non-digital any more. But even that's not really an issue: there's always someplace without an open wifi signal -- a sign that you should get back to the delights of the real world: eating, chatting, sex, smelling, touching, dancing, sweating, walking around.