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2012 Fall Issue 3 (October 5, 2012)

Urback: Walled Gardens

October 6, 2012
By Stuart Urback

The recent Apple maps app flap has gotten quite a bit of attention in the news. It represents a big company making a (actually rather small) changeto their devices with massive ramifications for its users.  For those who don’t know, Apple decided to move away from Google Maps and develop its own map service for its most recent update. However, there are an incredible number of bugs that make portions of their maps completely unusable.  If you want to see them in all their hilarity, head towards http://theamazingios6maps.tumblr.com/.   

I’d be willing to bet that most people who upgrade to iOS 6 and the new system are hardly ever affected by these errors and that most people who actually use Maps have successfully navigated their way around the world.  The reason, I think, the maps debacle became such a huge issue has to do with the notion of the walled garden. 

In the 21st century, how users experience products became incredibly important.  Apple championed the notion that in order to provide the optimal user experience, they must acutely control and regulate as much of the product as possible.  As a result Apple has strict guidelines for what type of programs are and aren’t allowed.  No one can deny the massive success Apple has seen as a result and I’m not going to get into the potential cultural ramifications (there are many).  Rather, I would like to use this as a point of comparison.

Carleton, in many ways, runs itself like a walled garden; in exchange for our freedom, many of our decisions are made for us.  We are given guidance, structure, and order in order to move through what can be an incredibly challenging time in our lives.  This is incredibly helpful; it’s sort of what college is about.  But there are other areas where the walled garden feels a bit more restricting than comforting.  Take Carleton’s housing policy.  The goal as a “residential college” is to put as much of the student body on campus as possible because it creates a more communal environment.  To me, this feels a lot like Apple’s walled garden.  IPhone users make an agreement with Apple allowing it to choose the types of programs they have access to, but in exchange they will get a range of excellent programs they know will work.

I’d like to add a caveat before I go further.  I am not arguing for or against Carleton’s residential campus policy.  I am a huge fan of Apple’s products and the comparison is not supposed to be completely negative.  It is certainly nice to have people on call when  the plumbing leaks or the doors don’t close properly.  Rather, I’d like to argue that a “residential campus” is not all benefit, that there are in fact significant downsides. 

We often phrase downsides in terms of the food and living expenses, the frustration of not being able to live in exactly the spaces we want with exactly the people we want.  I actually think there is another significant piece that gets forgotten.  When a college takes it upon itself to control that much of a student’s experience, they are asking a significant amount of trust from that student.  This means every minor bump, nuisance, or missing feature (a la Apple Maps) will be magnified. 

These issues get magnified not because they are necessarily that important in the grand scheme of things, but because that missing feature represents a little bit of trust that the student lost in the College.  When Apple failed on its maps, it failed to reward the trust its users put in the iPhone (that they wouldn’t have to worry about technical stuff, that the phone would “just work”).  Similarly, when Carleton’s dining halls and residential halls don’t support students the way they feel they deserve, it’s not just the dining halls that come into question, it’s the trust that the whole system needs to function properly.

It’s not an easy choice.  Apple’s walled garden is certainly easier to use than Google’s Android.  On the other hand, when something goes wrong on Android I don’t have to wait for Google to fix it.  When Carleton’s walled garden lets us down, those walls start to look a little less like protection and a lot more like barriers.

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