5 July 2010

Extracts from “iPhone Four” by George Orwell

Winston woke up inside 101 Infinite Loop.

“I told you,” said O’Brien, “that if we met again it would be here.”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien picked up an iPad from the table, and brushed his fingers over the screen. Without any warning except a slight movement of O’Brien’s hand, a wave of pain flooded Winston’s body. He grimaced, and tried to remain silent.

After a few moments O’Brien moved his hand again, and the pain receded almost as quickly as it had come. He turned the iPad screen towards Winston. It showed a set of candy-colored sliders, and a selection of buttons, but Winston was unable to make out the text.

“That was forty,” remarked O’Brien. “It goes up to one hundred. Please remember: if I need to inflict pain on you at any moment and to any degree I choose, there’s an app for that.”

“Yes,” said Winston.

“I’m running a lie detector app on my iPhone. If lie to me or attempt to prevaricate in any way, you will cry out with pain, instantly.”

O’Brien resettled his spectacles thoughtfully.

“You know perfectly well what is the matter with you, Winston,” he said. “You are deranged. You suffer from defective perceptions and memory. Fortunately, it is curable. Now, we will consider an example. Some months ago you had a very serious delusion indeed. You believed that three men, three one-time fanboys named Brian Lam, Jason Chen and Joel Johnson–men who were arrested for treachery and theft after making the fullest possible confessions–were not guilty of the crimes they were charged with. You believed you had seen documentary evidence that they had not themselves stolen an iPhone prototype. You further believed they had returned it to Apple. You even believed that you had seen this iPhone 4 prototype, in a photograph something like this.”

A printout of a web page had appeared between O’Brien’s fingers. For perhaps five seconds, it was within Winston’s vision. There was no question of its identity, he could even make out the word “Gizmodo” at the top of the page.

“It exists!” he cried.

“No,” said O’Brien.

He stepped across the room and lifted the grating on the memory hole. The printout whirled away on a current of warm air and vanished in a flash of flame.

“Ashes. Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.”

“But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory! I remember it! You remember it!”

“I do not remember it,” said O’Brien. He looked down at Winston, like a teacher looking down at a wayward but promising child. “There is an Apple slogan dealing with control,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.”

“‘Who controls the present controls the future. Who controls the app store controls the present,‘” repeated Winston obediently.

“This ‘present’, does it exist?” asked O’Brien.

“Yes,” said Winston. “I see it right now.”

“And do you doubt that we control it?”

“But how can you control the present?”

“You have not controlled it. That is what brought you here. You failed in humility, in self-discipline. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of Apple, which is collective and immortal. Whatever Apple holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of Apple. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.”

He paused for a few moments, to allow what he had been saying to sink in.

“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that I get no signal’?”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien held up his iPhone 4 by one corner, its face towards Winston.

“How many bars of signal am I getting, Winston?”

Winston squinted slightly. “Four.”

“Perhaps I will make a call,” said O’Brien. He moved his hand to grasp the iPhone as if about to dial a number with his right hand, then showed the screen to Winston again. “How many bars now?”

“None.”

“And if Apple says that it is a software error, and that I have four bars of signal still–then how many?”

“None.”

The word ended in a gasp of pain. O’Brien had brushed his right hand over the iPad screen. Sweat sprung out of Winston’s body, and the air tore at his lungs. He groaned deeply. O’Brien watched him, and slid his fingers down the screen again. The pain was slightly eased.

“How many bars, Winston?”

“None.”

The slider went up to sixty.

“How many bars, Winston?”

“None. None! What else can I say? None!”

The slider must have been moved higher, but Winston did not look at it. The screen of the iPhone seemed to vibrate and blur in front of his eyes.

“How many bars, Winston?”

“Four! Four! Four!”

“No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think that there are none. How many bars, please?”

“Four! Five! None! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!”

“Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see four, or really to see them?”

“Really to see them.”

Perhaps the slider was at eighty or ninety. Winston could not entirely remember why the pain was happening. A screensaver of bars seemed to be floating across the face of the iPhone, dancing and whirling. He was trying to count them, he could not remember why. He only knew that it was impossible to count them accurately, and that this was due to some mysterious software problem.

“How many bars of signal am I getting, Winston?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Four? Five? Can it show six? In all honesty I don’t know.”

“Better,” said O’Brien.

Abruptly Winston lost consciousness.

  • * *“You have read Sergey Brin’s book, or parts of it, at least. Did it tell you anything you did not know already?”

“You have read it?” asked Winston.

“I wrote it,” said O’Brien. “That is to say, I collaborated in writing it.”

“Is it true, what it says?”

“The developer program it sets forth is nonsense. The developers will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million. They cannot. I do not have to tell you the reason: you know it already. The rule of Apple is forever. Make that the starting point of your thoughts.”

He came closer to the bed. “You understand well enough how Apple maintains its power over developers. Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power? Go on, speak,” he added as Winston remained silent.

“You… you are ruling over us for our own good,” he said feebly. “You believe that users and developers are not fit to govern themselves and choose for themselves, and therefore–”

He started and almost cried out. A pang of pain had shot through his body.

“That was stupid, Winston, stupid. Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. Apple seeks power over developers for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. We don’t make much money from the app store, we are not interested in the money: only power, pure power. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a user interface revolution; one makes the user interface revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of power is power.”

He turned away from the bed and began strolling up and down.

“You know the Apple slogan: ‘Freedom is Slavery’. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is Freedom. Freedom from viruses. Freedom from poor choices. Alone, a developer’s business may be doomed. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can submit his business to Apple, if he can merge himself in Apple so that he is Apple, then he is all-powerful and immortal. And you must also realize that power over human beings is power over the market.”

“But how can you control the market?” Winston burst out. “You don’t control the climate or the law of gravity…”

O’Brien silenced him with a wave of his hand. “We control the market because we control the minds of the users. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing we cannot do. I could sync my music to my phone via WiFi right now if I wished to. I do not wish to, because Apple does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth century ideas about the laws of market economics. Apple makes the laws of the market.”

“You can’t!” said Winston weakly.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It is impossible to found a platform based on control and repression. It will never endure.”

“Why not?”

“It will have no vitality. It will disintegrate. It will commit suicide.”

“Nonsense. You are imagining that there is something called human nature that will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Fanboys are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the developers will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, addicted to their sales royalties.”

“Android will defeat you.”

O’Brien sighed. From somewhere in his desk he removed an Android phone. He held it towards Winston.

“This is an Android phone. It is the last one. Its kind is extinct, we are the victors. See it as it is.”

Winston paused, frightened. The clunky plastic case held a low resolution screen. It showed a set of unfamiliar icons.

“Look at it,” said O’Brien. “Look at these ugly physical buttons. Look at the icons, they aren’t even all the same style. There are multiple menus. It looks old fashioned.”

“You did it!” sobbed Winston. “Your user interface copyrights and patent lawsuits keep it in this state!”

“No, Winston, you did it. This is what you accepted when you set yourself against Apple. It was all contained in that first act.”

  • * *The Apple store was almost empty. A ray of sunlight fell on gleaming table tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A faint tinny music leaked from the iPod headphones.

Winston sat at the corner of the Genius Bar, watching the telescreens. At present music and ads were showing, but tomorrow there might be a special bulletin from WWDC. A violent emotion, a sort of undifferentiated excitement, flared up in him and then faded again. These days he could never fix his mind on any one subject for more than a few moments at a time.

The Genius walked back holding a small box. “Looks like they changed the battery. And it only took a few days to do.”

Winston took out his wallet and removed his credit card. He stared at it, then looked up at the telescreens, which were displaying a picture of Steve Jobs. It always seems to take a few days, he thought with some sort of cloudy mysticism. Always, without exception, it was so arranged, no matter how trivial the problem. Even changing a battery.

Julia walked into the Apple Store. She was dressed in fangirl uniform again, even the black turtleneck. Once again she was wearing her sash of the Junior Anti-Sex-App League. She walked up to the Genius Bar, and took an iPhone 4 out of her purse. The back of its casing had shattered.

“It was my fault,” she explained unnecessarily. “I was stupid, I dropped it.”

Winston turned his attention back to the telescreens. The stern yet friendly face of Jobs stared back down at him, full of calm power. It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. Winston had won the victory over himself. He loved Steve Jobs.

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