Technology and morality

The New Republic recently carried an interesting article about Apple (the full text may be available via Readability). The piece started out as a review of the Steve Jobs biography (ho hum), but soon diverged into a discussion of the morality of design. It helped me to crystallize some thoughts.

There’s a famous anecdote about how Steve Jobs spent weeks making his family discuss what they wanted from their washing machine.

Jobs’s meticulous unpacking of the values embedded in different washing machines, and his insistence on comparing them to the values he wanted to live by, would be applauded by moralistic philosophers of technology from Heidegger to Ellul, though it may be a rather arduous way of getting on with life. But Jobs understood the central point that philosophers of technology had tried (and failed) to impart: that technology embodies morality.

Emphasis mine. Technology may be morally neutral in the abstract, but when we make technology choices, we are making moral choices, either because of the details of how the technology is made, or because the technology filters moral possibilities.

The problem was that Jobs, while perfectly capable of interrogating technology and asking all the right questions about its impact on our lives, blatantly refused to do so when it came to his own products. He may have been the ultimate philosopher of the washing machine, but he offered little in the way of critical thinking about the values embedded in the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPad. When he discussed his own products, he switched from philosophical reflection on the effects of consumer choices to his Bauhaus mode of the vatic designer.

I would put it this way: Towards the end of his life, Jobs took his passion for product design in the autocratic and paternalistic mode, and applied it to everything about the products he oversaw.

“Steve believed it was our job to teach people aesthetics, to teach people what they should like,” [one of his ex-girlfriends] said.

This is the real reason why the App Store exists. This is why iOS is locked down, and why the Mac is being moved to an App Store model. Sure, the revenue stream is welcome, but it’s really about paternalistic control.

“It just works”—Jobs’s signature promise at product launches—was soothing to a nation excited and addled and traumatized by technology. Nothing could go wrong: Apple had thought of everything. The technology would work as advertised; it was under total control; it would not get hacked.

This is the new Apple philosophy. Sacrifice control to paternalistic Apple, and you can relax. The benevolent leader will teach you what to like and what not to like, keep you safe from danger and ugliness. The fact that this philosophy is utterly opposed to the values expressed in so much Apple advertising is remarkable, and shows how cunning and slick their advertising and marketing people really are.

People fall for it, too. I know many self-professed libertarians who believe in absolute freedom of speech and say that they trust nobody to be a censor, but who nevertheless line up to buy iPhones and iPads and give Apple control over what software they can run on their phone, what books and magazines they can read on their tablet, even how they are allowed to arrange app icons. (Try removing Newsstand from your iPad.) Business travelers with iPads complain all the time about being forced to submit to the TSA when they take a plane flight, but what is the App Store if not the TSA of software?

Some iOS users engage in doublethink, recasting their lack of “freedom to” as a positive “freedom from”. (“Sure, I’m not free to download a wifi scanner… but I’m free from viruses!”) It’s true, all apps have metaphorically gone through the scanner and had a minimum-wage drone check their boarding pass, and you can be sure they aren’t carrying bottles of water that compete with the drinks sold by the gate, but that’s not how real security works.

Some iOS device owners ease their sense of guilt by rooting the device, ignoring that they’ve already cast a powerful vote for loss of freedom by buying it. Most, however, seem content to live in cognitive dissonance, apologetically pointing out that Apple hasn’t been that bad a dictator, and has mostly not eliminated competing services. I mean, yes, they’ve forced other magazine and book sellers to move their stores to web only to escape Apple control, but so far they haven’t blocked those web sites, so it’s OK, right?

Which brings us to the web. Criticize the lack of freedom represented by the iOS devices, and before long you’ll likely be told that it’s simply not a problem, because there’s a web browser. Sure, Apple says no porn on the iPad, but you can get porn on the web via Safari so somehow there’s no censorship occurring. But people are pointing out that Apple’s ‘app economy’ is increasingly threatening the web itself. Apple (and other corporate entities like Amazon) are managing to mold the web to be what they want it to be. And that doesn’t appear to be what I want it to be.

[...] Jobs outright rejected the possibility that there may be a multiplicity of irreconcilable views as to what the Web is and what it should be. For him, it is only a “direct-to-customer distribution channel.” In other words, Jobs believed that the Web is nothing more than an efficient shopping mall, and he proceeded to build his business around what he believed to be the Web’s essence.

Some people even claim that the web is dead, and that as we move into a post-PC era of tablets and phones as the primary Internet access devices, the web will be replaced by apps. And freedom will be replaced with complete corporate control.

Our choice is between erecting a virtual Portland or sleepwalking into a virtual Dallas. But Apple under Steve Jobs consistently refused to recognize that there is something valuable to the Web that it may be destroying.

A virtual Dallas, a prospect that will make every Austin web developer shudder.

So I now realize that this is where I parted company with Apple. When the Jobsian paternalism was restricted to matters of hardware design, I mostly appreciated it. I wish my laptop had a replaceable battery and anti-reflective screen, but mostly I’m happy with what I was told I should like—the large trackpad, the solid metal casing, and so on.

But when the paternalism was extended to books and movies and video games and applications, and when it started to threaten the web—well, that was several steps too far.

Everyone says they love freedom, and that freedom is important. But as the cliché says, “freedom isn’t free”. Freedom means ugliness. Freedom means danger. Freedom means complexity. Apple, in a stroke of marketing genius, offers you freedom from those things. And by accompanying that promise with images of freethinkers and a ‘think different’ message, it manages to make you overlook the fact that what you are really doing is giving up your freedom, and financially rewarding the very entity you are giving it up to.

So what’s the alternative? Well, sadly you won’t find a mobile platform with a rich ecosystem that doesn’t require ceding some control to others. Many people have said to me “Well, since that’s the case, what’s the point? I might as well go with the best.” But I’m not an absolutist; I don’t believe in the idea that if you can’t be perfect, you might as well not try. Rather, when it’s time to make a choice, I’ll choose the imperfect option that’s better.

Even Google, with its naïve technocratic ethos, is more committed to questioning the impact that it is having on the Internet and the world at large. They fund a bevy of academic and policy initiatives; they have recently launched a Berlin-based think tank dedicated to exploring the social impact of the Internet; they even started a quarterly magazine. [...] Apple, by contrast, holds itself above the fray. It seems to believe that such discussions of meanings and consequences do not matter, because it is in the design business, and so its primary relationship is with the user, not with the society.

And then there are things like the Data Liberation Front, AOSP, and the periodic table of open APIs. You can even run Android devices without Google, pretty much. Try using a new iPad without an Apple ID.

So until something better comes along, I’m going with Android for my phone and tablet needs. Freedom is too important. Google might not be perfect, but in the specific area of mobile platforms, they are a lot better than Apple.

Reflections on Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

It’s Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, and as the festivities continue, predictably there are lots of well-meaning people saying that we should all put our pens and pencils down and not offend all those awfully nice Muslim folks.

An article at Huffington Post suggests that Muslims are being singled out, and that black religious extremists would never be ridiculed. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Black Panthers parodied in numerous movies. Maybe Everybody Draw Mohammed Day makes peaceful Muslims angry, but we wouldn’t have the day if it wasn’t for the non-peaceful Muslims, so maybe it would be more productive to focus anger on the cause of the issue, rather than the reaction to it.

It may superficially seem like a good idea to refrain from drawing pictures of Mohammed in order to avoid offending all the nice Muslims out there. However, it’s equally sensible to refrain from depicting sex, in order to avoid offending all the nice Christians out there. We should definitely stop mocking the Pope’s mis-steps over sexual abuse by priests, to avoid offending the nice Catholics. It makes just as much sense to avoid any nudity, in order to avoid offending all the nice Mormons out there. Let’s not forget the atheists either–let’s avoid drawing crosses or Jesus fish, let alone wearing them. We’ll need to get rid of beef and depictions of beef dishes, in case we offend all the nice Hindus, and get rid of images of pigs which nice Muslims also find offensive enough to complain about. Public displays of affection are offensive to people in many countries, so we’d best put an end to wedding photographs of the bride and groom kissing, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone…

Getting the picture? As soon as you start self-censoring because of the passive-aggressive demands of someone who is offended by mere images, there’s no end to it. The right answer, and the only answer which preserves essential freedom of speech, is to tell people that if they find the sight of something offensive, they are welcome to stop looking at it.

This isn’t a rule that only applies when I’m offending other people. I’ve received well-meaning e-mail encouraging me to whine at Discovery Channel to cancel Sarah Palin’s TV show, or to complain to advertisers and ask them to stop supporting Glenn Beck. I find both Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin offensive and insulting, but since I don’t have to watch either of them, I’ve learned to get over it. I’m not being “punished” by the continued existence of Fox News, and you’re not being “punished” if I draw a crude picture of Mohammed.

Now, if you want to argue that I shouldn’t deliberately post pictures of Mohammed on Muslim discussion forums, or print out posters and stick them on the wall of the nearest Mosque, well that is a more reasonable request. But total self-censorship to avoid the possibility of offending others? Not workable. Too many people get offended by too many things. In fact, if you can go an entire day without being offended by something, I think there may be something wrong with you.

If you don’t want to see a picture of Mohammed, don’t click the appropriate web links. If you think you might be offended by South Park, don’t watch it. If you think everyone should wear magic temple underwear at all times, don’t go to the local swimming pool. And since I don’t want to watch Sarah Palin shooting wolves from a helicopter, I’ll skip her show. OK?

Maybe nanny doesn’t know best?

Joel Johnson, Gizmodo, 2010-02-03:

It’s taken me a couple of days for me to understand the wet sickness I felt in response to all the post-iPad whining, until it finally came up in a sputtering lump: disgust.

The iPad isn’t a threat to anything except the success of inferior products. [...]

This noxious attitude has permeated our tech culture for the last couple of decades, from a half-decade of open-source devotees crying about Microsoft on Slashdot, on toward the last few years of Apple ascendency. It’s childish. It’s defeatist. And it shows a simultaneous fear to actually innovate and improve while spilling gallons of capitulative semen to a fatuous, dystopian cuckold wank-mare. [...]

Apple is selling a product. They’ve chosen to keep it closed for demonstrably reasonable benefits. And—yes, okay!—several collateral benefits that come from controlling the marketplace that services their products.

Three weeks later, Joel Johnson, Gizmodo, 2010-02-23:

If you need another example of why the iTunes App Store’s walled garden is flawed, Apple has been only too happy to oblige, capriciously and arbitrarily removing an unknown number of “sexy” apps without warning. [...]

With a closed ecosystem comes a lot of responsibility. Apple has taken on the heavy mantle of arbiter, ostensibly to manage quality. I can forgive them for that, even if I don’t like it. But the only reason to ban blue apps is taste. And if these apps were a matter of taste, why were they approved in the first place? What will the next set of apps be that Apple decides are inappropriate long after people have spent hundreds of hours creating and marketing them? [...]

Apple has made a declaration: that sex and sexuality are shameful, even for adults. But only sometimes. And only when people complain.

Unfortunately, they’ve accomplished the opposite. The only thing I’m ashamed of is Apple.

Looks like Joel Johnson was fine when Apple was blocking things he didn’t care about, like open source software and apps he didn’t use; but when they started blocking stuff he cared about, like jiggling boobs, suddenly he started to have second thoughts.

He still doesn’t quite get it, though: He still likes having nanny tell him what he can run on his phone “to manage quality”; he just wants nanny to make only decisions that he agrees with. Good luck with that.

Horses and stable doors

I hear that Eli Lilly are attempting to censor the Internet. Their target is an archive called “ZyprexaKills”, a tar file compressed with gzip containing leaked internal Eli Lilly documents relating to their antipsychotic drug Zyprexa.

As well as going after people who provide the file for download, Eli Lilly have been filing DMCA complaints against people who link to sites that have the file for download, or merely provide instructions on how to find it. The EFF are defending such sites.

Those who know me well will recall that I have a character flaw: if someone tells me I shouldn’t be allowed to read something or watch something, I immediately develop an overwhelming urge to do so.

In this case, I find myself somewhat conflicted. A lot of the anti-Zyprexa people appear to be anti-psychiatry crackpots, and I imagine the Church of Scientology has an interest somewhere; but on the other hand, it seems that Eli Lilly promoted unapproved use of their drug, engaged in a decade-long attempt to downplay its risks, and settled with 28,500 people for $1.2 billion rather than risk going to court to defend charges that the drug led to diabetes and other illnesses.

So although I’m a great believer in the healing power of psychiatric drugs, I also think this is a case where the public has a right—a need, even—to know the facts.

If you’re interested, a quick web search will turn up sources for the Zyprexa documents; I’m sure you don’t need me to spell out the procedure. Eli Lilly are going to discover that trying to remove the file from the Internet is rather like trying to remove the pee from a swimming pool.