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.