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.

Steve Jobs: dissenting voices

As a followup to my posting about Steve Jobs, some links to other people bucking the hagiographic trend.

First of all, David Streitfield of the New York Times points out that Steve Jobs was never one to let tact stand in the way of criticism. Mike Daisey of the New York Times points out that Apple ultimately became the very thing its 1984 commercial railed against. Richard Stallman says it in more bluntly Jobsian terms:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Eric S Raymond predictably has no problem with Apple’s use of sweatshop labor, saying that the Chinese workers are free to stop working any time. Curiously, he fails to note that Apple are also free not to use sweatshop labor.

Randall Stross writes that Steve Jobs was very like Edison, while Vaclav Smil of The American writes that Steve Jobs was no Edison. Given that Edison had an infamously bad temper, stole inventions from other people, used the patent system to prevent competition, and engaged in fearmongering about competing products’ safety, I think Jobs was entirely too much like Edison.

The UK’s Daily Mail takes a similar tack, pointing out that Jobs was no Einstein. The LA Times points out that Steve Jobs was no fan of free speech or freedom of the press.

And finally, The Onion tries to add a touch of perspective.

Steve Jobs

At the risk of sounding like a Mac hipster, I was a Mac user before it became fashionable. For 20+ years I’ve used Macs, even staying with the company during the 1990s when it looked like Apple was about to collapse. In the house at the moment are four iPods, two Macs, an AppleTV, and an iPad. You might think that I would be joining in with the collective outpourings of grief.

The problem is, I don’t do religion, and I don’t support teams. I tend to be, as Ambrose Bierce put it, “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” So I have mixed feelings about Steve Jobs.

He’s credited with inventing the personal computer, in the form of the Apple II. But it was always crazily overpriced in the UK, as a matter of Apple policy, and I only ever knew one person who had one. I had a TRS-80; lots of people had Commodore machines. Later, everyone had a Sinclair ZX-81 or Spectrum, or a BBC Micro. The Commodore PET pre-dated the Apple II, and it was Chuck Peddle of Commodore who gave us the beautiful 6502 processor that so many early personal computers — including Apple’s — relied on. And a great many Apple II machines were sold not for use as personal computers, but to act as dedicated boxes for running Visicalc, the first spreadsheet.

Yes, the Macintosh is why we aren’t all running DOS. But again, it was crazily overpriced in the UK until the 90s, and only businesses had them. Everyone else had an Amiga, an Atari ST, or a DOS PC. Inventing the personal computer was good, but I’m much more grateful to Jack Tramiel for selling me better hardware at less than a quarter of the price. The Mac also wasn’t Jobs’ project — Jobs gave us the Lisa, which failed, then grabbed the Mac project later on.

The NeXT machine was an amazing piece of design. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell it was never sold outside the US; I’m not sure how Tim Berners-Lee got his. One of the exciting things about visiting the US in 1990 was actually getting to see a NeXT. I’ve always had a suspicion that its failure was in large part due to practically nobody in Europe being able to buy them or develop software for them.

Yes, Steve Jobs saved Apple. But largely, I think, via the force of his reality distortion field. The iMac, often viewed as his first stroke of brilliance, was in progress before his return. The “investment” by Microsoft was of no importance to Apple’s finances, and was actually an out-of-court settlement to end a legal case Microsoft was about to lose.

Yes, the iPhone was his baby. But he made the same disastrous go-it-alone decision that had been made with the Mac, dooming it to inevitable niche status. And then he compounded the error by locking it down, driving away many of the hackers who loved the Mac, myself included. I’m also bitter about his decision to absorb Newton, Inc and kill the company and its products, rather than let them stand or fall on their own merits.

It was no real surprise that Jobs wanted the iPhone and iPad to be closed consumer appliances. He wanted the Mac to be the same way. The ability to buy more RAM for your Mac is not the way Steve wanted it. He didn’t want the iPhone to have an SDK or third-party applications either.

Sure, Steve Jobs he had a singular vision for good product design. But he often took minimalism too far, removing buttons from the iPod, making the iPad speaker point the wrong way, making batteries non-replaceable for the sake of a millimeter less thickness, and giving us that godawful circular mouse.

Jobs was a self-made billionaire, not a silver-spoon trust fund baby like Gates. That counts for something. But, and here we get to the big ‘but’… Steve Jobs was kind of a dick. He famously cheated Woz out of his share of a bonus while developing Breakout. He had an illegitimate child, denied paternity by lying to the court that he was infertile, and then married someone else and had three kids. He cut all Apple’s philanthropy programs, and kept them cut even after the company started making record profits again. He flouted the law by refusing to put a license plate on his car, and routinely parked it in handicapped spaces.

His management style was infamously abrasive. His standard response to any great new idea was to tell you it was stupid, wait a few days, then propose it as if he had thought of it. He would scream obscenities during meetings.

Some would no doubt say that you need to be an asshole to be brilliant or to be successful in business. I don’t buy it. I’ve met high level executives who are ruthlessly business-focused without being dicks; I’ve met geniuses who are humble. For a while, Steve Jobs was the single thing keeping me from wanting to work at Apple.

But Jobs’ force of personality, his so-called Reality Distortion Field, somehow made other people overlook his mistakes and terrible behavior. I never bought into it, which is why when he decided he wanted the right to tell me what software I was allowed to run on Apple hardware, I refused to cross that line. And it’s why I sit here with mixed feelings about the man. I actually hope that with the cult leader gone, people might start to apply a little more objectivity when examining Apple’s products and business practices.

iDiocy

Metasploit on the iPhone:

Every process runs as root. MobileSafari, MobileMail, even the Calculator, all run with full root privileges. Any security flaw in any iPhone application can lead to a complete system compromise.

I really thought Apple had better software developers than that. I guess that explains Steve Jobs’ comments about it being impossible to provide a 3rd party SDK safely.

Yeah, if you made the incredibly dumb decision to have no security whatsoever in your mobile OS, then it’s impossible to support 3rd party applications safely.

More to the point, as soon as someone finds a security hole in Safari or Mail, that’s it—they will be able to pwn the entire system. I’d place bets that someone will find such a bug, sooner or later; and then we’ll see iPhone viruses and trojans spreading by e-mail or web.

iPhone

I’m an iPhone skeptic. While I appreciate good UI design considerably more than the average person, a good UI alone is not enough to make me accept a crippled and overpriced product.

At WWDC today, Steve Jobs has announced that the third party SDK for the iPhone is…make all your applications web applications, and access them from the Safari browser. Which means the user has to pay network bandwidth charges to run the application, and can’t make or receive any calls while it’s running. And of course, no service means your applications all stop working.

So basically, the iPhone is a closed platform, a very pretty but underpowered cellphone. It’s not a smartphone. It lacks even the capabilities of many low-end handsets offered by GSM networks, but it’s going to be sold at a premium price.

Let’s see how it compares with my current 2-year-old phone, for example:

Feature iPhone My phone
Address book Yes Yes
Calendar Yes Yes
Sync with Mac Yes Yes
Camera Yes Yes
Web browser Yes Yes
Google maps Yes Yes
E-mail Yes Yes
Weather Yes Yes
Photos of incoming callers Yes Yes
Instant messaging Yes Yes
Play MP3, AAC audio Yes Yes
Play MP4 movie Yes Yes
Familiar telephone keypad No Yes
3rd party applications No Yes
Java No Yes
Fits in jeans pocket No Yes
Price $599 $99

To me, that’s a hell of a tough sell.

You may point out that my tiny phone’s screen isn’t great for browsing the web, but that’s just tradeoff I made because I like a phone that’s truly pocketable. If you prefer a big screen, you can get a Blackberry or Treo for $150 or less. Right now, Cingular has refurb 8525 devices for $99.

I prefer the hybrid solution: pair a small phone with my Nokia N800, and browse the web at triple the resolution of the iPhone. You can get an N800 plus a small Bluetooth phone and you’ve still saved $200 over buying an iPhone.

In addition, most of today’s phones take SD cards for memory expansion. I can dump movies onto a 4GB SD card and stick it in the Nokia. If I need more space, I’ve got a couple of extra 1GB cards floating around. What happens when you use up all the memory in your iPhone? You’re stuck, there’s no expansion option.

If the iPhone was $99, or even $199 at the most, I might be interested. At $599, it ought to sell like the similarly-priced PlayStation 3. It’s the most overpriced Apple product since the Mac Cube. (Which I loved the design of, but didn’t buy because it was overpriced.) It’s the most overhyped since the first Newton.

Oh, I’m sure Apple will sell some. I mean, the Motorola RAZR sucked, but plenty of people had to have it because it looked so cool. But then, the RAZR wasn’t $600…