On Technical Freedom and Crybaby Journalism

“Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

We’ve all seen a lot of discussion about technical freedom lately as it relates to Apple, and it’s too bad that the arguments are, by insinuation, couched in the framework of political and personal freedom. Perhaps the most famous political statement about freedom comes from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Mr. Franklin was talking about people, governments and cowardice.

Of course, if you can couch the Apple argument on your own terms by a subtle shift in context, you’ve already won the argument. That’s why the two sides of this argument seem irreconcilable: each side has its philosophical basis from which the ensuing logic flows. It’s hard to beat the logic if you accept the opponent’s underlying context.

Personal and political freedom have nothing to do with Apple and its products, something I’ll get into in a minute. Even personal freedom, carried to extremes, without discipline can be dangerous. Example:

I’m walking down a main street near the edge of Baghdad’s Green Zone. I have two Marines with automatic weapons and 40 mm grenande launchers escorting me. On a whim, I take an interest in an alleyway, and start to head towards it. One of the Marines tugs on my sleeve. “You really don’t want to go down that alley. Trust me.”

I scream at him, “You’re taking away my freedom! What are you, a control freak?”

Complete freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Who would want a police officer to have complete freedom? Sometimes those officers who believe they have complete freedom will Tazer a college student just for being unruly. We expect police officers to give up complete freedom for the sake of their responsibilities and professionalism.

The examples I’ve just given remind us that complete freedom, even on a personal and political level require perspective and discipline. That’s why I like Nietzsche’s quote at the top of this essay.

Apple and Freedom

Apple makes decisions about what’s best for its own customers based on a boatload of experience. Technical journalists, however, have a different agenda, and we must remember that.

I haven’t read a single article at any publication that has delved into what’s best for Apple customers. Instead, it’s all about me, me, me. Of course a few of those journalists believe that they are technically qualified to deal with the intricacies of their smartphones. If something goes wrong, they probably feel that their clout as writers combined with their experience working with high tech consumer products will get them out of their fix.

That kind of perspective is completely useless at Apple. Apple’s executives, managers, and engineers understand that the vast majority of their customers neither understand nor want to know anything about Objective-C, Cocoa Touch, or OpenGL ES. Those customers just want their phone to work, ring when a call comes in, and not incessantly drop a call. Smartphones add a lot of nice utilities, and those utilities should be reliable, secure, and respectful of the user’s privacy. That’s because the Digital Wallet is coming.

There’s another layer of context here, and that’s perceptions. Because most Apple customers are not deeply technical, nor can they just get on-line and blast Apple in an editorial, they have to deal with Apple, Apple customer support, and muddle through. The simpler the iPhone is to use and maintain, the happier the customer will be. That’s why the iPhone doesn’t come with one of those infamous Japanese user manuals: 300 pages of fine print that weighs more than the phone. Perceptions of simplicity, implying reliability, are the hallmark of Apple marketing.

Perceptions come into play as well with porn. The average Apple iPhone customer doesn’t know how to gauge how dangerous a porn app might be because they don’t have access to or an understanding of the source code. All they know is that their son is looking at porn, and they fear the worst coming from a predatory industry that also promotes other things that turn out bad for customers: be it fast food companies, shady home lenders or banks.

Journalists want to couch the argument based on their freedom and their technical ability to deal with the fallout from their actions. However, that’s a totally unrealistic approach for Apple engineering and marketing to take. It’s not the customer experience Apple is known for, and it’s no way to make money in an industry that that’s still in a Wild, Wild West phase.

Apple is a now a very successful company. It got there by understanding customer needs and perceptions. The Apple retail stores are a classic example of that understanding of what customers need and how they expect products to be presented to them. If Apple wanted to promote complete undisciplined buyer freedom, they would have modelled their stores on the (now defunct) CompUSA retail stores.

The Politics of Bitterness and Professionalism

When I was interviewed by German TV (ZDF) recently, the subject came up of political satire on the iPhone and the Pulitzer prize winning author, Mark Fiore, whose app was originally denied by Apple. The larger issue of the prudish and Victorian approach to sex in America came up and how Apple seemingly caves to Big Money interests by allowing, say, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Challenge but denies other erotic apps by small time developers. Here’s how I answered.

The call on all this has to do with judgment and professionalism. Sports Illustrated has a long history with its annual swimsuit issue, and no one (well hardly anyone) would suggest that the content constitutes even soft porn. The women, while scantily clad, are presented in a tasteful way by a professional, responsible organization. SI has earned the right to be on the iPhone.

The same cannot be said for every blogger, wannabe journalist, or developer who hasn’t demonstrated professionalism and responsibility. Whether the bitter, freedom-at-any-cost, developers like it or not, larger, more seasoned organizations know the limits. They understand the Nietzsche quote above. They’ve earned the right to be in the public’s eye. Not everyone else has.

Lots of small time bloggers and developers, however, believe that just because they can publish, they don’t have any responsibilities for their freedom whatsoever. And so the bitching carries on endlessly.

As in the case of Mark Fiore, his Pulitzer prize is a public acknowledgment that while his lampooning is sharp, his professionalism is commensurate. Not everyone meets that standard in Apple’s judgment. It’s not the first time, gasp, that a corporation in America has demanded judgment, discipline, and professionalism from its partners.

Back to the Freedom Fighters

I’ve argued here that all the kerfuffle surrounding Apple’s control over content on its phone is not related to the larger politics of personal, political freedom. If you want to fight that particular war, there are other venues.

I’ve argued that that Apple’s agenda for its customers is far different that the agenda of tech journalists who want to make a splash and conjure up lots of hits for their own sake. The Me generation.

Finally, I’ve argued that Apple has the right as a corporation to demand taste and professionalism from its partners, that is, developers, for the sake of the perceptions of Apple customers.

In that context, the obsession with absolute freedom and chaos plus the demand that Apple see all things the way some journalists demand that Apple see them just doesn’t make business sense. I don’t expect Apple to change its tune anytime soon, despite the bitching on the Internet. In any case, most of that fuss is unseen or disregarded by ordinary Apple customers who give their hard-earned money to Apple.