Call me a romantic, but I believe in the value of hearing many voices. And I believe in the power of the Internet to help those voices be heard. Which is why censorship of iPhone applications by Apple is such a disappointment. Laura McGann writes that SFGate cartoonist Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize, but he can’t get his cartooning application approved for the iPhone. Fiore’s work is political satire–and making fun of public figures is, according to Apple, potentially defamatory, and therefore against the iPhone Terms of Service (TOS).
It’s nothing new for corporations to control what we can and can’t see. Since the invention of the printing press, that’s been the way things work. Someone owns the press. The press exists in some political jurisdiction. And both the owner of the press and the government can dictate what ideas you can and can’t disseminate. But online, there was at least a glimmer of hope that, in some jurisdictions, that might change. But not evidently if you get your information on your iPhone.
The irony here is that you can still get Fiore’s cartoons on a general-purpose website. You just won’t have a nice interface to access them. Apple’s brand stands for usability, but they’re enforcing bad usability for accessing content that won’t get past the iPhone TOS.
Also banned from the iPhone this week is the Scratch player. According to developer Andrés Monroy-Hernandez, the stated reason is that it is an interpreter. Scratch is a programming language for kids developed by Mitchel Resnick and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab. Kids can use it to make their own animations and games. Kids making cool media–what could be more in the spirit of Apple Computer, right? Evidently not. Mark Guzdial writes, “Discussion on the Scratch forums suggests that it’s because Apple wants to focus on consuming media using these devices, not producing media. Want to be truly computing literate, where you write as well as read? There’s no app for that.”
Apple wants to control the iPhone experience–make sure it’s always squeaky clean and perfect. But people aren’t stupid–they know if an app crashes your phone, it’s the app’s fault, not the phone’s. They can leap to brilliant conclusions like, “hey, I think I won’t use that app again.” If there’s something offensive, they can make better choices about what to install next time. The content of a web page viewed on your iPhone doesn’t reflect on the Apple brand–why should the content of an application be any different?
This may seem like small potatoes–a few political cartoons here, a media player there. No big deal, right? I think it’s a huge deal. Because ultimately it’s about who we are as a culture, and who gets to make value decisions that shape that culture.
Every April the Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Computing (UROC) program at Georgia Tech holds a research symposium where students show off their work. We take over the picnic area of the college’s main building, and set up live demos. When we first started in 1998, this was a herculean effort on the part of of our Technology Services Organization (TSO). Large computers and monitors were borrowed from labs. Cables were run for net access. Project requirements had to be matched to borrowed hardware. Project one needs more RAM, but project two needs the better video card…. It was complicated.
Today was our planning meeting for UROC 2010, and our loyal TSO rep showed up as always, ready to do battle. And we couldn’t find anything for him to do. Not a thing. Computers? Well, almost everyone’s project runs on their laptop. Net access? We have wireless. Here was our final technical to-do list: have some extra ethernet cables handy, in case someone wants to switch to a wired connection. That’s it.
A bit of perspective on how things have changed!