This article appeared in today’s SMH!

Taking a bite out of Apple’s vision

DAMON YOUNG

May 18, 2010

In our bedroom is a sleek white box. ”Designed,” I read, ”by Apple in California.” It’s decorated with crisp phrases and lively pictures. The computer within is built with sheets of elegant, unbroken aluminium. The operating system ”just works”, it claims. It’s all seamless.

We also see this in iPad advertisements: someone rapidly, effortlessly moving from email to photos and movies with the flick of a finger – again, all seamless. It’s a vision of an integrated, hiccup-free life, glossed by polished plastic, buffed metal and nice white boxes. It’s entrancing.

But I remind myself: there’s a dark side to this speck-free gleam, which Apple fans ignore. Most obviously, Apple is unhealthily obsessive about its image.

The company recently prodded the US talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres to apologise for making fun of the iPhone on her show. She’d poked fun at the gadget, and herself, as she fumbled with fingers too big for the onscreen buttons.

”Think differently,” the Apple ads once told us. Just as long as you don’t say what you’re thinking, it seems. Like fundamentalists everywhere, Apple can’t laugh at itself.

Apple is similarly serious about its secrets. An Apple employee was recently sacked for showing an iPad to Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple but no longer works for the company. He briefly saw the device only hours before it was officially launched. Not a big deal, according to Apple chief executive Steve Jobs – but the engineer was still fired.

Of course Apple deserves its hi-tech hush-hush. But in its recent swag of lawsuits, secrecy and criminal charges, the company suddenly looks like the Big Brother it once attacked in its advertising: gunning for aesthetic, corporate and technological control.

The new iPad is a product of this philosophy. Sold on the promise of easy freedom and adaptability, it’s engineered to be inflexible. It runs countless applications and probably with speed and panache – but only if the programs are approved by Apple. Want music? iTunes. Want a book? iBook. The company can also remove or disable applications remotely, without consulting users. As Frederic Filloux put it in The Washington Post: ”With the iPad structure, Apple is creating absolute control for product, delivery and even ownership that can be revoked at will.”

In this, Apple is just doing what most multinationals try to do everywhere: the restriction of options and possibilities, in the service of market share. It’s not tyranny, or I couldn’t freely write this. But it is something tyrannies encourage. It’s why folks are worried about Apple’s proprietary bookshop, Amazon’s book-snatching Kindle and Google’s country-specific search restrictions: they’re exercises in corporate control.

The point is not that digital technology or corporations are one-dimensionally evil. Instead, it reveals the dangers of our own weakness for seamlessness: it can be enslaving, not emancipating. It can tempt us to buy, and buy into, myths of aesthetic or technological perfection, rather than questioning their contribution to human flourishing.

Despite aspirations of magic and mastery, I suspect Steve Jobs won’t have it all his way. Neither will Bill Gates, or the rest of their small cadre of market warlords.

At the heart of this will be a conscious refusal of integrated, automatic, proprietary perfection. Some will hack their iPads, installing their own programs or patches. Others will simply grow up and recognise the shallowness of fan loyalty to a fickle brand. Another opposition will be legal: anti-trust laws against smug monopoly.

There is also the ”back to basics” movement, resisting digital seduction, for what’s manual, unorthodox or unfashionable. If older tools are inefficient, they can also be cheaper, simpler, more flexible. And they can encourage craft, rather than deference to remotely controllable, pre-programmed routines. For wireless portability and creativity, a $10 fountain pen can be a better investment than a $1000 iPad.

All in all, Apple still makes robust, fast, beautiful computers. But the technology is only as liberating as I am liberated. And, shock horror: Apple won’t design this for me in California.

Damon Young is a philosopher and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free.