The cover story of this week’s The New Republic is a review by Evgeny Morozov of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In 10,000 words it is more illuminating about what made Steve Jobs tick than Isaacson’s 656 pages of warmed-over anecdotes and Wikipedia glosses. Morozov gets it right when he draws the connection between Bauhaus and Apple—functionalism and simplicity über alles. But he doesn’t seem to like where this takes Apple or Jobs.
He calls Jobs’s adherence to the Bauhaus ideal “a kind of industrial Platonism” in which products have a true form or essence that must be discovered and revealed by a designer. What consumers think they want is irrelevant; they will know what they want when it is presented to them. That’s true as far as it goes, but Morozov is the real Platonist here.
Morozov’s ultimate indictment of Apple is that it refuses to consider the externalities its technologies impose on “society.” One may love one’s Apple products and how they have improved one’s life, but, Morozov says,
We need to identify the other moral instructions that may be embedded in a technology, which it promotes directly or indirectly. And this fuller analysis requires going beyond studying the immediate impact on the user and engaging with the broader—let us call it the “ecological”—impact of a device. (“Ecological” here has no environmental connotations; it simply indicates that a technology may affect not only its producer and its user, but also the values and the habits of the community in which they live.)
What is this negative externality Apple’s technology is inflicting on the value and habits of our communities? It’s that apps will kill the open Internet, except not for the reasons we think. Morozov cites and dismisses Jonathan Zittrain’s “generativity” critique saying that Zittrain is concerned only with the threat to innovation. Morozov, on the other hand, is concerned with loftier “ethical and aesthetic considerations.” Namely, that Apple’s app paradigm “may be destroying the Internet in much the same way that the automobile destroyed the sidewalks and the playgrounds.”
The point is not that we should forever cling to the shape and the format of the Internet as it exists today. It is that we should (to borrow Apple’s favorite phrase) “think different” and pay attention to the aesthetic and civic externalities of the app economy. 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.
After reading a competing cover story about Portland in another newsweekly, I’m not sure the choice is as clear as Morozov thinks it is. But the message is clear: like Portland’s planners do about a “livable city,” Morozov has a vision of what is the Internet’s pure form, and it’s not one left to messy markets.
Morozov quotes a Newsweek interview with Jobs just a few years after the Web was invented. Jobs sees it as “the ultimate direct-to-customer distribution channel.” He essentially predicts that you’ll be able to buy books online and that the bookstore will know what you like.
That the Web did become a shopping mall fifteen years after Jobs made his remark does not mean that he got the Web right. It means only that a powerful technology company that wants to change the Web as it pleases can currently do so with little or no resistance from anyone. If one day Apple decides to remove a built-in browser from the iPad, as the Web becomes less necessary in an apped world, it will not be because things took on a life of their own, but because Apple refused to investigate what other possible directions—or forms of life—“things” might have taken. For Jobs, with his pre-political mind, there was no other way to think about the Internet than to rely on the tired binary poles of supply and demand.
The notion that Apple turned the web into what it is today singlehandedly is laughable. Apple was moribund until 2000, didn’t introduce the iTunes Store until 2003, and has never had a strong presence on the web. The web has become what it is today because the convenience of getting any book you want, whenever you want it, and cheaply beats little bookstores stocked by proprietor’s whims, however aesthetically pleasing they may be—which they’re often not. And for the record, I hope we can all agree the web is more than a shopping mall.
More to the point, though, Jobs was not as much a Pied Piper as we’d like to think he was. Depite all his marketing moxie, he was constrained by the market. If Jobs ever thought there was a true essence of a computer, it was the Power Mac G4 Cube. As Isaacson says, “it was the pure expression of Jobs’s aesthetic.” And it was a flop. “Jobs later admitted that he had overdesigned and overpriced the Cube, just as he had the NeXT computer.” Remember the NeXT cube? How about the iPod Hi-Fi? The buttonless iPod shuffle? Ping? Those tired poles of supply and demand told Jobs “no” time after time, but we might just as easily dismiss gravity or entropy as tired.
If Apple were to remove the browser from the iPad today, there would be, shall we say, less demand for the tablet. If at some future date there is no more demand for a web browser, and Apple removes it to little fanfare, then what is the harm?
I guess it is some Platonic Internet that we’d lose. A pure internet that we don’t know we want. One that only philosopher-kings can see. One they will discuss at “Berlin-based think tanks” and in the pages of “quarterly magazines,” as Morozov praises Google for sponsoring. And it’s an Internet the philosopher-kings would plan for us the same way Neil Goldschmidt and his friends planned Portland.
No thanks. I prefer a Steve Jobs, pursuing a functionalist ideal with little care for the consequences, yet checked by those tired poles and the “perennial gale of creative destruction” that will someday catch up with Apple.