Imagine if, in the late '90s, Sony introduced a TV set that allowed Sony executives and their functionaries to exercise control over what shows you were allowed to watch. In this alternate history, Sony would have been entirely cryptic about its standards, but it'd have quickly become clear that the company had an allergy to things it found morally offensive -- including, perhaps vulgarity or rudeness (arbitrarily defined) and, poignantly, the sight of exposed nipples.
Now imagine if, say, a storytelling genius named David Chase had an idea for something called "The Sopranos." Or imagine if a couple of brilliant, profane social satirists named Matt Stone and Trey Parker came up with a cartoon called "South Park." Well, tough luck, boys!
In other words, TV censorship wouldn't just be a matter of the FCC freaking out now and again over, say, a nip slip on free, over-the-air broadcast TV (e.g., Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl). Rather, stuff like "The Sopranos" and "South Park" literally could not be seen at all, ever, on certain TVs -- even after you put the kids to bed -- thanks to a blanket technological block. (Picture a v-chip controlled not by parents, but by executive-suite ninnies.)
This, folks, is more or less the surreal situation in which we find ourselves with Apple and its mobile devices regarding its tightly controlled app ecosystem. It's now become painfully apparent that Apple is exercising control over what it allows in its app store not only to assert its economic dominance over subservient app developers, but to impose the idiosyncratic morality of its CEO, Steve Jobs, on Apple consumers.
I've been obsessing about this anew because last Tuesday I found myself in an ad hoc green room at Condé Nast headquarters in Manhattan, talking, almost against my will, about Apple, Steve Jobs and the iPad. (How sick are media people of talking about Apple, Steve Jobs and the iPad these days? Very.) Seated at a table with me were New Yorker Editor in Chief David Remnick, Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive and Epicurious.com Editor in Chief Tanya Steel. We were about to take the stage in a nearby conference/dining room where I would moderate a discussion about how these three editors and their Condé titles were doing all kinds of interesting things on the web. (This was the first First Word event, which Condé Nast Digital bills as a series of "provocative discussions of the most timely issues and opportunities in digital publishing.") But in the green room, the word "iPad" came up -- I forget who said it first -- and that set me off.
How insane was it, I said to my panelists, that some magazines have to produce self-censored iPad versions of their print products -- mainly because Apple's app censors appear to have a mortal fear of nipples? Influential British fashion title Dazed & Confused, I noted, reportedly has a nickname for its planned iPad iteration: "the Iran edition." (Various German magazines have also been grappling with Apple's bizarre fear of nipples.) I also brought up Steve Jobs' infamous, disturbing e-mail exchange with Gawker/Valleywag blogger Ryan Tate in which Jobs insisted that Apple's mobile devices offered "freedom from porn." (Yes, the lesson of the Cold War was that walled-off social systems controlled by central authorities = freedom.)
And so it was that, once the panel discussion formally began, the Condé Nast editors and I ended up talking a good bit about the threat of Apple censorship before a live audience. Not surprisingly, all the editors were against it, but David Remnick spoke most bluntly: "We're going to publish what we're going to publish," he said. "If the Pentagon isn't going to talk me out of a story, then Apple in Cupertino isn't going to either. If they throw me off [the iPad], they throw me off." Remember, it's not just lust-inducing, sinful flesh that spooks Apple. The company also has an entirely pathetic aversion to apps that "ridicule a public figure," which has led, outrageously, to Apple banning innocuous editorial cartoons. (See Gawker for "Cartoons Banned by Apple: a Gallery" for a taste.)
And as The New York Times "Bits" blog reports, Apple has arbitrarily banned -- then reversed itself in banning -- at least one app issued by a political campaign. It just can't seem to decide on the particular degree of its corporate enthusiasm for suppressing free speech. (Meanwhile, the current No. 1 most popular paid iPhone game is something called Angry Birds. "Lemme tell ya, these ain't no ordinary finches we're talkin' about," the game's description begins. "These here are the Angry Birds, the ones that's gonna kick you in the 'nads." So pissed-off finches with impulse-control issues are OK with Apple. But opinionated politicians? Maybe, maybe not.)
Earlier in the Condé green room, Cindi Leive reminded us all of Apple's famous Big Brother-referencing "1984" television spot. If I had this panel to do all over again, I would screen that iconic -- and now bitterly ironic -- piece of Apple propaganda.
In this case, Big Brother is more than a notional character. He's a specific guy: Steve Jobs. Ryan Tate's e-mail volley with Jobs only confirmed what we learned back in April when the Apple CEO had another one of his oddball, unexpected e-mail exchanges with a customer. "We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone," Jobs wrote Matthew Browing in a widely circulated e-mail. If only Jobs didn't have such a warped notion of what porn is. (I mean, seriously. Nipples in a fashion-mag spread? Have mommy issues much, Steve?)
So this is not just about overeager, overly cautious ground-level operatives at an increasingly bureaucratic tech company making capricious decisions about what does and doesn't belong on its sleek, tasteful devices. This is top-down policy, straight from the Book of Jobs.
How did this happen? Basically, I think that Jobs has lived so long in a world, in a culture, that regards him as something of a god (with millions of believers who belong to the "cult of Apple"), that he now believes his own billing.
Steve Jobs may be so drunk on his god-like powers, in fact, that he believes he can defy the lessons of tech history. After all, just about any major media-related technology you can think of has had its mass adoption driven by ... porn. Like, the printing press. The Polaroid camera. Cable TV. Pay-per-view TV. Camcorders. VCRs. Digital cameras. DVDs. The internet.
Of course, what's truly idiotic about Apple's censorship philosophy is that its mobile devices have a loophole so big that Ron Jeremy could ... well, you get the idea. I could pick up my iPad or iPhone right now and point Apple's Safari browser to a lifetime's supply of nipples (not to mention slightly sassy editorial cartoons) on the internet.
So, "We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone" are the words of a delusional god.
But cults are, I gather, inherently delusional. That's part of the appeal of belonging to a cult in the first place; in an unpredictable, messy world, you can feel free to discard logic and history. If it's easier, if it's comforting, for Steve Jobs to believe that the millions of iPhones and the million-plus iPads he's sold remain unsoiled by porn, well, who's to stop him?
I just wish he'd make Apple theology easier to grasp for the average consumer. I think the endless terms of service for Apple's mobile devices should be boiled down to just this:
Dear Apple Customer, do you accept Steve as your personal savior?
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.