Steve Jobs In the Garden Of Good and Evil


 May 21, 2010


Apple impresario Steve Jobs is preparing to overturn one of the most basic assumptions of modern technology—that the computer business is built on pornography.


Apple's iPads and iPhones are built to run on "apps," which the company controls by deciding what can and can't be sold in its "App Store." The basic, and widespread, complaint among the technorati is that Mr. Jobs is trying to impose a bland, centrally planned substitute for the wild, anything-goes Internet.


Among the techies outraged at the tight leash Apple is keeping on its proprietary computing platforms is Ryan Tate, who writes the "Valleywag" blog at the Gawker site. (He's also annoyed that Apple called the cops on a sister website last month when it got its mitts on a lost iPhone prototype.)


A week ago Mr. Tate saw an Apple ad touting the iPad as revolutionary, and he felt the bile rise. And so Mr. Tate shot off an email to Mr. Jobs meant to cut him to the countercultural quick: "If Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company? Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with 'revolution?' Revolutions are about freedom."


Let's overlook Mr. Tate's ahistorical reading of the revolutionary urge (an impulse not always reliably centered on a commitment to expanding liberty—Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, anyone?). Instead, let's focus on Mr. Jobs's rather remarkable response to the Valleywag note.

"Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery," the Apple honcho wrote. And then came the kicker in his litany: "Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin'."


Mr. Tate gasped. "I don't want 'freedom from porn,'" he shot back, "Porn is just fine!"


"[Y]ou might care more about porn when you have kids..." was Mr. Jobs' response.


After some sparring with Mr. Jobs on another topic, Mr. Tate came back to what is now bothering him most: "I may sound bitter," he wrote, explaining why: "It's you imposing your morality, about porn."


My, how the definition of imposing one's morality has changed over the years. Once it meant enforcing criminal sanctions on smut-peddlers. Now, a businessman who prefers to opt out of the trade is accused of impinging on everyone else's free speech.


But what is Mr. Jobs trying to impose? It's a mistake to think that morality is his main motivation for unfriending the world of porn. Mr. Jobs wrote, "We're just doing what we can to try and make (and preserve) the user experience we envision."


This suggests that at least some of the arbiters of modern cool have finally cooled to the sweaty cultural ascendance of "adult entertainment." Could it be that the tide has begun to turn against pornography, and not because of any moral awakening, but just as a matter of taste and style?

About a half-century ago, the courts started ruling that the traditional prohibitions against stag films, girlie shows and naughty magazines were constitutionally passé. But as the law of obscenity was transformed, the bench did give its okay to some vestigial restrictions on the time and places such entertainments could be provided.


Some cities tried to concentrate the skin trade in pornographic ghettos. Others, notably New York, used zoning to limit peep-show density. The basic idea was less a moral one than a question of taste, and property values. Times Square became far more desirable real estate when it sloughed off the seedy trench-coat aesthetic of the '70s and '80s.


Of course, time and place restrictions no longer apply in any real way to the world of pornography, because it isn't much of a brick-and-mortar business anymore. Now, every house with an Internet connection has its own 24/7 peep show just waiting to open for business. Are computers being tainted as hopelessly seedy?


Mr. Jobs has built Apple on equal parts of transformative technology and high design. The company's products are desirable not only for what they do, but how they look and feel. And how does Apple's glossy elegance fit with the smarmy carny-barker vibe of purveying porn? How elegant would the Chanel runway look with Joslyn James modeling?


Mr. Jobs seems to be betting that the attractiveness of his products is like the attractiveness of a glitzy neighborhood: as much a function of what is not on display as of what is. I suspect he is also well aware of just how weary parents have grown trying to police what their children see and hear.


Who wants to buy their kids yet another device that's just a few keystrokes from content that once would have made a Tijuana pander blush? Apple seems to realize that it can do far more box office in its App Store if parents are confident they can let their children make purchases there without strict scrutiny.


Gawker's Mr. Tate says that the very notion of "freedom from porn" is "absurdly Orwellian," and that Mr. Jobs's statement is so unwise it "will haunt him." Maybe so.


More likely, Mr. Jobs is just promising more than he can deliver: As long as one of the Apple Apps is an Internet browser, the bawdy side of web will still be accessible on iPhones and iPads. Still, just because Mr. Jobs won't be able to purge his devices of blue content, that doesn't mean he's obliged to distribute it himself..


What a peculiar—and peculiarly modern—controversy. Is it really such an affront to the rights of those who would buy and sell pornography that someone might want the right to choose not to?