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Love Freedom? Kill Your iPad

Posted: 04/05/10 01:37 PM ET

I'll admit to feeling a certain thrill last week when, tucked in to a back table at a grimy pizza place--a table so secluded, in fact, that the kitchen guy would eventually kick me out so he could scarf down a slice--I pulled a friend's loaner iPad from its box a few days ahead of the launch date and pressed the ON button.

Part of the thrill was doing this before most everyone else. The other part was simple novelty, which, let's face it, is a pretty routine thrill these days. Between Avatar, health care and now the iPad, it feels as if every day's Christmas. Which means every day's also the day after Christmas, when the excitement begins to fade and we start turning over the seat cushions looking for the next bump of consumerist woo-woo dust.

I will admit, the iPad might well turn out to be the greatest toy ever. But I hate it and all that it stands for, and I desperately hope it goes the way of the Newton. Why? Because it represents the final and most convincing piece of evidence yet of what I--a committed Mac fan who wouldn't buy a PC if it offered to rub my feet--have long feared: that when Jobs named his scrappy little computer company after Satan's forbidden fruit, he meant it as a compliment.

The difference is that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden for their fateful snack, whereas we're all about to be trapped in iTunes' walled Garden forever (albeit without the nudity that made Paradise so great in the first place).

For all the nightmare scenarios about Google, it's now become evident that cheerfully rebellious underdog Apple may actually be the Corporate Beast to fear. Clearly Steve Jobs is a world class control freak, which is fine if you work at Apple or hold stock in the company or don't like changing batteries. He's also a visionary, after all. But recent controversies surrounding the iTunes App Store demonstrate that his megalomania could actually have profoundly negative consequences for our culture. Cory Doctorow nailed some of the problem, essentially making the open-source argument: The iPad isn't hackable. It's not democratic. It's for dummies and cultural Pringles-eaters who just want to sit back and take in stuff, not for creators and innovators who want to change the world or make lolcats, as the mood strikes.

Which is true. Walt Mossberg, David Pogue and everyone else also noted in their reviews that the iPad is a device better suited for consuming than creating (which is why you also have an iMac). But it's in precisely that respect--the way it brings users content--that the thing is actually so odious. Because Apple's ironclad control over what's available in the App Store means that the iPad's success (which is predicated not on sales of the probably underpriced device but of apps and other iStore content) is inversely proportional to our continued cultural freedom.

Unfortunately, the prime example is a ludicrous app called "Wobble iBoobs (Premium Uncensored)," which is a shame because nobody wants to be the idiot defending a program that showcases jiggling breasts, especially at a moment when everyone else is hyperventilating about a game-changing technological revolution that seems really cool. But here's what happened: After receiving unspecified "customer complaints" about iBoobs a few months ago, Apple banished it altogether, explaining in a letter to the developer that "We have decided to remove any overtly sexual content from the App Store."

Whaa? What's "overt sexual content"? And who's we? It's a pretty radical notion considering that such content is not only legal, but all over TV, the internet, the multiplex, your Aunt Ethel's diary and everywhere else you care to look for it. (Believe me, I've checked.)

The decision, which affected a number of other steamy apps, caused some consternation among developers--mostly because it reflected a sudden change in Apple's policy and cost the creators' money, since they'd been banking on revenue from apps that were no longer sellable. But I'm surprised by how little attention it's received from the media, who seem to be too busy racing to create their own apps for the iPad to read Apple's "Developer Program License Agreement," a copy of which, obtained via a Freedom of Information Request (since government agencies had agreed to it), has been posted online by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It makes for some scary reading, especially the part that says, "You understand and agree that Apple may cease distribution of Your Licensed Application(s) and/or Licensed Application Information or revoke the digital certificate of any of Your Applications at any time." And as the EFF further points out, Apple has installed a line of code called a "kill switch" in the iPhone and presumably the iPad, allowing the company to remotely disable any apps they deem inappropriate, even after you've purchased them.

Think about it: Our great new device for consuming media content is designed to work via third-party apps. Apple maintains the exclusive right to sell these apps, or not to, based on corporate fiat. And one reason the company has given for deep-sixing an app is that someone complained about similar material. You need only consider the implications of this for a second to realize that buying into the Apple model is media suicide. Operate a public library that way, and you'll have the ACLU crawling so far up your ass you'll spit binder clips. I mean, leaving aside the giddiness of the iPad launch, here's what we're talking about: A corporate entity has invented a device for consuming content and wields total, secret and capricious control over exactly what content consumers can use it for. Imagine for a second if Gutenberg pulled a move like that. Bye bye, Enlightenment.

It was also recently reported that Apple asked the German tabloid Bild (which has the second most popular news site in Germany) to remove naked women from its "Shake the Bild Girl" app, the point of which is apparently to let users undress the "girl of the day" by shaking their phones. Yes, it's another sophomoric app that's nearly impossible to defend! But when you consider that many newspapers around the world feature such cheesecake shots (including News Corp's The Sun), and that newspapers are struggling to stay in business, and that Bild's revenue (which funds the company's news gathering) will obviously take a hit due to Apple's decision, it's not hard to see what a Devil's bargain the device is. True, there's always the internet, and the iPad will indeed let you access it. But so far internet ad revenue is not making up for lost newsstand sales. And Apple's business plan--the would-be savior of the publishing industry--presupposes that users will increasingly consume content not through the internet but via the App Store, allowing the company not merely to take a healthy cut of the revenue but to decide what everyone can purchase. Come to think of it, that's exactly what the Chinese government is doing, except that the Chinese censors aren't making any money from the deal and aren't being swooned over by the same media they've set out to police.

Maybe you don't want to look at naked people at all. Fine, be that way. But to liberally paraphrase a famous poem about the Holocaust: First they came for the Wobble iBoobs app, and I didn't speak up because I don't have the Wobble iBoobs app...

The equation is pretty simple: Buy an iPad, and you're endorsing this model--giving a privately controlled corporation top-down, unilateral power over what you can see, read, watch, play and jiggle. It's quite literally the opposite of the marketplace of ideas that is the cornerstone of democracy. Google's approach to total global domination is looking better every second.

Am I overstating it? Maybe. After all, we have all those aforementioned platforms: TV, multiplex, CDs, pamplets, etc. But remember: Just about every media company right now is in survival mode, so every time we make a choice to, say, read a magazine via an iTunes app rather than purchasing it at the newsstand, we're forcing a publisher to play by Apple's arbitrary and secretive rules. It's already been noted that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (with which, again, the magazine makes a ton of revenue that helps funds the rest of its operations) features what could easily be considered "overt sexual content" (ask an eighth grader if you're not sure). There's no doubt that certain publishers, fearful of running afoul of Apple's censors, will begin making editorial choices based on the company's vague criteria, in much the same way Wal-Mart strong-arms its suppliers. Given that the current media land-grab will determine what content is produced for decades to come, anyone who cares about such things should think twice about buying an iPad. Or if you've bought one, figure out how to hack it so you can use outside apps. It's the American way.

Look, some of my best devices are Macs. I've been a fan for 25 years, ever since they ran that famous Superbowl commercial promising that, thanks to the introduction of Macintosh, "1984 won't be like 1984." We all remember the jackbooted thugs, the zombified drones in their gray pajamas, the slo-mo Olympian in a tanktop hurling a hammer at the giant TV. And who can forget the Big Brother-like dictator, intoning about "Information Purification Directives" and bragging about having created "a garden of pure ideology...where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths." You remember, right Steve?