Now, along comes Steve Jobs to prove the point. Jobs, the Maestro of Cool at Apple, recently engaged in a most interesting email exchange with Ryan Tate, who writes the "Valleywag" blog for the gossip Web site, Gawker.
On his initial email to Steve Jobs, Tate complained about what he described as a lack of freedom in Apple's approach to the approval of products for its "App Store" for iPods, the iPhone, and the iPad. "If Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company?," Tate asked. "Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with ‘revolution?' Revolutions are about freedom."
Apparently, Tate was upset about some of the restrictions put in place by Apple. Among those restrictions is a ban on pornography.
Steve Jobs threw Ryan Tate's definition of freedom right back at him. Is Apple about freedom? "Yep," said Jobs, "freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin'."
One of the interesting dimensions of Steve Jobs' leadership at Apple is his habit of answering selected emails personally. It appears that Ryan Tate's complaint got under Jobs' skin. It is even more apparent that Jobs' response irritated Ryan Tate.
"I don't want freedom from porn," Tate asserted. "Porn is just fine." Jobs sent back a remarkably insightful retort, informing Ryan Tate that he "might care more about porn when you have kids." Tate wasn't conceding his case, however, acknowledging that he might "sound bitter," by complaining that Jobs is "imposing his morality about porn."
There are several startling aspects of this exchange. When was the last time we saw a major American business leader take the lead to point to porn as something from which we should seek to be free?
Steve Jobs is a businessman of unquestioned ability, a technological wizard, and one of the greatest orchestrators of "cool" in world history. Nevertheless, he has not been known as a critic of pornography . . . until now.
Furthermore, Jobs is in the computer business, and that makes his comments on pornography all the more significant. To get a sense of what that means, consider the observation made by Eric Felten in The Wall Street Journal, "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."
While Felten does not expand upon his assertion that "one of the most basic assumptions of modern technology" is the dependence of the computer business on pornography, a look at that business will prove his thesis to be true. Though pornography is not the sole energy behind the quantum expansion of the Internet and digital technologies, its funding and quest for innovation have been major factors driving the digital age. The pornography business quickly recognized the computer and the Internet for what they are — the greatest and most revolutionary means of selling and distributing pornographic materials.
This is what makes Stave Jobs' statements so interesting and significant. Apple has created an entirely new way of thinking about digital devices and their phenomenally successful iPhone and iPod technologies — now joined by the iPad — have created an enormous market for "apps," shorthand for custom applications marketed and purchased through the company's iTunes digital store. While the Internet at large has become a vast supermarket for pornography, Apple's tight control over its "App Store" has prevented "pornification" of the apps.
Felten argues that Jobs' posture is based less on morality than on a straightforward assessment that the general public — and parents in particular — will be much friendlier toward the App Store if they know that pornography is excluded.
"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," Felten observed.
There are interesting twists to the exchange between Tate and Jobs. Tate actually accuses Jobs of imposing his own morality on the App Store (as if the contrary decision would not be just a reverse form of imposing morality). Felten also wonders if Jobs' statements indicate that at least some sectors of the creative classes are turning cold to pornography as such a dominant influence. "Could it be," he asks, "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?"
That seems more doubtful, but we can hope that it is true. At the very least, a statement like this from Steve Jobs — an iconic figure of the creative class — is hardly insignificant.
The Internet is still the domain of the pornographers, and there is little chance of that changing soon. Furthermore, any device with a Web browser can still download porn. The digital world is rife with sexually explicit material, and this includes many musical and film offerings through Apple's iTunes store. Still, the "no porn" decision for the App Store is remarkable on its own.
While Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley do their best to interpret what all this means, one dimension of this development is clear - parenthood matters.
Steve Jobs made this clear in his retort to Ryan Tate that he "might care more about porn when you have kids." No kidding. Parenthood changes everything about one's outlook on life and its challenges. A parent lacks the luxury of believing the world is all about himself or herself as individuals. Parents necessarily and understandably begin to think of the world in terms of how their children, and by extension the children of others as well, engage the world. This concern extends to the digital world, where the generation of young "digital natives" will spend much of their lives.
Ryan Tate got more than he bargained for when he made his protest to Steve Jobs. In a strange way, we are now all in his debt, because the response from Steve Jobs now puts Apple on the line. In the end, the real meaning of this media eruption is less about computers and "apps" and more about parents and kids.
Parenthood matters. Just ask Steve Jobs.
Eric Felten, "Steve Jobs In the Garden Of Good and Evil," The Wall Street Journal, Friday, May 21, 2010.