So, you’re a petty tyrant and dictator, hypothetically. One of your subjects strides into your throne room and demands the freedom to emigrate from the country. “Why would you want to leave Macworldreaderstan?” you ask. “Is it not an utter paradise? That’s partly why I had those 80ft-high fortified walls built around the whole nation… just to keep people from lesser-off nations from barging in.”
“Yeah. Well, my boy wants to be a physicist and the best he can do here in your little paradise is assemble tank radios.”
“Why didn’t you say so? I have little Fyok’s complete school surveillance records here and it shows that the lad certainly has an aptitude for technology and the sciences. Tell you what: I’ll get him accepted at Stanford University over in the US and I’ll personally underwrite his education from my private funds. When he earns his doctorate, I’ll make him one of the three Chiefs of the Anvil Of Peace directorate. He’ll head up the Atoms For Tolerance command and in five years, he’ll be an entitled nobleman with his own estate. And of course, he’ll also no longer worry that we’ll kill you and the rest of his family here if he fails to return to the loving embrace of the Motherland. Sound good?”
Next, the guards haul in a man in his mid-40s. His clothes are tattered and stained with ink, his spectacles are cracked, but he arrives with his dignity intact and a sense of purpose.
“I have been anticipating this day and this meeting,” he says, after coughing and lifting himself from the gilt-laid tile of the reception hall. “I’m only sorry that I managed to print and distribute just a few hundred issues of The People’s Lamp Of Justice before your men burst in and threw me in a sack.
“Tyranny can only flower in the soil in which free speech has been buried,” he says, steeling himself for the blows.
“No, no,” you say, pulling out a blurry sheet of A4 paper from a folder. “Have you ever read your own newspaper? Cripes, I’ve been holding it for just a few seconds and the ink is already smudging up my sleeves. And the typography! Come on, man: Comic Sans?!? Is this a revolutionary newspaper, or a primary school report on the solar system?”
“My story will be told! My voice may be stilled, but…I beg your pardon? Er…what are you saying?”
Make a decent job of it
“I’m saying that the pressroom of All Hail Our Glorious Leader’s News, Sports, And Sudoku is usually dark on Tuesdays, except when there’s a game. The Lamp is just a weekly, right? So why don’t you take over the presses on Tuesdays, and make a decent job of it? I bet you could even fit your whole print run on what’s left on the spools after Monday’s late edition. So yeah, it’s my presses and my distribution system and my rules…but you could accomplish a hell of a lot more, reach a hell of a lot more people, and your expenses would be practically nil. Go ahead and publish whatever you want; if any problems crop up, we can talk later.”
So, here’s a philosophical question. If the people’s needs are met and they live happily under tyranny, are you really a tyrant? What’s more important? Actual freedom, or the benefits of living under an orderly, thoughtful, and visionary dictatorship?
The souls of those whom you govern are inexorably trapped inside your iron fist, but you attend to almost their every need and desire. Even when you take away liberties, you usually replace them with something better than what they would have if they had actual freedom of choice.
‘Visionary dictatorship’ has always been the hallmark of Apple hardware and software. The Mac bucked the prevailing trend for openness from the start. You would not assemble your own desktop from components, nor buy from the vendor you wanted. Your Apple-brand OS would run on Apple-logoed hardware assembled from proprietary components. And if you didn’t like it, well, there’s the door…
And we all went for it. Because there were endless tangible benefits, beginning with the fact that unlike ‘open’ platforms, you can set up a Mac without having to have a second working computer standing by for research and diagnostic purposes.
We went for the iPod and the iTunes Store because even now, seven years later, there’s no simpler and more reliable digital music system and the iTunes Store is the most powerful tool for browsing and discovering new music. Sure, you’re locked into Apple hardware and software for life, but what the heck.
A couple of months ago, Apple finally unveiled plans for third-party iPhone and iPod touch software. And the grip around Mac users has tightened another notch. Apple controls the software distribution system completely. Apple – not the users or the developers – gets to decide whether an app is suitable for these devices or not.
Just like every other time they’ve limited freedom, the argument seems perfectly reasonable. Steve Jobs put up a slide showing the sort of apps that Apple would refuse to distribute. It included words such as ‘Porn’, ‘Privacy’, ‘Bandwidth Hog’… and ‘Unspecified’. That last word should have been accompanied by the sound of distant horses rearing up and whinnying in terror, shouldn’t it?
Still, I’ve used plenty of open-source computers, phones, music players, everything. They’re usually united by two traits. First, they afford the user unlimited control and power over the content and the overall experience, and second, they’re about as elegant, well-thought-out, and practical as a… Well, you get the idea.
For now, I like Apple’s handcuffs. They’re lightweight, elegant, feature an integrated bottle opener and Bluetooth transceiver, and everybody tells me that they complement my skin tone beautifully. Apple insists it knows what’s best for us. But it feeds us another bit of poison every year. It might come to seem so normal that we’ll forget that too much of this stuff will eventually kill us. That’s dangerous. Eternal vigilance is the price of fake freedom.