Raising the Level of Discourse

There has been a worrying trend of late regarding criticism of Apple, and how Apple responds to it.

You’re no doubt aware that Apple has tried to increase and improve its communication in recent years, especially in response to criticism; besides, of course, the open letters from Steve Jobs, we have for instance the outreach of Phil Schiller to the community or the iPhone 4 antenna press conference. This is in itself a good thing; in the worst case at least you know their viewpoint, which furthers the debate, while in previous years you would know absolutely nothing.

The problem, however, is that Apple is often responding to the wrong criticism.

For instance, a lot of time in the iPhone 4 antenna press conference was spent repeating that all phones have their signal reception affected when held, that the iPhone 4 is no worse, that Apple does extensive testing, both in their labs and in the field, including in low coverage areas. This was to counter the allegations from some of the press that was screaming bloody murder at Apple over the “obviously defective” antenna, and accusing Apple of only having used the device in areas of good coverage, while that press had few, if any, hard facts to back these up. But anyone with a bit of sense already suspected or knew that the matter was a bit more subtle, and was following AnandTech’s excellent coverage and testing instead. This is the criticism Apple should have responded to instead; OK, sure, spend the first few minutes addressing the basics and the dumb criticism, but then move on to the specifics of the matter: namely, why they went ahead with such a new and innovative (and thus risky) external/structural antenna design when it could make the problem worse by allowing actual electrical contact (and maybe, additionally, why they didn’t mitigate the risk by adding a layer of insulating coating over the stainless steel). They could have answered in a number of ways. But they did not address that question. And none of the journalists who had the opportunity to ask that question did so.

The point is not to put Steve Jobs or Apple on trial, but to keep them honest. And yet, in this press conference everyone remained at a low level of discourse. I expect there will always be a significant proportion of the tech press that will happily remain at this level, unable to climb higher simply because they try to cover everything under the Sun without the means to cover this immensity with any real depth; I just wish this proportion didn’t seem to be the majority (so we should all encourage outlets that provide quality coverage!). However, I do not forgive Apple for not trying and raising to a higher level.

Something similar happened at the WWDC keynote. During the keynote Steve Jobs took some time to defend the iOS App Store review process (see “The Low Point of the Keynote”), which is okay in itself: the review system has attracted criticism, but there are points to be made in its favor. However, he tried to defend it by telling that 95% of rejections were for three reasons: the app crashes, it uses private API calls, or it doesn’t work as advertised. But it’s meaningless to lump all the rejected apps together; and it’s a fallacy to say that, since an overwhelming majority of the apps in this slightly artificial group fail to meet basic requirements (apps which were most likely coded by novice, careless, or dishonest developers) such that the other reasons are only a small fraction, then the other reasons are only a small problem. But that fallacy was clearly the implication Steve seemed to make; in the best case, that was the wrong criticism to address. Honestly, given the stuff that makes it to the iOS App Store, I’m surprised these reasons don’t account for 99% of rejections. Here again, Apple addressed a straw man; to be fair, some of the press puts a lot of straw men in front of Apple, but that’s not reason for Apple to take the bait.

So in the end, “interaction” between Apple and that press ends up looking like this:

Apple: Does not!
Press: Does too!
– Does not!
– Does too!
– Does not!
– Does too!

And even then, that’s still better than the common case where Apple doesn’t comment, leaving that kind of press feeling “slighted”, and that “the people” are not being “heard”:

Press: Does too! Does too! Does too! Does toooooooo!

This kind of stuff is all the more disheartening as Apple sometimes gets it right. For instance, in his Flash open letter, Steve Jobs not only addressed the obvious, but also addressed the less obvious criticism, by saying that even if they were to support it, current Flash content wouldn’t work well anyway given the lack of a pointer, and if it would require publishers to rewrite their content, why not rewrite it in HTML5? Not to mention Flash itself was designed with the PC in mind, not a touchscreen. And let’s not forget the original open letter, Thoughts on Music, which addressed a lot of points and issues that most people (and most of the press) had not even thought about.

Pretty often, criticism of Apple originates from a legitimate concern, but by the time it gets through the tech press hype machine, it has become an horribly distorted version of the original criticism; and I’m afraid people at Apple get the feeling they are taken to task for reasons that are entirely unjustified, based on this distorted criticism (while the original criticism is lost in the noise), leading them to believe nobody understands them.

Such misunderstandings are not uncommon, even without the distortion machine: for instance in the Ninjawords saga, Phil Schiller answered accusations that Apple required Ninjawords to be censored, by telling that this was something the developer did after an initial rejection, and Apple did not ask the developer to do so. Which was technically true, but as one of the developers pointed out, by having other, uncensored dictionaries in the iOS App Store at the 4+ rating, and at the same time requiring Ninjawords to have a 17+ rating, Apple was in effect putting a lot of pressure for Ninjawords to censor itself, as “who wants to be the only illicit dictionary on the [iOS] App Store?” So while Apple saw A: that they were enforcing the rating on Ninjawords (and while there may be a problem of ratings being inconsistently enforced, from their viewpoint this is none of the developer’s business anyway), the Ninjawords developers saw B: that they were, in effect, being made to censor the application.

A misunderstanding (or many) also probably explains Steve Jobs’ “Some people lie” comment at the D8 conference. Either he refers to cases that no one (or few people) was disputing in the first place, or he refers to developers who went to the press claiming an equivalent of B, while Apple viewed it as an equivalent of A.

Even if Apple feels it is wrongly criticized for, say, doing X, if only they would answer “Of course we do X, it seems obvious to us why, but here are three good reasons for us to do so”, then it would silence the press that made the dumb criticism, while allowing more serious outlets to follow up with “Yes, but then why do you do X even when Y?” Through communication the real issues that are lost in the noise can be revealed.

To improve this state of affairs, I only see one solution.

We need a Penny Arcade of Apple and the tech industry in general.

You have probably heard of Penny Arcade, and know it to be a funny, topical, popular webcomic skewering the video game industry, the video game press, and “gamers” themselves;  something you’d find in a newspaper covering video games if such a thing existed, playing an equivalent role as that of the editorial cartoons in the newspapers (except, you know, actually good and funny). What you may not know is the influence it has on the video game industry in general. In the foreword to their second collection, J. Allard (at the time in charge of the Xbox at Microsoft) describes Penny Arcade as accomplishing much more than the typical webcomic: for him, Tycho and Gabe do nothing less than keep the video game industry honest. Quoting Allard: “PA doesn’t buy it, and they don’t sell it. They tell it like it is. Whether it’s in their strips, their rants, commentary in their books, a direct flame-war, or a well-timed onomatopoeia in an elevator at E3, you can count on their presence if you’re doing something in this industry.” He goes on to mention their other endeavors, like the PAX expo and Child’s Play charity, as what they’ve been able to accomplish that the “industry” overlooked.

Now, J. Allard may have been trying to find the only good thing he could say from his viewpoint about the two guys who are basically lampooning his work and everything he holds dear, and may have come up with this. After all, you don’t (typically) say bad things about the authors of a book you’re being asked to write the foreword of. But there are hints and elements elsewhere (though they are not expressed as well as in that foreword) that confirm this influence to be the case.

It’s certainly counter-intuitive to propose caricature as being the solution to bad communication, a hyping press, and distorted criticism, these seem to be caricatural themselves already! And that’s precisely why caricaturists are needed to point this out. Remember, good satire makes you laugh, then makes you think. Moreover, good satire, having the appearance of just funny pictures/words, spreads subversively, including in the targeted institution (be it Microsoft, Apple, the tech press, etc.), delivering its message from the inside: while these institutions may dismiss criticism they see coming from the outside as attacks, good satire is read by the rank and file, spreading from there. Notice that I don’t think this satire needs to be a webcomic, it could take other forms, though I think a webcomic has the most inherent advantages.

Now before you go ahead and fire up your email client to tell me how about Z is totally the Penny Arcade of Apple and the tech industry and shame on me for not knowing about it, let me preempt most of you by saying that, yes, I know about the Joy of Tech, Mosspuppet, Fake Steve Jobs, PC Weenies, Daring Fireball, the Macalope, Crazy Apple Rumors, the Onion, and the Oatmeal, and I do not think this equivalent is to be found within them. And while Penny Arcade itself sometimes covers tech topics (especially, read this, starting from the third paragraph, and tell me how it couldn’t perfectly be read as though it was about the Mac App Store,  incidentally announced a few days beforehand), it does not do so with enough regularity to play more than a minor role in the tech industry; and I don’t think this will change much.

What should the  Penny Arcade of Apple and the tech industry be? It needs to be good, obviously, and it needs to satirize technology because its author(s) love technology. It needs to be topical. It needs to be regularly published to an extent, so that people keep coming back to it. As you may have gathered, it needs to cover not just Apple, but also its competitors: I rag on Apple, and that’s because I care, but its competitors have their own issues (similar or different), and it’s only fair that all of them be targeted; also, while there is a lot of material you could make about Apple, I don’t think it would be enough to keep, say, a three days a week webcomic running viably. As I said, besides the video game industry Penny Arcade also satirizes the corresponding press and users, so its equivalent would need to target the tech press and tech fans as well. It needs to be popular, but that will happen if it’s actually good. It needs to be subversive, being ostensibly funny while having actual substance.

With all the webcomics and blogs that get created (and often quickly die) all the time, why doesn’t such a thing already exist? I guess because it’s hard. It’s already a miracle that Penny Arcade exists, there are very few like it, and none as good. It’s hard in part because it needs to be topical, which precludes any comic buffer. It’s also hard to be good at doing such a thing. And it’s hard to love technology, while relentlessly skewering technology, the people responsible for this tech, the press talking about this tech, and your fellow tech fans.

In my opinion the closest thing we currently have to a Penny Arcade of Apple and the tech industry is Fake Steve Jobs. Dear Leader mercilessly takes on all the companies in this space, as well as the old dying press, these upstart bloggers, the fanboys, the frigtards, and the clueless. He’s funny, insightful, and oh so good. The main problem is that his subversive power is limited for two reasons: first, the caricature aspect is too salient, by very nature of the character; before you read the first word of a post, you know it’s going to be a satire of some sort. Second, it’s easier for the creator to make his work pretend to be harmless humor using pictures (especially for those looking over your shoulder) than it is with prose, again limiting the subversive aspect; this in turn makes it hard for the message to penetrate Apple and the others from the inside. Hence, Fake Steve is the closest we have, but he is not the Penny Arcade of Apple and the tech industry in my opinion.

Lastly, I want to give a shout out to the Satiritron, which could end up fitting the bill, from the fine folks behind Mosspuppet. It launched while I was writing this post, and it’s too early to tell how it’s going to do in the long haul, but it’s off to a good start so far, and I wish it best of luck and many faithful visitors!