Steven Johnson has an excellent column in the New York Times, on the iPhone and the mixed merits of open and closed platforms.

He begins with a reference to Jonathan Zittrain’s work on “generativity,” (familiar to readers of this blog) i.e. “the ability of a self-contained system to provide an independent ability to create, generate or produce content without any input from the originators of the system.” [Wikipedia]

Zittrain wrote The Future of the Internet after the iPhone was released but before Apple launched the app store. He introduced the book with the story of how Apple went from making products that exemplified generativity, to the iPhone, which exemplifies “sterility”:

Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device that Steve Jobs sells you. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications,4 Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick.5The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted. Whereas the world would innovate for the Apple II, only Apple would innovate for the iPhone. (A promised software development kit may allow others to program the iPhone with Apple’s permission.)

Well the development kit was released, the app store was launched, and Zittrain quickly made qualified concessions (which he had already left the door open for) — calling the iPhone a “tethered appliance” rather than a completely sterile one: an improvement, but not ideal. It’s far from open.

Fear and loathing of Apple’s authoritarianism has been climaxing since the company solidified its commitment to control with the iPad. It’s hard not to be swayed by critics like Cory Doctorow:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

… intensifying this past week with announcements placing further restrictions on app developers, including effectively banning Flash development — just one episode in that particular battle.

This is complex stuff. People’s beliefs can be unambiguously pro or con, but when we talk about what we should do about enforcing or encouraging openness, we get into these nasty paradoxes. Consider the net neutrality debate, for example. As as Jeff Jarvis put it:

Here’s the rub: On the one hand, I do not want government regulation of the internet. On the other hand, I do not want monopoly discrimination against bits on the internet. I see it as a principle that all bits are, indeed, created equal. But how is this enforced when internet service is provided by monopolies? Regulation. But I don’t want regulation. But… That is the vicious cycle of the net neutrality debate.

So what do we do? [One way is to] “let the market decide”: if developers want to develop mobile apps in Flash and they’re afraid Apple will potentially do harm to the generative internet if they keep doing things this way, then developers can make apps for Android and Blackberry and whatever else, forget about Apple, and the company would be worse off for it — at least until Jobs sees his market share slide, recognizes the error of his ways, and tears down his closed app ecosystem’s wall.

Hypothetically.

For now things seem to be working out pretty well for them — not just in terms of sales, but in terms of generative innovation, as Johnson points out in his piece:

… by just about any measure, the iPhone software platform has been, out of the gate, the most innovative in the history of computing. More than 150,000 applications have been created for it in less than two years, transforming the iPhone into an e-book reader, a flight control deck, a musical instrument, a physician’s companion, a dictation device and countless other things that were impossible just 24 months ago.

Johnson gets down to the notion that innovations can come from constraints (as I’ve discussed in depth). Creativity cycles between open and closed, divergent and convergent, evolving and developing, etc.

What can be interpreted as freedoms taken away by Apple may also be interpreted as giving app developers freedom from having to think about things that don’t directly go towards making the best possible application.

As long as we’re talking just in terms of “freedom and democracy,” we’re just going to perpetuate disagreement and confusion (see Matthew Yglesias’s recent post about how the right often opposes free markets, and

political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate”

Anything can be construed as being free or unfree, democratic or undemocratic by people merely trying to get ahead. John Gruber noted that Adobe and Apple are both jockeying for market control (for the full background, see Tim O’Reilly’s overview of all of the maneuvering to eventually control the “internet operating system”) so who’s really the champion of openness? Google? Maybe — but could we really trust any competitor’s rhetoric?

Talking about openness is a little better, but still vague. This is why I write about it in terms of generativity and innovation: at least then we’re talking about results, which we can talk about and evaluate more objectively. But generativity isn’t enough — or at least it isn’t enough in itself.

What we need to be talking and thinking about is critical responsibility — by which I mean, actually caring about qualitative outcomes, paying attention as the process plays out, thinking critically, trusting our own judgement about what’s good, right, and beautiful (and actually working at cultivating good judgement before we fully trust it) and being willing to change our minds.

This is what Apple has that sets them apart. Steve Jobs cares a lot about the quality of the products his company produces: [the spirit of craftsmanship is alive at Apple.]

It’s also what Jonathan Zittrain and Cory Doctorow and the best critics and theorists have too. [They aren’t trying to score politically (at least that isn’t their primary goal — though they might try to get political traction for the sake of promoting what they genuinely think is best for society). They care about the outcome and the process itself, not just how much money and control they’ll have at the end of it.]

It’s what we should all aspire to.

I think ultimately we’ll overcome the current challenges when we develop a better vocabulary — concepts for talking about the process in qualitative terms, exercising personal judgement, and engaging in genuine dialog, rather than having to base our assessments entirely on either profitability or abstract principles — both of which are far too easy to game for the sake of hidden, political, acquisitive purposes.

For now I’m just happy to be reminded every day that people like these care about quality, whether it’s the quality of a product or the quality of our society — or both — as well as the quality of our conversations and debates.

I thank Jay Rosen and Felix Salmon for the link.

Minor changes made April 11, 2010 for elaboration and clarity.