Central Planners and Conservatism

A couple weeks ago I linked to Ed Felten’s great post comparing the iPad to Disneyland. Reader Sean L. responded:

If Disneyland had kiosks where you could choose from 10,000 food vendors, no one would be making the argument that the food was bland, even if Disney needed to hand-taste each vendor for approval. To continue the analogy, one might say hungry customers would be better off having access to 100,000 un-tasted food vendors. I think for >99.99% of patrons, 10,000 options are quite enough, and the fact that they’re missing out on 90% of their potential choices — the vast majority no doubt repeats of others — is just fine considering someone has actually tasted the 10% and not gotten ill. The fact that there would be a group of snotty cooks out there complaining they can’t get their own flavor of spaghetti and meatballs on the menu wouldn’t enter into anyone’s mind (and rightfully so.)

At least not until one of those “snotty cooks” wins a Pulitzer prize:

Political cartoons, it turns out, can violate Apple’s license agreement with developers, which states that applications, or “apps,” can be rejected if the content “may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic or defamatory.”

Apple alone determines what is objectionable for its online app store, a practice that has come under close scrutiny. In its message to Mr. Fiore in December, the company cited his cartoon’s allusions to torture and to last year’s White House party crashers as examples.

After Mr. Fiore received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning — and after he mentioned his app’s rejection in an article published on niemanlab.org on Thursday — he was encouraged by Apple to resubmit it. Mr. Fiore did so on Friday morning and is awaiting a response.

The fundamental problem here is that “objectionable” apps, like bad food, is in the eye of the beholder. In a centrally-planned ecosystem, the proprietor gets blamed for every aspect of the customer experience. And so reviewers are going to reject offerings that will offend any portion of its customer base—even if those same products would have been extremely popular with other customers. So you only get bland food and inoffensive apps.

And the problem tends to get worse over time. Last year, Apple got blamed for approving a tasteless but basically harmless “baby shaker” app. Incidents like this push bureaucracies to be increasingly timid and conservative. If an Apple app reviewer approves an app that proves controversial, he might get in trouble with his boss. In contrast, if he rejects an app that some users would have liked, the users will in most cases never find out what they’re missing. At least until the app author wins a Pulitzer prize and makes the whole approval bureaucracy look ridiculous.

Incidentally, the perverse incentives here apply with equal force to government bureaucracies like the FDA and TSA.

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11 Responses to Central Planners and Conservatism

  1. Don Marti says:

    As far as I know Disneyland still has a picnic area just outside the park gates, where you can eat your own food. And they will stamp your hand for re-entry. But you can’t bring a tray of your own homemade food and ask them to put it on the steam table, sell it to their customers, and give you 70% of the money.

  2. Rhayader says:

    @Don: I think that stretches the analogy a bit; using physical resources to sell physical goods is different from allowing people to sell software in a virtual marketplace. The marginal cost to Apple for allowing any given piece of software into their store is essentially zero, which would not be the case for the steam table example (energy costs, opportunity costs, etc).

    In fact, my guess is that Apple spends vastly more resources on the approval process than it does to host a given app in the store.

  3. Brian Moore says:

    Fiore’s stuff is “objectionable” only because it’s so bad. Maybe the app reviewer just had better taste than the Pulitzer committee. The baby shaker app was, in my opinion, a more insightful window onto our society than anything I’ve seen from Fiore, which thankfully, isn’t too much.

  4. Adam Thierer says:

    Again, are you saying that media platform providers should exercise ZERO editorial discretion when considering what they run on their platforms? Is all editorial discretion just “central planning” in your book?

    If so, I would like to make a request for you to start running hard-core porn on your site right now, or else you are just a central-planning tyrant!

    Seriously, why shouldn’t Apple set some general “community standards” for their patch of the woods? What is so wrong with that? Moreover, you still have web browser… use it to go wherever you want.

    You just not taking into account the other values at play here, Tim. Of course, we’ve been through all this before… http://techliberation.com/2010/02/20/apples-app-store-porn-censorship

  5. Adam, my blog is not a general-purpose computing platform. I don’t mind that, say, the computer in my car’s fuel pump is closed, because that’s clearly a single-use computing device. But Apple is marketing the iPad as a general-purpose computing platform–one that might replace laptops and desktops in the homes of the future. So yes, I’m going to criticize them if they try to prevent their customers from running the software of their choice on the devices they own, just as I’d criticize Ford if they tried to dictate where I drive my car.

    Anyway, you’re right that we’ve gone round this particular argument a few times. As best I understand it, your objection seems to be to my use of terms like “central planning” and “censorship” to describe the actions of a private company. I happen to think that libertarian insights about these concepts can be usefully applied to all large, hierarchical organizations. In fact, it’s precisely because I’m a libertarian that I find these concepts so useful. But I can see the point that applying them more broadly robs them of some of their pejorative quality.

  6. Steamboat Willie says:

    Felten’s critique seems to be the most revealing yet published. In my opinion what it reveals is that the most forceful criticism of Apple is based on aesthetic judgments, not rational ones. This explains why some critiques are so emotional (not this blog’s). Apple’s approach is an affront to an aesthetic, not necessarily an affront to reason. From a rational perspective, there’s really no way to know whether or not Apple’s approach makes sense. You can make your bets in the stock market, but I for one am not ready to bet my money against Apple on this issue at this point in time.

  7. Jim Harper says:

    Adam, unbunch your undies. (And I say that as a friend, of course.)

    Tim’s point is that closed systems won’t be as good, like government agencies aren’t as good. (Like the FCC, too, right, Tim?)

    Your objection seems to be to the inference *you* draw—that Apple should do something different. It’s not necessary to draw that inference from what Tim says. Why not draw the inferences “Apple will not get my business” or “Apple will not succeed in the marketplace over time”?

    Argue with Tim, if you want, but try to argue with what he says rather than what you imagine he thinks. It’ll be more productive—and require fewer changes of your underthings!

  8. Adam Thierer says:

    Harper… I honestly have no idea what you are talking about. My point is absolute NOT that “Apple should do something different.” I don’t give a damn how Apple conducts their business or the fact that Apple is “a general-purpose computing platform,” as Tim argues, is likewise utterly irrelevant to me.

    Tim was more on point in responding to my critique when he noted that:

    >>As best I understand it, your objection seems to be to my use of terms like “central planning” and “censorship” to describe the actions of a private company. <<

    That's generally my point — especially when Tim starts dropping TSA and FDA in the same breath as private companies. My argument with Tim is on the use of language and the importance of certain terminology in political debates. Because there absolutely is a reason that people like Lessig, Zittrain, and Wu and organizations like Public Knowledge and Free Press use terms like this in their work and pleadings. They are out to use such language to invert the Big Brother problem and pretend that the primary problem with which public policy should be concerned is the supposed "central planning" and "censorship" by industry… which they would remedy with actual (and inescapable) central planning and / or censorship. I know you and Tim understand and share my opposition to such notions, but my beef with Tim here is that his use of language plays right into their hands. I understand that Tim will never accept that, but I will keep hammering him on this point because I think he is just dead wrong. Simply stated: Words matter.

    More generally, Tim makes value judgments about large, hierarchical organizations that I am far more agnostic about. Of course it is true that large corporate bureaucracies with "top-down" management styles can do some truly stupid and inefficient things at times. But they can occasionally do some amazing things as well. Tim and I used to fight about this at the TLF when he complained about how much money and how many people it took to create the latest version of Windows. Just because it took a lot of resources to create a product, and just because the process behind it was highly "centralized," that's not necessarily a sign a failure in my book. Moreover, there is a WORLD of difference between that sort of experimental, evolutionary "central planning" and the state-based variant (in which failure takes longer to rectify / reverse).

    So, my panties remain bunched!

  9. Rhayader says:

    So, my panties remain bunched!

    Pics or it didn’t happen.

  10. Sean L. says:

    “Apple got blamed for approving a tasteless but basically harmless “baby shaker” app.”

    This exposes an interesting side-effect to previewing all apps released on their devices — they don’t have a plausible denial option. If pirated videos show up on YouTube, they can say, “well, we don’t preview everything that goes up” and simply take them down on request. Apple MUST take some level of responsibility for EVERY app on their store, which is an additional cost that must be accounted for.

    Personally, I think they should add a “download at your own risk” section of their app store, keep only .15 on the dollar, and let any app on there someone wants to post. That would not only expand their bottom line, but allow a much wider range of options for the user with almost zero added risk.

    I have ‘defended’ Apple’s business model here before, but it should be known I am about as libertarian in my views as one can get. I am forced under threat of fine, imprisonment or both if I don’t follow the order of government, whose top-down structure can (literally) be deadly. But in the private sector, I’m pretty much with Adam on it. If a company wants to strangle themselves, so be it. But it’s hard to argue with success

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