Steve Jobs can, as one commenter said of his 2007 iPhone debut presentation, “sell ice to an Eskimo.” What’s more interesting than what he can sell, though, is what he chooses not to. After his well-publicized decision not to sanction adult-themed applications on the new iPad, reactions from technology experts were mixed, though few seemed shrill. Once, when asked about the possibility of smut on Apple’s mobile devices, Jobs replied , “You know, there’s a porn store for Android . . . .You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go, so we’re not going to go there.” It effected a guilt-by-association that does—quite effectively—make the Google smartphone sound rather dirty and corrupted.

In the same breath, interestingly enough, Jobs let out his belief in “a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” But does this lead us to believe Jobs has been skimming Mary Eberstadt’s most recent essay in First Things , and restitching Apple’s moral fabric? Maybe, maybe not.  Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of marketing, has said that Apple continues to allow applications authored by the R-rated  Playboy and coffee table-unfriendly  Sports Illustrated , as they originate from “ more reputable companies .” I suppose that’s possibly true as a matter of degree, but it’s hard to deny that all these “companies” capitalize on the same untoward impulse. Given this apparently non-purist stance on smut, perhaps Apple wishes not so much to purge its products of adult-themed material, but to distance themselves from the internet-dominating sexual profiteers of San Fernando Valley, for business  and ethical reasons.

Stepping back, it’s instructive to take a look at how much restraint Jobs used in his decision to keep smut off Apple products. He didn’t, mind you, effect a China-style censorship of Apple’s Safari browser, nor censor anything extrinsic to his company. This kept the libertarian police at bay. And Jobs’ ability to sanitize the iPad is, after all, inherently limited to the variables he controls—iPad applications and other programs, such as his products’ use of Flash software.

The most significant fact about Jobs’ announcement will be, I suspect, his introduction of moral language into the sterile domain of profit-oriented, competition-driven technology. Jobs’ refusal to surrender to the internet’s dominating force—pornography—makes his claim of “ freedom from porn ” quite plausible. Any such exceptionless moral claim requires grit, and can drive away business. Cynicism is easy, and, rather than interpreting this as a mere mercenary appeal to the pocketbooks of family-friendly homes, it’s reasonable to think Steve Jobs has simply taken a hard line on smut.

Articles by Kevin Staley-Joyce

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