Trust in Computing - Apple and "freedom from..."
25 November 2020

“Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” is a sentiment expressed by Louis CK and explained fairly well in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Similarly, we are in the most usable time of technology and human ability ever. Access to information and functionality has never been more available to more people at any time in history than now.

This marvel is built on an incredible foundation of complexity that even experts can only fully understand a few layers of: the physics of the radio for cell and wifi signals and the light and electrics of wired connections, the engineering of the hardware for the dozens of interconnects from me to Google, the dizzying stack of software from whatever’s modulating and demodulating the physical data signal to the browser interpreting runtime software to add padding to a text field and send data right back down that stack. Plus the organization that requires thousands of people to maintain and develop all these pieces, coordinate and advertise their efforts, and make sure that their output is turned into food and shelter for them and their families. Take away any of these things and the entire thing becomes expensive plastic, glass, and metal.

On Thursday, November 13, 2020 some of Apple’s systems were unavailable for a period, including a service that provides data about signing certificate revocations for running software on Mac OS. If you don’t know what that means, that’s okay. It’s just expert-level knowledge in one of the millions of domains of modern knowledge that people cannot possibly hope to understand even a tiny portion of.

To hear the tech experts talk about it, though, your very freedom was being horribly infringed by Apple. How dare Apple dictate what software and in what manner it can be run on a computing device. There were dire warnings of mass abandonment of the Apple ecosystem by developers and what catastrophe their exodus would portend for the company.

I think it was just a bug that happened to affect a lot of people temporarily that will probably be addressed at some point. My browser is taking a few seconds longer to launch because of an availability issue of a security server? HEADS WILL ROLL. Seriously, though, it’s a minor issue with a small component of a much larger complex system designed (and mostly working) to protect the 99% of users from the malicious actions of a small number of experts.

The bigger issue the experts had, though, is the larger security system on Mac OS that this shined a light on. Apple’s “walled garden,” or their locked-down ecosystem that only allows Apple-approved software built by Apple-approved developers to run on Apple-sold devices, is often bemoaned as a freedom-less nightmare. The fact is the walled-garden has done a great job protecting the vast majority of users from the very real threats of privacy violation, identity theft, and monetary loss. They wouldn’t have the expertise to exercise the “freedom” they’ve lost and that freedom would come at the cost of leaving them as a lamb in a world of wolves.

The important distinction (and one particularly relevant to the other situations in 2020) is the difference between “freedom from…“ and “freedom to…“. Many times my freedom to will infringe upon someone’s freedom from. I think that, given the danger of bad actors, the Apple walled garden represents a way for consumers to choose freedom from.

The frustration that the experts who value freedom to have is that it just looks so darn comfy over there in the walled garden. The design is thoughtful and most everything just works. A stark difference from the digital world built on 3 decades of freedom to.