Gruber's Fictional App Store Censor

By Timothy M. O'Brien
May 29, 2009

John Gruber's provocative fictional diary of an App Store Censor is brilliant commentary on the absurdity of relationship between the Censor, the Censored, and objectionable material. Not to get too heady about this, but this "work" (if you can call a blog post a "work") really does bring the depraved absurdity of censorial regimes to the forefront.

Censorial regimes are characterized by an impersonal, opaque silence that likely hides just the kind of absurdity detailed in this fictional post. This silence, this lack of an appeal process is almost a requirement. Without this impersonal "monolithic" approach to censorship, the organization responsible for meting out subjective judgments about what is and is not acceptable would be mired in an almost endless dialogue with the Governed. The mock diary includes this passage:

The dude who wrote that game with the iPhone icon seems very upset. Says that the iPhone image is used to explain that the user must tilt the device in order to play the game, and so how can he show this visually without using an image of an iPhone. And he has a list of other apps already in the Store which use similar graphics. I reply with the exact same message as last week, word for word. Spend the rest of the day playing Flight Control.

Later in the story he develops the idea of the uncommunicative "monolith":

I feel a surge sending it. I can imagine that for the developer on the other end the experience must be like that of speaking to a wall. A monolith. But it's a wall that might actually be listening.

Think about a regime of enforcers tasked with making decisions about what is and is not acceptably suggestive. I'd imagine that, within the corporate structure that defines the App Store censorship "team", there are domain experts that set standards for what is and is not violent or sexual content. When you employ someone whose job is to sit all day and make fine grained judgments about what is and is not "violent" or "sexually explicit", one would expect that this censor will become desensitized to the very content he or she is tasked with identifying. Censorship corrupts the censors.

This fictional "short story" compares the censor to a participant in a ubiquitous surveillance operation, and it also explores the idea that opaque systems such as the Apple App Store may help to uncover a latent desire to enforce capriciously. Toward the end of this "story":

Rejecting all of them, consistently, would in fact be no good at all. The feeling of being part of the monolith -- of being the monolith -- really only surges when I use my position to act capriciously.

To act fairly would be to follow the rules. To act capriciously is to be the rules.

This is delicious satire, it makes me wonder if the author has ever read any George Saunders, this short story read like Civilwarland in Bad Decline.


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