Taking responsibility for the impact of software

| May 16, 2010

Here’s Steve Jobs, from a recent email thread with Gawker’s Ryan Tate:

Do you create anything, or just criticize others (sic) work and belittle their motivations?

This last missive from Job’s is a nice rejoinder from a back-and-forth with Tate about Apple’s iPad platform (and related technologies). And if you don’t look too closely, you might be impressed by it.

By now it’s well-known that Apple draws the ire of the free software community. But Steve Jobs take the time (here in a private email conversation) to clearly articulate his views and motivations. Really? A CEO taking the time to pursue an email flame war with a spiteful blogger? Very respectable. Admirable, even.

That’s what it seems to take these days to engage the public, especially in the software development space. And I like Jobs’ response and his insistence on participation: he asks (I paraphrase), “Are you at least engaged in similar work?”

But wait, is that enough? Tate started the email thread by criticizing Jobs’ abuse of the language of “revolutions.” Does Jobs offer an adequate defense?

Jobs’ response is related to a too-easy dismissal: “If you don’t do X, you can’t criticize it.” But I don’t think that’s Jobs’ attitude in this case. Tate’s criticism against Apple is steeped in deep knowledge of the software world. I think Jobs’ is asking for empathy, saying (again I paraphrase), “It’s hard to bring these new technologies into the world, isn’t your quibble with us a minor one? Why can’t this discussion be more civil?” Or even, “It’s a mistake to equate what we’re doing here with something important.”

But then that’s why Tate is right and Jobs is, ultimately, a corporate ass: Jobs isn’t taking personal responsibility for his company’s ridiculous (“it’s magical” and “it’s revolutionary”) claims. Jobs’ insistence on deflating the significance of the iPad’s implications for the software community flies in the face of Apple’s language describing it. Once you say it’s revolutionary, there’s no going back and saying that you didn’t mean “in a cultural or political way” (Jobs’: “It’s not about freedom”).

So, frankly, this exchange turns out to be as offensive as it is instructive. I’m glad Tate shared it. Sure, we can empathize with Jobs… it is tough making great things. Especially complex things. But the work of understanding them – seeing their implications, assessing their value, and measuring their impact – is a shared responsibility between both developers and consumers. Indeed, it’s part of the cost of doing business, though easy to forget.

So, how can a development group take responsibility?

  • Do an impact study and publish it
  • Build assessment into your development process
  • Perform ongoing data analysis and research, and share it
  • And, of course, talk openly with your customers (at least Jobs got that one right!)… with luck, they’ll engage you in a fruitful conversation about culture, politics, and the future.