panotpicon

By now you’ve probably read several stories containing the sound bite Apple wanted the media to suck on: “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass.” The line, thrown out with a weary swagger by Apple’s Phil Schiller at today’s developer conference keynote, is a pretty good one. It acknowledges the doubts about Apple’s mojo while trying to shoot them down. And for the most part, at least with Macs and iOS 7, Apple did that today.

But the quote that I walked away with, the one I believe deserves to be up high in a story on Apple today, is one that comes in the heart-warming commercial Tim Cook showed to wrap up the keynote: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.” I heard those words and thought, how nice it would be to live in a world where that were still true.

The glaring omission in Apple’s keynote is the story that has haunted it and other tech giants for the last five days, the role that Silicon Valley is playing in building and running a surveillance state. Like Facebook, Google, and others, Apple has released its version of the never-heard-of-PRISM-no-direct-access statement (which quickly became an accidental meme, a corporate “Harlem Shake”).

And like Facebook, Google, and others, Apple is in some way sincere when it talks about the importance of product experience, the need to design to the desire of the user, etc. But declaring in an over-earnest tone that the experience of the product is what matters rings false in a way it would not have even a week ago. Product experience is what matters, my ass.

There are other things that matter, like what exactly is happening with our data. And the fact that it’s become impossible to design a decent product experience without collecting data. And that it’s apparently impossible to collect it without also sharing it – in some format, in some manner we’re still not clear on – with federal intelligence agencies.

It’s a little ironic that a scandal involving secret programs that tap user data has caused such an explosion of user-generated content. If, as Harry Callahan said, opinions are like assholes in that everyone has one, it seems that many people have magically sprouted several new assholes over the weekend, to the point where there are far more opinions than facts.

It will take some time before we have a clearer sense of how these spying programs are mining our personal data. That uncertainty doesn’t make what we do know any less disturbing. What is certain is that the Guardian’s and Washington Post’s reports have caused a major shift in the way many Americans think about spying programs that have been reported on since 2005 to a more muted outrage.

There is plenty of outrage now, partly because there is much more data to gather and therefore much more privacy at stake. And partly because more people are waking up to the more dystopian possibilities of living in a surveillance state. But mostly because it’s beyond question that you can’t have the Internet – its social networks, its search engines, its photo sharing, its shopping carts, its text conversations – without having a device that can easily hand over data to a secret third party. And who knows what that secret party is doing with it.

It may sound strange, but a lot of the outrage directed at Silicon Valley companies for their reported participation in PRISM has to do with branding. They aren’t just service providers, they have become a part of our lives. We gave them little pieces of our lives until, in aggregate, they know us better than our loved ones do. That degree of intimacy usually involves trust. The betrayal many are feeling – irrational on the face of it, because these are profit-driven companies, after all – will affect how they feel about these brands.

The Internet, like any technology, is a two-edged knife. It can bring us closer together, or it can violate our privacy. Until now, Silicon Valley has handled this problem by pretending that there was only one blade to the knife. The product launches, keynotes, commercials, and marketing campaigns of Internet giants have always focused on the ways it helps us. We’ve always known about that nasty, second blade. But it’s getting much harder to forget that it’s not part and parcel of the whole Internet experience.

I don’t mean to pick on Apple, because this applies to any company deeply involved in the Internet, but look at today’s iOS 7 presentation. Which of its compelling features work if you decide not to share any data? Our data has become the life blood of the social Web, and yet trying to navigate work and social lives without the Web is quixotic and isolating. We’re stuck with the Internet. And the Internet is stuck, barring any radical change in privacy and security laws, with spies, whether they’re in the private or public sector.

Say what you will about government waste, but the tiny sliver of the defense budget that fostered the Internet has to be one of the most lucrative investments in the history of the tech industry. Venture capital and private companies took the technology and built seductive products and services that are now inextricably interwoven with our everyday lives. They built for the federal government the Panopticon it never could have built itself.

The Internet is that Panopticon. Stare into it, and it stares back at you. The best you can probably hope for now is that everyone’s too busy to be watching. Or if someone is, they’re someone you can trust. The longer the PRISM scandal plays out, the more consumers will consider trust to be a defining part of a superior customer experience.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]