The Gilded Cage: Why inside every Apple user is a Charlie Sheen waiting to get out

It’s just possible that there a few people out there who think that being Charlie Sheen would be really great.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a crack at it for an evening, or maybe as a short weekend break. But ultimately, we can collectively agree (once we’ve finished pointing, staring and giggling) that overall Charlie Sheen is a figure worthy of pity rather than amusement.


After all, he is rich. And (just about still) good looking. And he knows lots of people that you would like to know. And talented (I’m no 2 ½ Men enthusiast, but I wouldn’t have minded being in Wall Street, or Platoon, or, for that matter, Young Guns.)

The fact is that Charlie may be rich, and good looking, and talented, but mainly nowadays he is defined by the kind of experiences he has (decadent, unrestrained, medicated) rather than who he is or what he does.

As a result, right now he is just FAMOUS. He is pretty much just a professional celebrity, and that is a pretty terrible thing to be. Because being a celebrity mainly means that people look at you all the time, and report what you do to others.

The people that have most in common with celebrities, therefore, are maximum security prisoners. Constantly observed, logged and restricted in movement.

Hollywood is no Alcatraz. It is a place of almost unrestricted money and pleasure (as well as a place where a lot of creative people do a lot of great work.) But when you reach the Charlie category of celebrity, Hollywood is a cage. A Gilded Cage, but a cage nonetheless.

Alcatraz - good location for a rehab facility?

And over the long haul, doesn’t pretty much everyone want to break out of the Gilded Cage?

An interesting question…and by no means an easy one to answer.

Politically, this is one of the most interesting long view questions out there. Until a couple of decades ago it was relatively usual to see the arc of history as a long march to political freedom, through economic and military hardship.

This has fallen out of favour during the last few years…though current events in the Middle East and the fate of Gaddafi are an interesting crucible to see where we are going next.What is certain is that the assumed link between wealth and political liberality is by no means certain. In fact it is not uncommon to see ‘progressive’ politicians like Tony Blair openly question the old paradigm of liberalism – effectively to assert that in a modern inter-dependent economy and society, it is out of date. In his infuriatingly readable memoirs, he asserts that it is about the social quality of your experience of life, not your absolute freedom.

Personally, I would say that freedom never goes out of date. It’s just the conversation that changes (as explored by my friend Ben Wilson in this excellent book.)

Good question, good book.

This conversation was always a lot simpler when it came to the Internet. The argument was that online users would always break out of the cage, no matter how gilded.

Having worked with AOL through its heyday as an ISP in the UK, I watched this in slow motion as its ‘Walled Garden’ approach became an anachronism in the digital economy – no matter how much content or how many services they created, no-one would accept life in the Gilded Cage.

Here we find ourselves, in 2011, gasping with anticipation at the launch of the iPad 2, giddily in love with Apple and all its shiny things. Apple is the most admired company in the world for the sixth year running, and the second most valuable.

And yet isn’t Apple’s model just another Gilded Cage? It is beautifully designed, wonderfully tactile, intuitively mobile, but isn’t Apple’s ecosystem basically a prison of corporate control and cross-sell?

Like many sane people, Charlie Brooker both loves and hates Apple

I’m just a month into my relationship with my iPhone, so for me the jury is out on the overall experience (it isn’t until you have at least two Apple devices that they really start getting to work on you.) But there is certainly something irritating, and, dare I say it old fashioned about their attempts to fence me in.

Certainly at the moment, the online world seems to be a balance between user freedom and the feel of the experience. New fault lines are breaking out, with Google appearing more and more the standard bearer of freedom and functionality, vs the curated experience of Apple.

Does this mean I think there is a crazed Charlie Sheen inside every Apple user, desperate to escape? Do I believe Steve Jobs is cowering in fear at the insurgency to come?

Of course not. Ultimately the technology user won’t choose between experience and freedom. They will demand both. So in the long term, I can’t see the Gilded Cage of Apple looking as secure in 10 years as it does now.



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3 responses to “The Gilded Cage: Why inside every Apple user is a Charlie Sheen waiting to get out

  1. Just to pick nits, my understanding is that a Mac is a fully-functioning computer with no cage whatsoever. It is the iPod/pad/phone that is heavily restricted in its use. Also, with iTunes one can buy music at any online store or via CDs and put it into iTunes and onto your iPod etc.. Which means that when I buy an album from Amazon MP3 Apple makes approximately nothing from it.

    I based my decision as to what smartphone I would get on this restricted versus free attitude and got an early Android phone which to be fair has been mostly good. However the Android app market is just as caged as the Apple one and the best apps often only appear for iPhone. Who is more restricted then?

    And I’m afraid the comparison with liberal vs totalitarian doesn’t quite work because any and all of us are free to pick whichever phone suits our purposes whereas in the short term we are all stuck with the political system wherever we live.

    • Hi Blue Eyes. All good points

      On the first, I completely concur. I love my Mac, whether for work or for personal use. I especially loved for example the way Keynote goes out of its way to help make the transition to and from Powerpoint relatively painless. It’s when then phone kicks in that the pain begins. And by pain, of course, I only really mean and endless stream of little prompts to use more Apple products and services, and miniature restrictions on use. I guess am am hyper-sensitive to that kind of thing!

      The second point is really interesting. It raises the whole ‘app’ paradigm – which is based on reducing freedom but increasing utility. It is really geting Tim Berners-Lee agitated as he is seeing the app market destroying the utopian world of the internet. And it really isn’t, in this case, totally an Apple vs others thing. The ‘best apps’ part is at the centre of this question – at the moment the iPhone experience is thus so appealing that the lack of freedom is almost unnoticed. My assertion is that this leadership will break down pretty soon, and the Apple will have some grumpy users on their hands.

      On the last point, I totally agree, the frames of reference don’t really work, because the degree of choice in politics is so minimal. I would contest the characterisation of ‘liberal vs totalitarian’ – my point is almost that in politics, as in technology, the axes of discourse seem to have momentarily flipped to ‘liberal vs luxury’ or ‘freedom vs utility’. This is a complex point when it comes to politics – but I do recommend Tony Blair’s autobiography on this subject if you can stick it!

      On your final point here I totally agree – in politics we almost never make a choice. Witness the many UK voters who thought they were voting for reform of the political system (ie, in the Liberal paradigm, increased liberty) and almost certainly won’t get a lot of that! This is why I think that over the course of the billions of daily CONSUMER decisions that are made over the next decade, consumers will tend to break out of any imposed restraint…and why I think Apple will need to change or face a less rosy future.

  2. The apps thing IS interesting. The apps are designed to make things work on a tiny screen, but of course there is no restriction on the web sites accessible from either Android or Apple phones. Someone who is banned from selling an app on either platform is still free to distribute their software via the web.

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