Apr 302010

There’s a lot we can learn about Flash from French, including why Apple is misguided in banning it from its devices. Steve Jobs complains Flash is old and it’s closed, which, at least to some extent, is true on both counts. Of course, we could also say the same about the French language, but our world would be a lot poorer if we were to ban it too.

Linguistically the French language is actually pretty flexible. But officially it is not: l’Academie Francaise tightly controls the vocabulary and grammar the French language can officially be seen to incorporate. In this sense it’s a fairly proprietary language, not openly extensible by its users. Thus it often makes sense to use languages other than French, like English, which is more open and adaptable by its users.

But that doesn’t mean there’s never any place for French. There are certain concepts that are simply better conveyed, if not also exclusively capable of being conveyed, by the French language. Sometimes other languages will try to adopt such unique French words and phrases to make them their own, but sometimes it’s simply not possible to pluck enough out of French to truly replicate in another language the original thinking behind it.

Which is why there are problems with attempts to impose English-only rules, because to ban a language is to ban entire ideas. Certain concepts will simply be inexpressible in the mandated language. For these bans don’t just constrain specific terms that stand for concepts; even when the mandated language contains reasonable translations these bans also constrain how these concepts are conveyed. There is more to a language than just its literal semantic function: a language has a feel, an aesthetic, just as connected to its meanings as its words are. This is why, “I love you,” is no real substitute for, “Je t’aime.” The two phrases may share the same base meaning, but they are hardly romantic synonyms. French has that certain phonetically subtle je ne sais quoi. I don’t know what English might offer that’s truly equivalent.

Thus a language is more than just an interchangeable set of linguistic functions; a language is a medium, and the medium itself can be the message. Just as the choice of a spoken language can transcend the basic gist of its words, the choice of a programming language is about more than the basic functionality of the resulting program. Which is why a ban on Flash is as equally problematic as a ban on spoken languages. It may be true that much of the basic functionality offered by Flash can also be offered by HTML5, which Apple is pushing as a substitute. It may even be that for many purposes HTML5 is even better. But to the extent that these development mediums are not the same (e.g., their outputs are different, their development environments are different, their programmers have varying fluency in each…) the consequence of suppressing one is that the kinds of expressions uniquely suited to it will also be suppressed.

The irony is that Apple’s argument about why it should ban the supposedly closed Flash replicates, if not exceeds, the professed harm that would come from using it. The argument behind the value of an open language is that it affords the ability to express oneself freely, without being dependent on an authority dictating what memes, concepts, or vocabulary can be part of one’s expression. But here, in limiting an entire programming medium on its devices, Apple itself is exerting itself as the authority dictating what memes, concepts, or vocabulary can be used on its system, which hardly preserves whatever freedom of expression the more open HTML5 would supposedly provide.

 Posted by at 8:52 am

  2 Responses to “Flash, French, and Free Expression”

  1. Flash is a layer of control between a the end user and content that is dependent upon Adobe for API updates. They have been too slow to keep up with the programming APIs available on the Mac as well as security flaws. Apple does not want to have to rely on a third party for these advancements.
    While the Academie Francaise keeps tight control on the vocabulary and grammar of the French language, no one relies on this institution to repair security issues created by someones poor implementation of the French language in our daily communications. We can usually get by with our simple understanding of one another and move on. I agree that English only rules are a bad idea, but sometimes, the good ideas should be should be reserved to those who take the time to understand them, perhaps for those who can understand the subtle expressions gained by learning another language.
    Flash is more of a programming environment than a “language” and one that is much more limited in scope than a spoken language or for that matter, an operating system. Adobe certainly has the right to create their own phone and sell it with a flash based operating system. The market will decide which product will flourish and which will fail. I think HTML5 is the way to go with this one. And today, Microsoft IE 9 general manager has announced HTML5 is the future. Now if they could just turn off all support for Active X.

  2. Nice to see you on twitter and discuss the wonderful world of copyright.
    In regards to Steve Jobs and his decisions to blow Flash out of the water on his mobile iPad & iPhone devices – I completely get it.
    This is one unusual CEO who has his hands in the granular part of the mix for 30 years. He has has made a business decision and gotten everyone in his BIG co. to agree with him and then they charged after public for mind share.
    Understand it’s all in his search for the perfect hardware and software in one device. It’s so understandable if you think about it. He has competition storming after him with also great hardware & software. At the end of the day Jobs believes the co. with the better the apps user experience will win. And yes, he is asking people to choose :))

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