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.