Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are Apple's innovations inside us now?

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
August 28, 2012 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A sign advertises Samsung products in Seoul, South Korea. A U.S. court ruled against Samsung in a patent fight with Apple.
A sign advertises Samsung products in Seoul, South Korea. A U.S. court ruled against Samsung in a patent fight with Apple.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff : Smartphone patent wars seem about human behavior, not just phones
  • He says Apple defending its home button makes sense; it's so distinctive
  • But things like pinch and zoom technology may have made leap into collective consciousness
  • Rushkoff: When Apple's innovations become our learned behavior, they're fair game

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back."

(CNN) -- Imagine that we were just developing spoken language for the first time. And someone came up with a new word to describe an action, thought or feeling -- like "magnify" or "dreadful." But in this strange world, the person who came up with the word demanded that anyone else who used it pay him a dollar every time the word was uttered. That would make it pretty difficult for us to negotiate our way to a society that communicated through speech.

That's the way the patent wars on smartphone and tablet advances are beginning to feel to me.

As a human being, I do not particularly care about Apple's recent victory in the U.S. version of its patent lawsuit against Samsung for copying its iPhone's and iPad's form and features. Now that Apple is demanding that Samsung pull eight of its products off the shelf, my only personal interest is whether the Samsung products, once banned, will become collectors' items. Will I one day want to show my grandchild the phone that dared to mimic the iPhone?

News: Samsung to fight court ruling in Apple patent dispute

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

But while the details of legalities, and the impact to share prices, and even consumer choice, don't keep me or any of my friends up at night, there is nonetheless something creepy about Apple's suit. It's not so much that Apple -- the biggest company in the world -- has turned into a competitive monster; it's the territory that Apple's fighting over. It feels as if the technology innovation wars are no longer over one piece of technology or another, but over us humans.

It's one thing for Apple to defend the look and feel of its phone -- things like the little button on the bottom, which seem obvious but are actually the result of a lengthy and painstaking design process. They may deserve a few years' exclusive on stuff like that.

But when it comes to gestures, such as the now ubiquitous "pinch and zoom" technology through which users stretch or shrink pictures and text -- well, that no longer feels quite the same. (Apple, of course, has argued in its court case that they are the same; the company spent time and money on both sorts of research, it says, and doesn't believe the results should be copied by others.)

They are gestures that may have begun on the device, but now have become internalized, human movements. When my daughter was 3, I used to watch her attempt to enact those same swipes and stretches on the television screen -- a phenomenon so prevalent that many television dealers now keep a bottle of glass cleaner handy, to clean their giant flat screens of children's fingerprints on a regular basis.

CNN Money: What the Apple-Samsung verdict means for your smartphone

Apple vs. Samsung: Tale of two countries
How South Koreans view Samsung ruling
Apple vs. Samsung legal war

That's because these gestures are not simply technological innovations, but the language through which we humans are coming to navigate our way through the emerging digital landscape. We take to gestures and movements that grow out of the ones we use here in the real world. To translate them into the digital realm well requires skill, but the gestures themselves are not the typical territories -- like land masses -- over which corporations have traditionally fought. They're inside us.

Usually, advancements of this sort are developed through consortia of companies. The HTML standards through which the Web is rendered are not owned by a single company, but developed together and used by everyone. Imagine if one musical instrument company owned the patent on the piano keyboard, and another on the tuning of a violin. Or what if every typewriter company had to develop its own layout of letters? What if blowing one's nose into soft disposable paper were owned by Kleenex?

While Apple deserves to be rewarded for the innovations it comes up with, there's a limit to how far into our learned behaviors the company should be awarded protection from competitors. Our transition toward a digitally functioning society is no less momentous than the shift from grunters to speakers, or from speakers to readers and writers. As such, it will require an equally cooperative spirit from the people and companies who take us there.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT