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
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
ADVERTISEMENT