Blog Post

There's an app for ... yellow fever?!

Much has been said in the current HASTAC scholar's forum about democratizng education (actually, lots of brilliant discussion there!), which is incredibly valuable and important.  Considering the current economic problems that universities and schools are suffering, such discussions are integral to the developing innovation and experimentation that will be necessary in pedagogy and scholarship so that we can continue to educate students as the cost of education goes up.

Another democratizing phenomenon (if I may take the liberty of calling it that, despite the obvious technical skill sets and hardware necessary to participate) is that of iPhone apps. Now, you don't even need to be a professional computer programmer or developer to make applications and have them distributed to millions of iPhone or iPod touch users worldwide. According to Apple's online store, there are "Apps for Everything." These include apps to share photos, to find nearby bathrooms, to locate sex offenders (http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/09/29/iphone.app.fight.crime/), and now to objectify and fetishize Asian women.

Wait. What?

That's right. There are apps that facilitate fetishizing and objectifying Asian women (actually there are similar apps to objectify all women and men of color, the most striking ones that I came across multiple times just happened to be of Asian women) for purchase at the iTunes store.

And the most disturbing part? There's more than one. According to the Angry Asian Man, who first blogged about this issue back in December (http://www.angryasianman.com/2008/12/geisha-for-your-pocket.html), then in March (http://www.angryasianman.com/2009/03/yellow-fever-for-your-pocket.html), and again this past week (http://www.angryasianman.com/2009/10/pervy-iphone-upskirt-app.html), there are at least three iPhone applications that blatantly identify Asian women as other and then sexualize them. Since then, I've also come across "Pink Clouds Exotic Beach Babes" (http://findfiles.com/app-link.php?appid=318528704) which offers pictures of "Sexy Asians, Hot Latinas, Gorgeous Africans, Cute Europeans and Americans, and of course amazing ethnic mixed babes showing their beautiful bikini bodies..."(from iTunes description). So now, fetishists the world over can purchase these apps for as little as 99 cents and have the objects of their orientalism in their pockets to dance for them (as a Geisha), sit/stand immoble for their gaze, or squeal as they blow air up their skirts.

Pushing aside the desire to vomit, the most troubling factor here is that Apple is actually distributing these apps. A powerful organization in its own right, with a cult of their own loyal customers, Apple excercises discretion, or at least it's supposed to, in the apps it approves and sells through its store. As these articles (http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/10/07/satirical-iphone-apps-not-cool-upskirt-iphone-apps-cool/, http://gizmodo.com/5344621/the-most-racist-app-apples-approved) show, the decision by Apple to disapprove of some "questionable" apps and approve others that are even more questionable condones a certain type of racist behavior that is disturbing. It's not so disturbing that individuals or companies made these apps in the first place, because there are, of course, people out there who will do what they can to make a buck or to satisfy a desire or to get a laugh, but now it has become so much easier to share and disseminate such narrowminded racism and sexism with the ease of communication offered by ICT. Even with digital divide issues in mind, the Internet has helped tremendously in breaking down certain existing barriers to education and information, but, as this example shows, it has also made it much easier to share and even sell potentially harmful racist, orientalist, sexist perspectives and desires in ways that seem harmless and benign, but are even more dangerous and insidious because of it.

Now, I use the Internet for entertainment as much as anyone, but seriously Apple? Not cool.

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4 comments

(When I read the title of this post I thought you were referring to an epidemic-tracking app or something...if only...)

Good write-up, Anne. I just wanted to chime in: what's really disturbing about this case is that Apple *does* clearly have a set of criteria for the selection and support of apps on the iPhone; it's just that that criteria is bounded more by corporate (dare we say "Microsoft-esque") needs rather than propriety or usefulness. I don't necessarily agree with people saying that the iPhone app-review process needs to be removed, but I believe that Apple needs to show that it can consistently moderate and remove objectionable content (such as the racist and overtly sexualized apps you describe), while at the same time allow innovation and development (and not try to ban its competitors like the Google Voice app). Otherwise, its filtration is useless or worse than useless, and we might as well let everyone put anything they want on the iPhone. For Apple to be so inconsistent is frustrating and hypocritical.

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While I agree that these apps are despicable, it's another representation of how providing peer-created content is legally envisioned on the Web--in this case becoming less about issues of liability (As Wikipedia has run into) and more about social responsibility.  Content providers are protected when they host content created by others, and I think society at large has transferred this legal concept into a social one.  You'll probably hear defenders of Apple's system, despite the direct control Apple has over it, make the case that it's no different than Wikipedia hosting the racist slander of some anonymous poster.

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But isn't the philosophy the governs Wikipedia such that through the course of numerous peer revisions and collaborations the content will eventually become accurate and unbiased? Apple's iPhone apps don't have the same philosophy behind them. The content is produced by isolated groups, approved by Apple, and then sold to the public. Apple, is the mediating organization that should sift through these applications. I'm not sure what guidelines they use to evaluate these applications, but if they are making decisions that deem certain programs objectionable then the assumption can be made that they are exercising some form of oversight. I'm not an expert in this, my interests lie mostly in ethnic and gendered representations, but the inconsistency in their decisions and the resulting products are what I worry about. (Am I just being tedious and repetitive? I apologize if I am.)

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No, you're not being tedious and repetitive at all.  I think you're highlighting the fundamental difference between commons-based peer collaborative creation of content versus moderated hosting of content created by third-party developers, and why there should be different rules for protection of such content hosts and also why we really should hold Apple responsible for their nasty, misogynist and racialist apps.  My point was that people aren't distinguishing between these two processes and instead are treating all commonly hosted content the same, from both a legal and social perspective.  Wikipedia gives users a place to add content and gives its users free rein within a relatively faceless set of guidelines (Be an encyclopedia, assume good faith, et cetera) while Apple tacitly approves the applications it hosts.  It would be different if there was a hypothetical ipodapps.com that hosted applications without vetting them, relying on a community to rate such applications (Like Sourceforge, for instance).

I'll send an email off to Apple right now in protest of their hosting such things, but I think it's the kind of thing that calls for a petition and some good old Webroots activism.

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