The Zittrain manifesto

Following on from my last post, here are some of my thoughts on Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet.

For those of you who haven't read it Zittrain sets out the argument that the key to the internet's success is what he terms 'generativity'. The PC and the internet are both largely open systems which can be built upon without recourse to the 'owners' of the system. He defines generativity as "a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences".

He argues that this generativity is under threat from two possible forms of attack:

  1. An internet 9/11 – a cyber terrorist attack that has such dramatic impact, that like the attacks on 9/11 it leads to a serious crackdown on civil liberties.
  2. Glacial decline – the gradual aggregation of problems such as spam, bots, viruses, etc lead people to sacrifice the freedom of a generative system for a more secure, controlled one.

Zittrain sets out the idea of the 'tethered appliance'. This is a device which regularly links back to the manufacture to receive updates. The iPhone/iPod is an obvious example. This is great for receiving updates but it has a number of downsides. Perhaps most significant of these is what Zittrain calls 'perfect enforcement'. Because of the manner in which digital enforcement works it means that companies can retrospectively enforce changes – any illegal copies can be deleted, user activity can be reported, behaviour can be curtailed.

There was a 'straight out of Zittrain' example of this last week when Amazon removed copies of Animal Farm from people's Kindles without their permission (although they did refund the money) over a dispute over ownership. Although Amazon have vowed not to do it again, I'd be surprised if this holds, since now that publishers know that it is possible, they may seek injunctions to ensure it happens whether Amazon like it or not. If you add in the legal systems misunderstanding of the digital world, plus the possibility of governmental influence and you'll soon see Zittrain's point.

Having said that there are a couple of areas where I think Zittrain overstates the coming netapocalypse.

Firstly, like many such prophecies of doom it rather assumes people are helpess before it. Having experienced the generative net people will soon feel restricted by a limited version.

Secondly, maybe the generative/non-generative net isn't a dichotomy. It could be a continuum of generativity – for example, although the iPhone has a filter for applications (Apple decide what is in or out), there is an element of generativity about the opening up of the app store to developers. There are apps that were unpredicted, (part of his definition), but it isn't unfiltered (so fails his definition).

Thirdly, people can possess both tethered and generative devices – I might be happy for my phone to be tethered, but Zittrain's argument rather suggests we only have one device. Given the cost of laptops now one could argue that the Asus running a Linux OS means that we have never been as generative as we are now. It is thus possible (indeed probable) that many people possess both types of devices, and that's still a recipe for a generative net.

Lastly, he is rather dismissive of the move to the cloud and web 2.0, as this gives control back to the owners of the systems (eg Google). While there is some truth in this, I think that as with the argument about VLEs vs PLEs, you could see distribution as its own protection. With multiple sites competing around the same service you can easily, and without cost, host in multiple places. If any site then exhibits non-generative behaviour you can switch to another one.

Having said all this, if you haven't read the book, I recommend it highly. What Zittrain sets out is a thoughtful analysis of the manner in which the the structure of the net (and the PC) have helped shape the behaviour we see, and cherish, on it. Most importantly he makes us realise that we shouldn't take this for granted – if it were being designed now to specifically achieve what it has, then business and governments would put in controls we'd never overcome. It once again makes you shake your head in wonder at what a fantastic achievement the net as we know it really is.

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