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The Future of The Internet (And How to Stop It) – A Dialog with Jonathan Zittrain Updating His 2008 Book

By - August 06, 2011

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(image charlie rose) As I prepare for writing my next book (#WWHW), I’ve been reading a lot. You’ve seen my review of The Information, and In the Plex, and The Next 100 Years. I’ve been reading more than that, but those made it to a post so far.

I’m almost done with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, with which I have an itch to quibble, not to mention some fiction that I think is informing to the work I’m doing. I expect the pace of my reading to pick up considerably through the Fall, so expect more posts like this one.

Last week I finished The Future of The Internet (And How to Stop It), by Harvard scholar Jonathan Zittrain. While written in 2008, this is an ever-more important book, for many reasons, in that it makes a central argument about what we’ve built so far, and where we might be going if we ignore the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve all enjoyed this E-ticket ride we call the Internet industry.

The book’s core argument has to do with a concept Zittrain calls “generativity” – the ability of a product or service to generate innovation, new ideas, new services, independent of centralized, authoritative control. It is, of course, very difficult to create generative technologies on a grand scale – it’s a statement of faith and shared values to do such a thing, and it really rubs governments and powerful interests the wrong way over time. Jonathan goes on to point out that truly open, generative systems are inherently subject to the tragedy of the commons – practices such as malware, bad marketing tactics, hacking etc. These threats are only growing, and provide a good reason to shut down generativity in the name of safety and order.

The Internet, as it turned out for the first ten or fifteen years, is one of the greatest generative technologies we’ve ever produced. And yes, I mean ever – as in, since we all figured out fire, or the wheel, or … well, forgive me for getting all Wired Manifesto on you, but it’s a very big deal.

But like Lessig before him, Zittrain is very worried that the essence of what has made the Internet special is changing, in particular, as the mainstream public falls deeper in love with services like Facebook and Apple’s iPhone.

His book is a meditation and a lecture, of sorts, on the history, meaning, and implications of this idea. After I read it, I was inspired to email Jonathan. I sent him this note:

“Hi Jonathan -

Wondering if, to start off an interview process (for my book), you might want to do a back and forth email interview that I’d publish on my site. It’d be mostly related to your book and some questions about how you view things have progressed since it came out. That would be both a good way for me to “review” the book on my site as well as to delve into some of the issues it raises in a fresh light. You game?”

To which he responded:

“Sure!”

And my questions, and his response, in lightly edited form, are below. I think you’ll enjoy his thoughts updating his thesis over the past three years. Really good stuff. I have bolded what I, as a magazine editor, might turn into a “pullquote” were I laying this out on a printed page.

JBAT:

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?

And a follow up. On a scale of one to ten, where one is “actively helping” and ten is “pretty much evil,” how do the following companies rate in terms of the debate you frame in the book?

- Google (you can break this down into Android, Search, Apps, etc)

- Facebook (which was really not at full scale when you published)

- Apple

- Twitter

- Microsoft (again break it down if you wish)

Thanks!

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:

Sorry this took me so long! I got a little carried away in answering –

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times: the digital world offers us more every day, while we continue to set ourselves up for levels of surveillance and control that will be hard to escape as they gel.

That’s because the plus is also the minus: more and more of our activities are mediated by gatekeepers who make life easier, but who also can watch what we do and set boundaries on it — either for their own purposes, or under pressure from government authorities.

On the book’s specific predictions, Apple’s ethos remains a terrific bellwether. The iPhone — released in ’07 — has proved not only a runaway success, but the principles of its iOS have infused themselves across the spectrum. There’s less reason than ever to need a traditional PC, and by that I mean one that lets you run whatever code you want. OS X Lion points the way to a much more controlled PC zone, anyway, as it more and more funnels its software through a single company’s app store rather than from anywhere. I’d be surprised if Microsoft weren’t thinking along similar lines for Windows.

Google has offered a counterpoint, since the Android platform, while including an app store, allows outside code to be run. In part that’s because Google’s play is through the cloud. Google seeks to make our key apps based somewhere within the google.com archipelago, and to offer infrastructure that outside apps can’t resist, such a easy APIs to geographic mapping or user location. It’s important to realize that a cloud-based setup like Google Docs or APIs, or Facebook’s platform offer control similar to that of a managed device like an iPhone or a Kindle. All represent the movement of technology from product to service. Providers of a product have little to say about it after it changes hands. Providers of services are different: they don’t go away, and a choice of one over another can have lingering implications for months and even years.

At the time of the book’s drafting, the alternatives seemed stark: the “sterile” iPhone that ran only Apple’s software on the one hand, and the chaotic PC that ran anything ending in .exe on the other. The iPhone’s openness to outside code beginning in ’08 changed all that. It became what I call “contingently generative” — it runs outside code after approval (and then until it doesn’t). The upside is that the vast creativity of outside coders has led to a software renaissance on mobile devices, including iPhones, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Apple’s gatekeeping has seemed to be with a light touch; apps not allowed in the store pale in comparison to the torrents of stuff let through. But that masks entire categories of applications that aren’t allowed — namely anything disruptive to Apple’s business model or that of its partners or regulators. No p2p, no alternate email clients, browsers with limited functionality.

More important, the ability to limit code is what makes for the ability to control content. More and more we see content, whether a book, or a magazine subscription, represented in and through an app. It’s sheer genius for a platform maker to demand a cut of in-app purchases. Can you imagine if, back in the day, the only browser allowed on Windows was IE, and further, all commerce conducted through that browser — say, buying a book through Amazon — constituted an “in-app purchase” for which Microsoft was due 30%?

A natural question is why competition isn’t the answer here — or at least reason to not worry about the question. If people thought the iPhone made for a bad deal, why would they want one? The reason they want one is the same thing that made the Mac so appealing when it first came on the scene: it was elegant and intuitive and it just worked. No blue screen of death. Consistency across apps. And, as viruses and worms naturally were designed for the most common platform, Windows, those 5% with Macs weren’t worth the trouble of corrupting.

We’ve seen a new generation of Mac malware as its numbers grow, and in the meantime a first defense is that of curation: the app store provides a rough filter for bad code, and accountability against its makers if something goes wrong even after it’s been approved. So that’s why the market likes these architectures. I’ll bet few Android users actually go “off-roading” with apps not obtained through the official Android app channels. But the fact that they can provides a key safety valve: if Google were to try the same deal as Apple with content providers for in-app content, the content providers could always offer their wares directly to Android users. I’m worried that a piece of malware could emerge on Android that would cause the safety valve of outside code to be changed, either formally by Google, or in practice as people become unwilling to drive outside the lanes.

So how about competition between platforms? Doesn’t that keep each competitor honest, even if all the platforms are curated? I suppose: the way that Prodigy and CompuServe and AOL competed with one another to offer different services as each chased subscribers. (Remember the day when AOL members couldn’t email CompuServe users and vice versa?) That was competition of a sort, but the Internet and the Web put them all to shame — even as the Internet arose from no business plan at all.

Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose you were going buy a new house. There are lots of choices. It’s just that each house is “curated” by its seller. Once you move in, that seller will get to say what furnishings can go in, and collects 30% of the purchase price of whatever you buy for the house. That seller has every reason to want to have a reputation for being generous about what goes in — but it still doesn’t feel very free when, two years after you’re living in the house, a particular coffee table or paint color is denied. There is competition in this situation — just not the full freedom that we rightly associate with inhabiting our dwellings. A small percentage of people might elect to join gated communities with strict rules about what can go inside and outside each house — but most people don’t want to have to consult their condo association by-laws before making choices that affect only themselves.

[I guess the Qs below (about each company) are answered above!]

—-####—-

I guess now my question is, what kind of place are we going to build next?

Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan! What do you all think?


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4 thoughts on “The Future of The Internet (And How to Stop It) – A Dialog with Jonathan Zittrain Updating His 2008 Book

  1. Logan says:

    I really appreciated this update. I was struck especially by the web’s mutual exclusivity of privacy and security, openness and elegance. It seems rather hopeless.

    I was in an airport today, frustrated that we must enter a police state to get on an airplane. But know where to direct that frustration. I have a sense of why it’s happened and who is to blame (Congress, to start).

    I’m less clear on who is responsible for this stalemate on the web. Is anyone responsible? Or is that our job now, to try to figure out a system on from scratch?

  2. Tom says:

    Without transaction society cannot exist.

    Its the fundamental behind all that we have come to call social.

    Most of us immediately think of money when we hear the word but its origins are in grunts and pointed fingers, in gifts and caresses, in clubs and spears, and in a parent teaching a child to hunt or gather edible roots.

    Transaction pre-dates money by eons.

    But our transaction landscape used to be level with minimal burdens on those transacting…

    A hunter-gatherer may have had a very small world… a Dunbar’s Number sized world… but his or her transactions within it were unimpeded by any lack mediating technologies (since they were not much needed for its exercise).

    I suggest that the burdens on transaction arising at the birth of agriculture (burdens caused by a loss of physical and social proximity and the relationship of Dunbar’s number to biological altruism and cognitive limits) has much to do with the (sad) early and continuing success of authoritarianism.

    (see The Foundations of Authoritarianism )

    Over centuries, as transaction technologies have improved… and especially since they’ve become more broadly available and less expensive…

    There’s been a vey slow resurgence of anti-authoritarian impulses… which is now exponentially accelerating.

    Just as the printing press weakened churches and monarchies in Medieval Europe… so too we see Facebook and Google challenging existing centralized power centers.

    But this is critical to keep in mind…

    The Internet is a Transaction Landscape if nothing else…

    And how its shaped could hardly be more important.

    (How much of our campaign finance problem is a result of the failure to ensure that the transaction technology of television secured a level landscape for civic engagement?)

    But as the author understands… at the same time as these technologies may abet transaction in various forms they create new problematic centers of power and control… and place unnecessary and damaging burdens on needed transactions.

    So now back to money… and to end this brief comment:

    I’m convinced a neutral utility facilitating and unburdening these vital transactions in at least certain areas is needed.

    I’m also convinced the micro-transaction and a capability for its P2P networking is vital and a key catalyst for the utility I mention above.

    The Pooled-User-Determined Account* is the simple core transaction technology allowing for the viable development of this very fundamental transaction network.

    *In brief, micro-transaction is accomplished by, for example, user depositing say $20 (or whatever) in their Chagora account; those transaction costs (to Visa, MC, etc) are paid by Chagora…

    This deposit goes into one or more Trust Accounts along with deposits from others.

    User at this point has relinquished ‘ownership’ of his deposit (he can’t withdraw those funds) but retains control over their distribution (limited to qualified recipients… political, charitable, news content, other purposes, etc)…

    A designation by a user to send (e.g.) 25 cents to a recipient is combined with other designations to same recipient to a level in essence equivalent to a single payment of that same $20 (which is our hypothetical deposit) and transferred from a Chagora Trust to the recipient who reimburses Chagora for the transaction fee the recipient WOULD have paid for a single $20 payment he’d received.

    This is an example to illustrate the idea… obviously its a bit more complicated… but idea is essentially simple. The core is this:

    User’s deposits to the account must be in viable amounts at least (minimum $10, $20) as must payments out. And the micro-transaction must have no additional financial burden… system passes through and recoups its incurred transaction costs in a passive manner (neither gaining nor losing in the pass-through)…

    This, of course means that monetization must come from elsewhere… and that’s a story I’ll save for later.

    While its roots are in a simple utility for campaign finance… the body of this new genetic blueprint have much broader implications.

    See Leveling the Transaction Landscape: Technology & the Campfire

    Demo http://www.Chagora.com

    I’ll be attending Douglas Rushkoff’s Contact Summit in October in NYC and look forward to speaking to anyone interested.

    Patented

  3. Angela says:

    I like the image of something someone can just turn off and totally destroy if desired as something that is “closed.”

  4. Argeliox says:

    Glad to some one with a voice over internet future.