Reflections on class 8/18/08

August 20, 2008

The last class session. left me with that classic feeling of “Now I know how much I don’t know.”  From the student summaries of “Wikinomics” and “Here Comes Everybody,” these books seemed to be further takes on the mass-collaboration, non-market driven production model advanced in “Wealth of Networks” and “The Future of the Internet.”  I’ve certainly come to understand this phenomenon in this class, but I’m as skeptical as ever that mass participation paradigm is going to mature into an enduring threat to profit-driven enterprises.  In hindsight, a model that I wished we had discussed are the t-shirt and sneaker companies who solicit designs from their customer community and then have the community vote on the winners, who are then compensated.   Not exactly collaboration, but it does tap into one of the driving forces of network production – the gratification that participants derive from contributing.  Plus, it adds the profit incentive for the competitors and  “American Idol” component of getting to vote.

“We Are All Journalists Now” is a concept I have more trouble with, so perhaps I should read it. If all bloggers are journalists, then “journalist” loses its meaning, anyone can demand a press pass, and a mafia soldier could start a blog and refuse to testify in a murder trial under the premise of protecting his journalistic sources.

Along with my skepticism about the viability of networked production, I left the class with a greater curiosity for the potential of net-based market-driven production models.

Questions for the author of “The Future of the Internet”

August 18, 2008

1.    Given that openness is a mature, systemic value of computing and Internet culture, describe a realistic scenario in which firm and government-interests transition us to the tethered appliance model that you say is looming.

2.    You advocate more Wikipedia-stye self-policing of Internet behavior to clean up this town and assure the firms that there’s no need to stifle generativity.  How is that realistically enforceable against the serious purveyors of malware and among a generation that has come of age thinking that information not only wants to be free, “it wants to be mine”?

3.    Let’s assume that generative computing holds the line against the appliances over the next decade.  What innovations do you see emerging?

Review: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

August 17, 2008

The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It
by Jonathan Zittrain
Yale University Press, 2008

The last book I read, Yochai Benkler’s,The Wealth of Networks, left me feeling generally optimistic about the cooperative, collaborative, not-for-profit aspirations of our species that are forging successful experiments of social production on the Internet. Benkler cheered me into thinking that, even with all the larceny, depravity, bigotry and witless crudity that stalks the Internet, perhaps humanity’s long-term direction really is upward. Maybe the Internet will turn out to be a shining city on the hill where our higher cooperative and selfless instincts prevail against the profit motive and anarchy to erect temples of collective achievement like Wikipedia.

Next, I read The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, in which Jonathan Zittrain tells me that this great social leap forward could be frog-marched into an evolutionary cul-de-sac by the same dark human impulses that created the military industrial complex: fear, greed and power-mongering.

The Future of the Internet is Zittrain’s wake-up call to shake us from the complacency inspired by the success of the same generative projects that Benkler cites, such as open source software and Wikipedia. Zittrain defines generativity as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” Our cherished open, generative Internet, Zittrain says, has also spawned noxious side effects — spam, denial-of-service attacks, viruses, spyware, invasions of privacy, and threats to copyright — that threaten the profits of corporations and the secrets of governments. They also try the patience and rattle the nerves of the PC-using masses.

An antidote to the toxic detritus that flows through the generative, open Internet, Zittrain asserts, is the opposing model of Internet appliances. These more secure devices such as iPhones, Blackberries, and Xboxes, afford access to the Internet, but unlike programmable PCs, they are essentially “locked down” by the manufacturers. Appliances don’t let us manipulate data on the web or come up with innovative new ways to use them. Zittrain acknowledges that appliances may be perfectly suited to certain functions. His warning is that we are at a crossroads of exasperation with the downside of the generative Internet, and vulnerable to allowing corporate and government interests to steer innovation to a dead-end by foisting an appliance based future on us.

Zittrain’s main achievement in The Future of the Internet is that he lucidly and entertainingly alerts us to what may be at stake by framing his argument in the context of how computing and Internet technology co-evolved. According to Zittrain, the creative, anarchic, anyone-can-play innovative spirit that gave rise to our favorite Internet things, from search engines to YouTube, Skype and social networking sites, is seriously at risk if we go down the appliance road.

One of the more persuasive aspects of The Future of the Internet is the historical perspective Zittrain provides. For example, he notes that two revolutionary products of the age — the Apple II and the iPhone — were both launched by Steve Jobs. While the Apple II inspired generativity in the form of tinkering and programming, the iPhone was locked down. Since Zittrain’s book was published in May of this year, Jobs has opened the iPhone to the developer community, inviting some measure of generativity, but Zittrain’s example nicely illustrates his point. Another historical sea change that Zittrain notes is the decline of the “walled gardens” of CompuServe and AOL against the tide of today’s open Internet, a development that struck me as not unlike the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zittrain’s warning is that the closed paradigm is making a resurgence in the form of corporate controlled appliances. Can Russia’s march into Georgia be a mere coincidence?

As a technological Paul Revere ride (“The appliances are coming!”), Zittrain is not entirely convincing in all aspects of the argument. He returns to the code level as the most important aspect of generativity, but fails to make the case that this is in danger of being taken away from serious open coders. And while tethered appliances may proliferate, it seems unlikely that they will replace PCs in a zero sum game.

Nor does Zittrain deliver much of a corrective prescription to fulfill the “How to stop it” aspect of his title. One approach to preserving generativity, Zittrain says, is to “ensure that individual wrongdoers can be held directly responsible.” His hope is that if the bad guys can be effectively brought to justice and especially deterred from raining on the online parade, corporations and governments will be far less twitchy about leaving the doors to the Internet unlocked at night.

The Future of the Internet is a lively, eloquent argument for preserving the innovative soul of the Internet. While I’m not entirely convinced that we’re now at High Noon in the generative vs. appliance shoot out, I recommend the book for its illuminating historical perspective on the evolution of the Internet and its compelling framing of the issues that will have tremendous bearing on where we go from here.

Reflections on class 8/4/08

August 6, 2008

It was a real treat to have Howard Rheingold make his appearance, and, of course, I was tickled that he started with my question about “How come with all our web-facilitated transparency into politicians and our smart-mob-organizing technology, we have fewer protests in the US than 40 years ago?” Howard didn’t actually answer the question, and, in general, his answers lofted at the altitude of the Big Picture. I’m sure some students were hoping that he’d get more specific than “Follow your bliss” in his answer to Christy’s request for vocational guidance. I personally liked that his answers had the perspective of someone, who, like me, was already in mid-life when this Internet thing came along.

Watching the Benkler video, having the full group discussion and then doing the small group exercise of trying to come up with viable ideas for social production projects made me think that perhaps I was too easy on Benkler in my review of TWoN. My point that the social production model seems to have to sharp limitations to its application (e.g., forget narrative art) was driven home when we strained to brainstorm a real project or two. I don’t recall any that were proposed that lit up the scoreboard or that wouldn’t seem to require a full-time administrator. As with TLT, I think it remains to be seen whether the shining examples the authors site as the basis for their predictions are forerunners or anomalies.

I’ve not included tags with this post because I don’t really want it turning up in other people’s searches or showing up on their Google alerts.

3 Questions for Howard Rheingold

August 4, 2008

In your recent keynote address to the OhmyNews Forum, you comment on the impact of smart mob demonstrations in Korea, the Philippines, and Madrid. Yet, in the U.S. where we have maximum freedom to demonstrate and more citizen databases than we had when you wrote “Who Owns Who in D.C,” we have fewer demonstrations than we had 40 years ago — before we had either cell phones or databases. Why do you think that our greater transparency into politics and all of our smart mobbing technology aren’t converging to inspire more protests or, at least, more organized public confrontations with politicians?

In your OhmyNews address, you raise a warning about smart mobs being not-so-smart, and call for citizen journalism to do a better a job of fact checking and rumor squashing. While the self-vetting process that has evolved at Wikipedia seems to be very effective, Wikipedia doesn’t have the deadline pressure of OhmyNews. Do you see any citizen journalism models that are enforcing a professional-journalism level of factual accuracy?

One way to stimulate more social production of information would be to provide economic incentives for contributors, i.e., freeing them up a bit from their day jobs. Do you see any of the new currency systems you discuss in “The Internet and the Future of Money” as having the potential to meaningfully compensate contributors to social production projects?

Review: The Wealth of Networks

August 4, 2008

The Wealth of Networks
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
By Yochai Benkler
515pp. Yale University Press, 2006

One of the great strengths of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks is that he bases his principal arguments on truths that most of us hold to be self-evident, primarily:

“Information and communication are core elements of autonomy and of public political discourse and decision making.”

Access to information and robust communication is good for individuals, communities and society, Benkler frequently reminds us. The Wealth of Networks is, at one level, simply framed as a manifesto about the desirable benefits of fostering the robust access to and exchange of information, and the negative political and cultural effects of restricted access. The black hats in Benkler’s view are worn by the collective interests of what he calls the industrial information economy. At the top of this food chain are the mass media corporations — the newspaper publishers, broadcast networks, record companies and movie studios who have historically held an oligopoly on media production and distribution because of the high cost getting into the game.

Benkler thoroughly traces how these for-profit information factories have, until the past 15 years or so, made all the decisions about what information gets produced and distributed and how it’s packaged and priced. These decisions are motivated by obvious considerations such as What sells? but also by the more insidious and subversive corporate desires to not arouse the displeasure of advertisers or politicians, concerns that are clearly at odds with fostering autonomy and robust political discourse.

The members of the industrial information club have also effectively lobbied for modifications to, and strict enforcement of, copyright laws in order to extend and defend the royalty-generating power of their properties. This has effectively kept most of the copyrighted works of the twentieth century out of the public domain. Benkler rightfully argues that modern copyright law has had the effect of not only restricting access to information, but also of stifling the creativity of artists who are wary of standing “on the shoulders of giants” who preceded them, for fear of being squashed by the giant corporations that own the copyrights.

Benkler strengthens his indictment of these information restrictions by framing them as a “tax” on the rest of us. We pay it financially when we purchase copyrighted content, and also incur the costs of diminished autonomy and public discourse inflicted by having valuable information withheld from the commons.

The forces of good, as Benkler frames the struggle at the current crossroads, are Internet technology and the nobler aspects of human nature, which have been converging auspiciously to create what he calls the networked information economy. If the industrial information economy is characterized by fat cats with big cigars who want to stop us from freely printing Mickey Mouse onto our party invitations, the networked information economy is driven by such nobler aspirations as non-proprietary strategies for non-market production through mass voluntary, cooperative efforts.

The networked information economy is only recently made possible by the dramatic and continuing reduction in the cost of entry to production and distribution — cheap computer processing and storage capacities, proliferating internet access and expanding bandwidth. Bloggers, open-source programmers, and Wikipedia contributors are part of the social production success story that Benkler repeatedly touts as evidence that the merits of the for-profit paradigm of information production are overstated.

At his most optimistic, Benkler predicts that the social production model will transform the cultural and political landscape by democratizing the creation, aggregation, distribution and filtering of information. “The little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will encounter a culturally contested figure,” a point Benkler illustrates with a full-page chart comparing search results for Barbie on Google, Overture and Yahoo. The internet is now the ultimate baloney detector, giving power to the people and shining the bright light of transparency through the proprietary half-truths of advertising, press releases and spin doctors. What’s not to like?

I give high marks to Benkler for the depth of his analysis, historical perspective and the generally balanced and well-reasoned assessment of the opposing forces in this battle, despite his unvarnished advocacy for social production. Not unlike Chris Anderson in The Long Tail, Benkler’s optimism for the new paradigm he crowns here feels overly exuberant at times. He relies excessively on a paucity of successful social production examples, such as open-source software, Wikipedia, and NASA clickworkers, and fails to convincingly make the case that the model is viably extendible to other avenues of quality information production. That Wikipedia has more page views than, and equal legitimacy with, the Encyclopedia Britannica, may have more to do with the nature of encyclopedias than with the merits of social production. An infinite number of networked, part-time amateur bloggers, no matter how zealous or finely filtered, are unlikely to approach the daily achievement of a few hundred professional journalists at The New York Times. Benkler also devotes a mere five pages to addressing “Critiques of the claims that the Internet has democratizing effects,” including one paragraph on the digital divide, in which he essentially says not to worry because “… the networked information economy is itself an avenue for alleviating maldistribution.” I feel better now. How about you, Africa?

Benkler’s intent in writing The Wealth of Networks is twofold. First, to alert us to the transformative opportunities created by the technological power shift that is enabling social production. Second, to raise the alarm that, unless we re-define intellectual property policies and laws and regulate the infrastructure of the Internet to catalyze social production and access, the powerful interests of the status quo will continue to make the rules, however new the game may be.