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.

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.

Book review: The Long Tail

July 14, 2008

Chris Anderson’s “Aha!” moment that inspired “The Long Tail” seems to have come while he was looking at a graph representing a month’s worth of customer usage data for the Rhapsody music service. “I realized that the curve was unlike anything I’d seen before,” he writes in his Introduction.

He saw that a small number of hits that had been downloaded the most were at the head of the curve, which then fell off steeply but never reached zero as the long tail of the curve extended to include the total number of tracks available on Rhapsody. Even the 400,000th track was being downloaded a few times per month.

It isn’t until deep into “The Long Tail” on page 180 that Anderson sums up the significance of this new business model for the consumer:

“The Long Tail is nothing more than infinite choice.”

Anderson traces the roots of the Long Tail to the Sears & Roebuck catalog, an agent of infinite choice for late 19th century America. Enabled by the simultaneous maturity of the railroad and postal systems, the Sears catalog broke the tyranny that geography had held over consumer choice. By 1897, it offered 200,000 items to rural Americans who were previously limited to the provisions of the local general store.

Anderson portrays Amazon as the modern-day inheritor of Sears’ legacy and, by far, the most successful Long Tail purveyor of physical goods. Unlike, Rhapsody and iTunes, Amazon is a “box shifter,” and must deal with the cost-incurring problems of inventorying and distributing things made of atoms instead of bits.

Amazon has succeeded by effectively passing this buck to affiliates who participate in the Amazon Marketplace programs. Retailers and distributors of any size and stripe can have their stuff listed on Amazon, but they bear the cost of warehousing and shipping it. This aggregator strategy is key to Amazon’s success, which Anderson sites as comprising 40 percent of the company’s retail sales volume at the end of 2004.

Anderson relies heavily on the success of Amazon and other Long Tail superstars such as ITunes, Rhapsody and Google to hold out the promise of the Long Tail as a viable business model. He acknowledges that end-to-end digital offerings such as music present the fewest challenges and biggest advantages over their “brick and mortar” counterparts. In WalMart music resides in CDs that have to be shipped, warehoused, displayed on shelves and handled by clerks before getting to the customer. It behooves WalMart to devote the resources and real estate required to offer the 3000 CDs that can be displayed in one store to the “hits” most likely to be in demand that day by greatest number of customers.

ITunes and Rhapsody, meanwhile, can cheaply store and distribute an unlimited selection of digital song files in increasingly narrower genres, because there is no penalty for carrying products that don’t sell.

To Anderson’s credit, this prospect of the consumer finding a “Paradise of Choice” in the Long Tail is as close as he gets to promising any utopian outcomes from Long Tail economics. Throughout the book, he avoids the giddy exuberance that paradigm-shifting phenomena can inspire in authors and, the publisher would hope, readers. After all, books about The Next Big Thing that promise to upend the status quo would seem to have a better chance of creating watercooler buzz and becoming hits.

For example, Anderson acknowledges that infinite choice comes bundled with infinite crap, and stresses the importance of filtering mechanisms such as search tools and recommendations  to increase the likelihood of a painless, low-risk and satisfying customer experience. The consumer’s plea, says Anderson, is “Make everything available. And make it easy for me to find it.”

Anderson cites the three essential forces of the Long Tail as: the production of more stuff to lengthen the tail, the distribution to make the contents of tail available to the niche markets, and the connection of supply to demand — a process of using our attraction to hits to increase demand for niche stuff to satisfy our most individual appetites.

The way to get more stuff made, he argues, it to democratize the means of production. He cites the role of amateurs and peer production in the success of Wikipedia; the “exposure culture” of the Web, in which getting noticed is everything; and self-publishing and accessible audio and video technology as blurring the lines between producers and consumers. Yet, Anderson never adequately connects this democratization of production and distribution to a successful Long Tail business model. Wikipedia is non-profit and YouTube, the platform for all that nouveau auteur video, gets plenty of eyeballs but, to date, cashes few checks.

Toward the end of “The Long Tail,” Anderson seems to be aware that he has relied too heavily on examples from the digital entertainment sector to convey the promise of the Long Tail business model. He gives us a chapter of other success stories, but these are either less convincing (KitchenMaid and Lego) or one-off category dominators (Ebay and Google Adwords), which, like Amazon and iTunes seem unlikely to be rivaled or replicated any time soon.

“The Long Tail” is a well-researched and generally balanced treatment of a very big idea, a work that intelligently frames a phenomenon that is challenging the dynamics of conventional economics. The only thing that kept me from turning the last page and exuberantly declaring that “This is the future!” was my inability to think of a fresh example of profitable Long Tail success that has emerged in the two years since the book was published.