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.