Future of the Internet

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Book: Jonathan Zittrain. The Future of the Internet = and how to stop it. Yale University Press, 2008.

URL = http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300124873

Book on the dangers to an open Internet Governance and a Generative Internet

Jonathan Zittrain defines generativity as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences."


Explanation by Doc Searls:

"in The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008) Jonathan Zittrain introduces readers to one of the Internet's virtues: support for generativity by its inhabitants. Jonathan defines generativity as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences."[1] Opposing this, he says, is a counterrevolution that "would push mainstream users … to an applianced network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today's Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity — and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability." (http://www.linuxjournal.com/content/saving-net-iii-understanding-its-frames)


Key thesis, by Jonathan Zittrain:

"In the arc from the Apple II to the iPhone, we learn something important about where the Internet has been, and something more important about where it is going. The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules. Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile or contingently generative appliances tethered to a network of control. These appliances take the innovations already created by users and package them neatly and compellingly, which is good—but only if the Internet and PC can remain sufficiently central in the digital ecosystem to compete with locked-down appliances and facilitate the next round of innovations. The balance between the two spheres is precarious, and it is slipping toward the safer appliance.

If security problems worsen and fear spreads, rank-and-file users will begin preferring some form of lockdown. A software development kit for the iPhone is just being launched, intending to harness the value of contribution from outsiders while allowing control by and security through Apple: software authors will have to register, and their applications may only be made available through the Apple iPhone App Store, where Apple can control what may be installed on the phones. In turn, this sort of lockdown opens the door to new forms of regulatory surveillance and control. We have some hints of what that can look like. Enterprising law enforcement officers have been able to eavesdrop on occupants of motor vehicles equipped with the latest travel assistance systems by producing secret warrants and flicking a distant switch. They can turn a standard mobile phone into a roving microphone—whether or not it is being used for a call. As these opportunities arise in places under the rule of law—where some might welcome them—they also arise within technology-embracing authoritarian states.

We face a constitutional moment in cyberspace, not because of a watershed moment of oppression by a sovereign, but because of difficult choices of our own making: abuse of our open network and hardware by some among us, and a resulting mass movement towards – indeed, demand for – lockdown. Our future can be kept generative only if we can continue to see the Internet’s invitation to be participants in its use, rather than consumers of it. The path forward is illuminated by the coupling of technological tools – like wikis – that have promoted openness, with social customs and law – like those of Wikipedia – that solicit people to take an active part in building the world they want, rather than simply paying for it and expecting others to do the rest." (http://publius.cc/2008/05/15/jonathan-zittrain-the-future-of-the-internet-%e2%80%93-and-how-to-s/)


By Geert Lovink:


Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Internet is based on a myth. Zittrain needs a foundational myth of the Internet in order to praise it’s past openness and warn for a future lockdown of PCs and mobile phones. From the ancient world of Theory we know why people invent foundational myths: to protect those in power (in this case US-American IT firms and their academic-military science structures that are losing global hegemony). The Zittrain myth says that, compared to centralized, content-controlled systems such as AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy, the ‘generative’ Internet of the late 1980s was an open network. But this was simply not the case, it was closed to the general public. This foundational myth is then used to warn the freedom-loving guys for the Downfall of Civilization.

The first decades the Internet was a closed world, only accessible to (Western) academics and the U.S. military. In order to access the Internet one had to be an academic computer scientist or a physicist. Until the early nineties it was not possible for ordinary citizens, artists, business or activists, in the USA or elsewhere, to obtain an email address and make use of the rudimentary UNIX-based applications. Remember, this was the period between, roughly speaking, 1987 and 1993, before the World Wide Web when fancy multimedia CD-ROMs already ruled the PC world and the txt-only command line Internet already looked geeky and painfully outdated. Back then, the advancement of the ugly looking Internet was its interoperability. It was a network of networks–but still a closed one. This only changed gradually, depending on the country you lived in, in the early-mid nineties.

As an (indirect) response to this closed Net, NGOs, social movements and the cyberunderground maintained their own Bulletin Board Systems and participated in store-forward initiatives like FIDONET. The participants in this public network culture avant la lettre got used to high telephone bills. Until the mid nineties academic institutions subsidized the high costs for Internet connectivity and bandwidth, until Internet providers and telecoms took over and costs were spread over the millions of new customers that started to pay a monthly flat fee, which they continue to do so till today.

Pre-Internet high-level exchanges made it worth to stay up late and wait until you were able to get onto one of the rare dial-up lines. The artist network The Thing was a case in point. The same could be said of The Well. These systems thrived on their lively forum culture and their ability to create new subcultures. The BBS cultures went into decay once their were exposed to the much larger Internet.

The difficult Internet access was contested by hackers who were not university students. This only changed bit by bit in the early nineties, in conjunction with the arrival of the colorful buttons and images. In the case of the Netherlands, the Internet became a public facility in May 1993, now 15 years ago — an anniversary recently celebrated by the hackers ISP Xs4all that played a pivotal role in this process of media democratization. In the meanwhile systems like CompuServe offered centralized gateways to the Internet email. Many might remember the email addresses with numbers such as [email protected]. In fact, these were the very first emails I wrote down in my address book, in 1991, without being able to use them as I wasn’t an academic and lacked the connections to engineers and technologists at university to lend me their password or create a user-ID for me. For a period of at least five years BBS-alike systems were superior to the nerdy Internet. The BBS forums were as lively as Usenet and until the late nineties had no comparable Internet equivalent (some say they still don’t).

Apart from a single reference to FIDONET, nothing remains of this early cyberculture in Zitttrain’s book. His scheme is simple: Internet good, AOL and CompuServe bad, early Apple II good, iPhone bad, and so on. The fact that millions of Americans for the first time experienced the Internet through services like AOL (and continue to do so) is a reality that Zittrain simply overlooks. Concerning the closed nature of iPhone (a rather marginal type mobile phone from a worldwide perspective), it would be more interesting to ask why hackers have ignored these vital communication devices for so long (I know, there are exceptions, but they are rare). Twice as many people use mobile phones compared to the PC and the potential, in particular in non-Western countries is high. Hackers by and large ignored the closed architecture of mobile phones and rather focused on the PC, even though they frequently use mobile devices (they have to stay in contact with their IT bosses who are not using IRC chat, MSN, Twitter and so on)." (http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/geert/2008/10/12/zittrains-foundational-myth-of-the-open-internet/)