July 11, 2008

The Future of the Internet, How to Stop It, and Me

A few weeks ago, Oxford University professor Jonathan Zittrain recommended Firefox 3 on The Colbert Report. While getting the bump for the browser from this great show was certainly a win for Mozilla, more provocative was the new book Zittrain was discussing with Colbert, entitled The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

Contrary to the Luddism I’d assumed the book’s title implied—e.g., that the Internet is a terrible thing and needs to be dismantled—Zittrain instead celebrates how open and positive the Internet and personal computing have been for us, but warns that this liberating period is in danger of coming to a close.

I can certainly agree with the first part: as far as technology goes, it seems to me like we’re living in something of a golden age of computing. Participatory, user-generated content is ubiquitous. An organic, community-authored browser has been declared the best way to experience the web, and a vast number of people rely on a surprisingly balanced community-maintained encyclopedia as a major source of information about their world. Individuals who want to learn about programming and create solutions to help or entertain others can do so on an open web, using free tools that they can take apart, modify, and remix as they please, without needing much more than an Internet connection and a computer. Extremely low-cost computers and network infrastructures are being created for those with lower incomes, thereby helping create a more level playing field for children.

This is an improved version of the world that I grew up in, where my first computer, an Atari 400, was like a blank slate waiting to be experimented with. But what drew me most to this particular kind of tinkering—as opposed to, say, electronics, a field which I still know next to nothing about—is that both experimentation and the sharing of one’s creations had negligible costs associated with them. After one had a computer and perhaps some instructional materials, inventing things with it involved spending no money on supplies, since the computer came with its own version of BASIC. There was no “gatekeeper” preventing you from distributing your software to as many people as you wanted, either by printing out your source code, or putting your program on a disk, or uploading it to a BBS.

Growing up in a freedom-infused computing environment like this, it was no surprise that I was a bit puzzled when I ran into things that had computers inside but didn’t let me tinker with them and share my solutions with others. Cell phones are the most obvious example of this; when I bought my first in 2001, while I understood some of the motivations behind my phone carrier and manufacturer “locking me out” from being able to tinker with my phone, I was nonetheless disappointed.

It’s the distinction between these two philosophies of information devices that Zittrain is concerned with. The personal computer and the Internet are generative tools that invite their users to discover new uses for them, providing the freedom to create and share at the cost of security and reliability: costs like tremendous quantities of unsolicited spam, phishing websites, botnets, viruses, and a diverse software ecosystem that inevitably results in bugs and crashes. The cell phone that we know today, on the other hand, is sterile: if it even allows any kind of invention and sharing, it does so in a very restrictive way, but with understandable motives. For instance, not only are we socially conditioned to expect a phone to not crash while making a call, but it’s actually life-critical that this be true, e.g. when calling 911 during an emergency.

In short, Zittrain is concerned about these kinds of choices we make, between freedom and safety, in the world of information. He believes that while the history of the Internet has been one of enormous generativity, it’s eminently possible for its future to be one of sterility as we’re continually faced with new challenges that personal computers and the Internet were never built for.

I’ve only read Part I of his book so far, and I’ve found his analysis to be quite thought-provoking, as well as a little frightening. What impresses me most, however, is one of the more mundane aspects of his work: it’s published under a Creative Commons license, which means that, among other things, you can read it online and collaboratively annotate it with others, download a PDF and print it out (or send it to your sterile Kindle like I did), or pretty much do almost anything else you want with it. That Zittrain has actively chosen to allow his own work to be freely used for generative ends suggests to me that he practices what he preaches.

© Atul Varma 2020