In his provocatively titled new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argues that the open, innovative Internet that we have come to know and love is slowly dying and giving way to a more closed and "sterile" digital world. But contrary to what Zittrain would have us believe, reports of the Internet's death have been greatly exaggerated.
We have two paradigms from which to choose in forging the Internet's future, Zittrain believes. In the first, digital devices and the Internet remain "generative" and "open." By "generative," Zittrain means technologies or networks that invite or allow tinkering and creative experimentation--specifically, general-purpose personal computers and the traditional, wide-open Internet. The second paradigm, he argues, would give us a world of "tethered, sterile appliances," by which he means technologies or networks that discourage or disallow tinkering and openness. He cites "take-it-or-leave-it" proprietary devices like TiVo and Apple's iPhone, or online walled gardens like cell-phone networks or the old AOL.
Zittrain fears that the second paradigm may already be taking over from the first, largely because the generative model has become a victim of its own success. That is, the openness of PCs and the Internet has given us an abundance of connectivity and creativity, but it has also brought us the scourges of spam, viruses, identify theft, and cyber-bullying. More and more, we "Netizens" are questioning the benefits of the old model, Zittrain worries, and we may increasingly look to restricted devices and closed networks as an alternative. "This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from the generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized 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," he writes.
But Zittrain is wildly overstating things. Not only is the Net not dying, but there are signs that digital generativity and online openness are thriving as never before. Spend an afternoon, for example, on Go2Web2.0.net--which bills itself as "The Complete Web 2.0 Directory"--and the linkable logos of thousands of innovative, collaborative sites and services will bombard you. The number of interactive Internet sites and services is growing exponentially: blogs, social networking, hobbyist sites, self-help, shopping and consumer advice, medical information, politics, and on and on. No matter what your fancy, there are sites and services--likely hundreds, if not thousands--just for you. Better still, almost all are free.
Zittrain seems oblivious to this fact, or he dismisses it by stressing that some sites or services are growing more closed and some popular consumer devices are becoming more "sterile, tethered and appliancized." But does that really mean that the Internet is dying? One would be hard-pressed to find two technologies that have made consumers happier in recent years than the iPhone and the TiVo. Zittrain, however, implies that these devices are force-feeding the masses only those services or information that a handful of corporate overlords deem worthy of mass consumption.
Essentially, Zittrain creates a false choice regarding the digital future we face. He doesn't seem to believe that a hybrid future is possible or desirable. In reality, however, we can have a world full of some tethered appliances or even semi-closed networks that also includes generative gadgets and open networks. After all, millions of us love our iPhones and TiVos, but we also take full advantage of the countless other open networks and devices at our disposal. Most of us prefer somewhat tethered devices and networks to the occasional Wild West experience of the purely open Internet.
Further, while it's true that the creators of iPhone and TiVo maintain a high degree of control over the guts of the devices or their operating systems, the technologies themselves are hardly sterile or non-generative. In fact, these devices have amazing uses, and they have both recently become more open to third-party add-ons and applications. Geeks who demand still more are also hacking away at these and other digital devices to get them to do everything but wash their dishes.
Most of us want networks and digital devices that work. Zittrain, by contrast, seems to long for the era when we all had to load floppy disks into our PCs each morning to get our operating systems running. But those were hardly the good old days. Device makers realized that only techno-geeks would tolerate such hassles, and so our PCs and phones now come with more software and services built in to make our lives easier. Nothing stands in the way of those who still prefer the rugged individualist approach to conquering cyber-frontiers and digital devices. But what Zittrain does in The Future of the Internet is generalize his personal preferences to the whole of cyber-society. What's good for the ivory-tower digerati may not be what the rest of us want or need.