The Gospel of Generativity

In today’s New York Times, Steven Johnson shared his recent crisis of faith.  Johnson has long believed in open platforms to promote innovation and diversity online.   In his view, the “gospel” of openness goes like this: “In the words of one of the Web’s brightest theorists, Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard, the Web displays the ‘generative’ power of a platform where you don’t have to ask permission to create and share new ideas.  If you want democratic media, where small, innovative start-ups can compete with giant multinationals, open platforms are the way to go.”  Johnson has apparently devoted a hundred pages of book chapters, essays, and blog posts spreading the “gospel” of openness.

Now, Johnson is rethinking his belief in openness.  Why?  As Johnson explains, Apple’s iPhone software has been the “most innovative in the history of computing.”  More than 150,000 applications have been created for the iPhone in less than two years, and small developers created so many of them.  As Johnson notes, “it’s conceivable that, had Apple loosened the restrictions surrounding the App Store,the iPhone ecosystem would have been even more innovative, even more democratic.  But I suspect that this view is too simplistic.  The more complicated reality is that the closed architecture of the iPhone platform has contributed to its generativity in important ways.”  Consumers have been willing to experiment with apps because they come from a trusted source.  At the same time, the single payment mechanism helped nurture the ecosystem by making it easier to by apps “impulsively” with one-click ordering.  In Johnson’s view, while the iPhone/iPad ecosystem likely could benefit from a little more openness, it has made clear that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

This summer, Concurring Opinions will take up this question in earnest.  Jonathan Zittrain will join us for an online symposium on his book The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop ItThe Future of the Internet has already generated (forgive the pun) exciting reviews.  Ann Bartow’s review recently appeared in the Michigan Law Review and James Grimmelmann and Paul Ohm have a forthcoming one in the Maryland Law Review.  We are going to build upon this literature, joining legal academics and computer scientists to discuss the net’s future.  Perhaps even Steven Johnson will join in on the fun.

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3 Responses

  1. Mnch says:

    I like Johnson, but he leaves off the bookend to Zittrain’s notion of generativity – the tethered appliance. It’s great, I guess, that app designers have a platform for innovation, but I fail to see how this could persuade someone from believing in open platforms.

    Basically he seems to be saying, in analogous terms, “but look at all these great tv shows you can use to make your television do things it couldn’t before.” That’s fine, but I’d rather have two things. The first is an open platform where I can make the changes on the back end so that my own device operates the way I want it to. Second, the ability to alter how I view the Internet through that device.

    What is better the thousands of add-ons for Firefox, or the thousands of apps for the iphone/ipad? I’m sure it is blogtastic that you can get your Zagat’s guide in the palm of your hand, and that you can get served up hot fresh iAd notices when you are walking down the street. Personally, I’d rather the option to turn off javascript, block ads and the like. I want (some semblance of) control over my Internet experience, not a version that forces me to rely on what some creators give me for $2.99 a download.