Future of the Internet Symposium: The Right Theory

When The Future of the Internet was published, I knew immediately it was a big deal. Paul Ohm had very much the same thought. And so we got together, called ourselves an institute, and jointly wrote a book review, which we titled “Dr. Generative Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone.” I wish I could link to it, but it’s not quite out yet–it went to the Maryland Law Review’s publishers about a month ago, and isn’t back yet. In its place, though, I thought I’d run down the main points Paul and I make in our review.

The book’s gerat contribution, the reason it will stay on shelves as long as we Internet academics still believe in printed books, can be boiled down to one word: “generativity.” In the Lessig/Reidenberg/Kapor tradition of thinking about computer code as a kind of regulation, one of the central questions has always been which features of the Internet’s architecture make it THE INTERNET, and thus worth caring about. People have proposed a lot of different virtues. “Openness,” as Adam discusses below, is a disconcertingly capacious and imprecise term. But most of the more concrete alternatives–“end-to-end”-ianness, “neutrality,” “layering,” “standardization,” “decentralization,” “tinkerability,” “free-as-in-freedom” software, and the “commons”–turn out to be near misses. They focus too narrowly on one part of a much bigger puzzle. For example, as Laura’s work demonstrates, even though standardization makes the Internet possible, it can also be a tool of political control and repression.

In contrast, Paul and I call generativity “the right theory.” The Internet’s capacity to support large and unanticipated creativity and innovation on a wide variety of levels is remarkable. Focusing on generativity allows us to sum up, in one simple concept, what makes the Internet distinctive, and distinctively valuable. That alone is a serious achievement. One can dispute–as this symposium is already showing–perhaps everything else in the book. But there really is no arguing with the theory of generativity itself.

That said, however, Paul and I express somewhat more skepticism about some of Zittrain’s applications of generativity. Our problem with the book–or, really, our reason to look forward to the sequel–is that only in a few places does the carefully worked out theory really make contact with his practical recommendations. The final third of the book consists of some very clever case studies and proposals, but there’s something of a missing link: the proposals don’t always clearly follow from the theory of generativity.

Our central example, and the backbone of our review, is Zittrain’s discussion of the iPhone. It, and other “tethered appliances” feature what he calls “contingent generativity“: they can be programmed and extended for now, but Apple can always pull the plug on anything it doesn’t like. He’s afraid of that future–but the reasons he gives to worry about it aren’t really concerns about generativity as such. They implicate other values, like free speech and individual autonomy, and one must do more work than Zittrain has to link these values up with generativity. Indeed, it’s easy to make arguments that the iPhone and iPad have been massive improvements for generativity; recall Apple’s ad campaign that other phones have “the kinda sorta looks like the Internet” but the iPhone has “the Internet” itself.

Whether this and similar compromises–such as Google’s ability to turn off its cloud, or Wikipedia’s ability to revert your edits and ban your IP block–are worthwhile restrictions or not has to come from a richer, multivalued theory. That is, we think Zittrain has really and truly pinned down the fundamental architectural virtue of the Internet, but only just started on the long road of harnessing that theory to give advice for practical policy problems. In The Fourth Quadrant, Zittrain has started in on that important work–and we hope it’s a down payment on that sequel.

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5 Responses

  1. Jason Treit says:

    “Dr. Generative Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone”: best law review article title evar? Dying to read!

  2. Maryland Law Review? Sorry – don’t think that publication has the necessary cache with the CO’s Authors to merit a link here.

  3. James Grimmelmann says:

    My apologies. Here is a link to the page on the MLR website where you could download our review, if it were available yet, which it isn’t. I hope you find the link useful.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Doesn’t the generativity of the Internet make it a distinctive threat, as well as distinctively valuable? Is it appropriate to regard “other values, like free speech and individual autonomy,” as external to generativity — as, it seems, stumbling blocks to the goal of the greater glory of generativity?

    I think an excessive enthusiasm for innovation is leading you to assume there is some division between “generativity as such” and those “other values,” just as neoclassical theory holds that the economy can be separated from the environment. In the economics case, that led economists to assume that environmental problems didn’t affect the purity and symmetry of their theory, and could be removed by appropriate pricing (in what physicists would analogize to a gauge transformation). The fallacy there, as Georgescu-Roegen and others have pointed out, is that all economic activity occurs in a physical environment, and has unavoidable physical consequences. The physical consequences are inherent to economic activity. I suspect there’s a similar entanglement between those “other values” and the generativity you’re so fond of.

  5. James Grimmelmann says:

    I don’t think I’m saying what you think I’m saying.

    Generativity is the “right theory” of the Internet because it encapsulates a whole set of proposed architectural virtues of openness succinctly. To the extent one cares about creativity and innovation on the Internet (at every scale) and their architectural determinants, generativity is the value to focus on. That’s the first part of my post, and of Paul and my review. That’s not a discussion of all possible values, just a point that “generativity” is a good encapsulation of a set of related themes that people have been talking about for a while.

    The point of the transition to bringing in other values is that one cannot do generativity analysis in a vacuum. In this, I think we’re in agreement. If your Playstation can be nuked from orbit, that’s partly a generativity problem, but it’s also an autonomy problem, and several other values besides. The Future of the Internet has a lot of interesting case studies, but “generativity” itself is often doing less work in them than one might think. Zittrain is bringing these other values in, but under the table. He’s not really theorizing their relationship to generativity in a way that supports the case-specific analysis, and that theorization is a rich and important vein for him and other scholars to mine.

    As for the Internet being distinctively threatening, too, yes, definitely. That’s a major theme of the book, and I’ve been writing about that duality for years. On balance, though, generativity on the Internet has unleashed a lot more good than bad, at least as I see it.