Online Symposium: Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet–And How To Stop It

It’s an honor to introduce Jonathan Zittrain and the participants in our online symposium on The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. From tomorrow through Wednesday, we will be discussing Zittrain’s important book, which warns of a shift in the Internet’s trajectory from a wide-open Web of creative anarchy to a series of closed platforms that will curtail innovation.  As  Zittrain predicted, “tethered appliances” dominate our information ecosystem today.  We increasingly trade generative technologies like PCs that permit experimentation for sterile, reliable appliances like mobile phones, video game consoles, and book readers that limit or forbid tinkering.  Zittrain attributes this phenomenon to the unfortunate, yet now predictable, pathologies that generativity enables.  Although generative technologies facilitate innovation, they permit the spread of spam, viruses, malware, and the like.

According to Zittrain, the Internet is at a crucial inflection point.  Rather than sustaining the wide-open Web of creativity and disruption, the Internet may in time become a series of controlled networks that limit innovation and enable inappropriate governmental and corporate surveillance.  Zittrain offers various strategies to forestall such scenarios, including tools to empower users to solve problems that drive users to sterile appliances and networks.  Zittrain argues that our information ecology functions best with generative technology at its core.

The Future of the Internet raises a host of fascinating and timely questions. Is the future of the Internet indeed bleak?  As this month’s cover story for Wired asks: is Zittrain’s dark future only likely in the “commercial content side” of the digital economy?  Might a healthy balance of generative technologies and tethered appliances emerge, or is the move to appliancized networks a grab for control that will be difficult to shake?  Will non-generative technologies impact our democratic commitments and cultural values?  Should we remain committed to protecting generativity?  Are there alternative strategies for preserving innovation besides the ones that Zittrain offers?

To consider these and other issues, we have invited an all-star cast of thinkers:

Steven Bellovin

M. Ryan Calo

Laura DeNardis

James Grimmelmann

Orin Kerr

Lawrence Lessig

Harry Lewis

Daithí Mac Síthigh

Betsy Masiello

Salil Mehra

Quinn Norton

Alejandro Pisanty

Joel Reidenberg

Barbara van Schewick

Adam Thierer

My co-bloggers will join this conversation as well.  In a post in April 2009, co-blogger Deven Desai started our conversation about The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It.  Since that time, the wild-fire adoption of tethered appliances, iPod applications, iTunes, and the like have shown just how prophetic and important Zittrain’s book is.  We are excited for the discussion to begin.

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4 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    At 67, I suppose this is one of the few times when I feel an advantage from being “older.” iPod applications? Tethered applications?

    My reaction is “who cares?” To me, the Internet means the accessibility of information and the ability to communicate with people of like interests throughout the world. I suppose it’s old-fashioned of me, but that viewpoint probably corresponds to my preference for using my computer for mundane things like processing words, numbers, pictures, and correspondence, and for sharing my ideas with folks I’ve never met ITRW, but who nevertheless seem like “old friends” to me.

  2. Weaver2World says:

    The maintenance of the open state of the net is an absolute survival requirement.
    While we can talk ‘face-to-face’, government is forced to be honest.
    Corporate-lobbied, and otherwise corrupted, governments cannot employ media to supply a preferred doctrine if ‘We, the People’ own the media.

    The internet IS Democracy.
    It’s probably the only example of it remaining on the planet.

  3. I’ve just posted a contribution to the Zittrain symposium in http://pisanty.blogspot.com. It is a comment on “The Future of the Internet”, a summary of things going on in favor of an open Internet (mostly in Mexico, which may be less well-known), and a salute to Jon.

  4. Following Danielle Citron’s request, I’ve also included the full text of the blog post at http://pisanty.blogspot.com/2010/09/shana-tova-jonathan-zittrain-on.html – a cleaned-up version will appear later on that site.

    Shana Tova, Jonathan Zittrain – on generativity and on-the-ground activism for an open Internet
    For_Zittrain: Shaná Tová, Jonathan Zittrain

    I have been invited to an online symposium on Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it” – a high honor since the list of participants is well above blue-ribbon:

    Steven Bellovin
    M. Ryan Calo
    Laura DeNardis
    James Grimmelmann
    Orin Kerr
    Lawrence Lessig
    Harry Lewis
    Daithí Mac Síthigh
    Betsy Masiello
    Salil Mehra
    Quinn Norton
    Alejandro Pisanty
    Joel Reidenberg
    Barbara van Schewick
    Adam Thierer

    I have only a slight chance to make a contribution worthy of Jon’s book and of this panel so will modestly try.

    When I first read Jon’s book I thought that his concept of generativity was too fixed in a USian law framework. I have had some chances to share analysis and discussions of a variety of Internet issues in the ISOC Board of Trustees and understand better where he’s coming from and aiming at.

    We definitely need far more people to read Jon’s book. They don’t have to buy it whole. They only need to see the wealth of examples and arguments in favor of open – open platforms, open networks, open standards.

    Yes, if Jon had had a technologist coauthor he may have written a slightly different book, in which you’d be more sure that lofty ideal and grand scheme do get a more solid grounding. Yes, if Jon had been around ISOC and the construction of ICANN he would have more concrete examples and arguments about the dilemmas one faces when actually having to put pieces together and preserve the generativity. But then, probably Jon’s book would also be more flat-footed and less inspirational and that would be a loss.

    I have been campaigning for a few years now, thanks to many lessons from teachers better than I am, for an understanding of the Internet before making or influencing policies and decisions that may affect it irreversibly. In my own realm I have worked through ISOC Mexico and through ISOC global and through ICANN and through several other jobs and undertakings to keep the Internet open, interoperable, widely used, an enabler.

    My luck includes having started actions like the #InternetNecesario campaign with a few enlightened friends. In October 2009 a large community, fired up by its understanding of the initial message and its own love for the core principles of an open, unfettered Internet, managed to partially stop a tax initiative that would class telecommunications and Internet access in Mexico as a luxury.

    This good fortune also accompanied me to organize a panel on core values of the Internet in the FutureWeb meeting associated with the W3C meet earlier in 2010 and let the world hear from the voices of total originals like Scott Bradner, Bill StArnaud, Parry Aftab, Nathaniel James, and Danny Weitzner what these values are.

    The word “generativity” may have gone unspoken but interoperability, end-to-end, an understanding that introducing intelligence in the network instead of at the edge reduces everybody’s freedom and stifles innovation, and the many risks of optimizing networks for single purposes came through loud and clear.

    For this value we’ve gone out and stopped the 3-strikes “graduated response” law initiatives and supported the new legislation in favor of class actions #AccionesColectivas and confronted overreaching intellectual-property protection such as in #3strikes and #CanonMX and #ACTA. Not to brag about stopping stuff; we build, we work, in schools, in small businesses, in NGOs, in research centers; why, yes, some in government. We are the multistakeholder stakeholders.

    This week in Mexico City we have restarted a discussion on a Digital Agenda for the country. A group of us see the continuing discussion in risk of becoming sterile to such a level that we have started to ask for an edge-inwards (not only bottom-up) shaping of the national programs – be they a national broadband plan, or programs to introduce digital content into schools, providing seed capital for technology ventures, what have you.

    The point is now not to wait for an always-coming-tomorrow top-down program but to shape the national agenda by small actions and an edge-inwards discourse. Maybe, Jon, you’d find some interest in this change of metaphor, to complement the top-down/bottom-up coordinate.

    We went to Campus Party Mexico; our young, more than 6,000 of them, spent a week swimming in a sea of endless bandwidth and far more endless comraderie and space. A generation is being shaped. They are entrepreneurial, techy, savvy, bloggy, twitty, smart, committed, fun.

    Yes, they flirt, drink, smoke, download (like mad – massive download is the basal metabolism of digital youth), copy, share; they fight, the argue, they swear. And also, the mod, overclock, build, develop, mash up, code, photograph, film, network, socialize on and offline and all degrees in between, game, learn, teach, team, excite, galvanize, push forward, break through. They are the new flat, the new open. A source of energy and will.

    So maybe, Jon, you may feel in good company with the thousands of good-faith, technically informed people who are tireless in pushing for the open, interoperable, and, did I forget to say – OPEN Internet?

    It doesn’t happen in the US but it happens. We don’t say “the Internet is necessary” but #InternetNecesario. We connect. We think. We speak. We have kept the Internet open. We will keep it so.

    May we, Jon, a year from now, drink to a more open, more generative, more generous Internet, and to a new Shaná Tová.