Why Zittrainian Techno-Pessimism is Unwarranted

In his opening essay in this symposium, Jonathan Zittrain ensures us that he is “not exactly a pessimist.” “I recognize, and celebrate,” he says, “the fact that the digital environment of 2010 is the coolest, most interesting, most option-filled it’s ever been.”  Terrific!  I am glad to hear that because the crux of my repeated critiques of his book, The Future of the Internet, over the past two years has been focused on its unrelenting – and largely unwarranted – pessimism about our possible cyber-futures. Alas, his essay on these pages still displays much of that underlying techno-pessimism and begs me to ask: Will the real Jonathan Zittrain please stand up?

Regardless of whether Zittrain is more optimistic now than when he penned his book two years ago, others are seemingly taking its pessimist message to heart.  Indeed, “the Death of the Internet” is a hot meme in the Internet policy world these days.  Much as a famous 1966 cover of Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” Wired magazine, the magazine for the modern digerati, proclaimed in a recent cover story that “The Web is Dead.” And just this past week, The Economist magazine ran a cover story fretting about “The Web’s New Walls,” wondering “how the threats to the Internet’s openness can be averted.” Like Zittrain’s book, the primary fear expressed in both essays was that the wide-open Internet experience of the past decade is giving way to a new regime of corporate control and walled gardens.

Before addressing this concern in more detail, let’s consider the origins of Zittrain’s pessimism. Zittrain’s Future of the Internet, as well as Tim Wu’s soon-to-be-released The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, might best be understood as the second and third installments in a trilogy that began with the publication of Lawrence Lessig’s seminal 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. 

Lessig’s book gave birth to cyberlaw and the study of Internet policy as we all know and discuss it today. More important, from my perspective, is that Code spawned a bona fide philosophical movement within those circles.  Code was both a polemic against both cyber-libertarianism and Internet exceptionalism as well as a sort of call-to-arms for a new Net activist movement.  The book gave this movement its central operating principle: Code and cyberspace can be bent to the will of the collective, and it often must be if we are to avoid any number of impending disasters brought on by nefarious-minded (or just plain incompetent) folks in corporate America.

It’s hard to know what to label this school of thinking, and Prof. Lessig has taken offense at my calling it “cyber-collectivism.” But the collectivism of which I speak is a more generic type, not the hard-edged Marxist brand of collectivism of modern times. Instead, it’s the belief that markets, property rights, and private decision-making about the future course of the Net must yield to supposedly more enlightened top-down actors and mechanisms. Their central rallying cry – to the extent it can be boiled down to a single term – is “openness!”  “Openness” is almost always treated as The Good; anything that is “closed” (or proprietary) in nature is treated as The Bad.

My primary beef with these “Openness Evangelicals” is not that openness isn’t a fine generic principle around which to organize cyberspace. It’s that (a) I‘m more willing to allow evolutionary dynamism to run its course within digital markets, even if that means some “closed” devices and platforms remain (or even thrive); and, (b) the “openness” they advocate inevitably devolves into expanded government control of cyberspace.

My other problem with this movement, and Zittrain’s book in particular, comes down to that dour, depressing “the-Net-is-about-to-die” fear that seems to fuel this worldview.  The message seems to be: “Enjoy the good old days of the open Internet while you can, because any minute now it will be crushed and closed-off by corporate marauders!”  The Openness Evangelicals want us to believe that the corporate big boys are — someday very soon — going to toss the proverbial “master switch,” suffocating Internet innovation and digital freedom, and making us all cyber-slaves within their commercialized walled gardens.

We might think of this fear as “The Great Closing,” or the notion that, unless radical interventions are pursued – usually of a regulatory nature – a Digital Dark Age of Closed Systems will soon unfold, complete with myriad AOL-like walled gardens, “sterile and tethered devices,” corporate censorship, and consumer gouging.  Again, it’s really just a restatement of the old Lessig view that “Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.”  In other words, most information systems, networks and devices will be bottled up by corporate “gatekeepers” if markets aren’t steered in a better direction by wise philosopher-regulators.

But there are serious problems with “The Great Closing” thesis as set forth in the work of Lessig, Zittrain, and Wu:

1)      There isn’t a clear definition of “open” vs. “closed” systems, and there never will be, and supposedly “closed” networks or “sterile” devices aren’t nearly as closed or sterile as critics claim.  Zittrain praises the supposedly more “open” nature of PCs and praises the openness to innovation that Microsoft’s Windows operating system offers in particular, but others have blasted Windows for years as the Great Satan of closed code.  Meanwhile, Zittrain makes Steve Jobs and Apple’s iPhone and iPad out to be “sterile,” closed appliances, but the company’s App Store has offered millions of innovators the opportunity to produce almost every conceivable type of mobile application the human mind could imagine.  Moreover, those Apple devices don’t block completely “open” communications applications or interfaces, such as web browsers, email and SMS clients, or Twitter.  And certainly no one is forced to spend hundreds of dollars on these Apple products.  There are many alternatives. It’s never been easier to create or find information or applications on multiple platforms – not just via your PC as Zittrain seems to suggest.

2)      There are powerful counter-incentives that discourage companies from “closing” their systems in ways that would negatively impact consumer welfare. Social and economic influences help ensure the scales won’t be tipped completely in the closed direction. The Web is built on powerful feedback mechanisms and possesses an extraordinary level of transparency in terms of its operations. Moreover, the breaking news cycle for tech developments can be measured in milliseconds.  Every boneheaded move is subjected to immediate and intense scrutiny by bloggers, tech press, pundits, gadget sites, etc.  Never has the white-hot spotlight of public attention been so intense in terms of helping to shine light on corporate missteps.  Reputation is perhaps the greatest asset possessed by any tech company, and they work hard to safeguard it.

3)      Most evidence suggests everything is getting increasingly “open” all the time regardless of what any corporation might want.  Most corporate attempts to bottle up information or close-off their systems end badly.  The walled gardens of the past failed miserably, for example.  In critiquing Zittrain’s book, Ann Bartow has noted that “if Zittrain is correct that CompuServe and AOL exemplify the evils of tethering, it’s pretty clear the market punished those entities pretty harshly without Internet governance-style interventions.” Indeed, let’s not forget that AOL was the big, bad corporate boogeyman of Lessig’s Code and yet, just a decade later, it has been relegated to an also-ran. (Has everyone forgotten the hysteria over AOL-Time Warner merger?  Or the fear that AOL would dominate the Instant Messaging world? Someone will need to remind AOL-TW shareholders, who lost hundreds of billions on the deal, what all the fuss was about.) There are few reasons to believe that modern efforts to impose “corporate control” or create walled gardens will end any differently.

4)      The critics greatly overstate the case regarding the supposed evils of closed systems, anyway. They fail to appreciate how there was a need/demand for some closed or “sterile” devices. Why shouldn’t people who want a simpler or more secure digital experience have such options? Zittrain seems to fear that the devices of the hoi polloi will drive out those favored by tinker-happy tech geeks (of which I count myself a proud member). But we need not fear such foreclosure for the reasons I discuss next.

5)      Innovation continues rapidly in both directions along the “open” vs. “closed” continuum. The presence of “closed” systems or devices on the market doesn’t mean innovation has been foreclosed among more “open” systems or platforms.  In other words, a hybrid future is both desirable and possible. We can have the best of both worlds: a world full of some closed systems or even “tethered appliances,” but also plenty of generativity and openness.  Think iPhone vs. Android vs. Windows Mobile vs. the many other mobile operating systems. Some are more closed, others are quite open.  Zittrain says Android, which is open source, is “a sort of canary in the coal mine” but ignores the fact that it is growing at a frantic pace, now accounting for one-quarter of mobile web traffic just three years after its inception.  Not only does he ignore that fact, but Zittrain then reverts to the “kill switch” boogeyman and warns us that any day now Google could change its mind, close the platform, and “kill an app, or the entire phone” remotely. But where’s the business sense in that? What’s the incentive for companies to pursue such a diabolical course of action? Is Google going to start making all those millions of apps on their own which independents developers produce today?  It seems unlikely and unpopular, and can you imagine the lawsuits that would fly if they did try it!  Meanwhile, how many times has Apple thrown the dreaded “kill switch” on apps?  There are tens of millions of apps in the App Store and hundreds of billions of downloads. If Steve Jobs is supposed to be the great villain of independent innovation, he seems to be doing a pretty bad job at it!   Again, today’s supposed “walled gardens” are less “walled” than ever before.

6)      And oh, by the way… the old Internet that Zittrain and others like to wax nostalgic about was never quite as open and generative as they suggest. Let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t really so glorious. Seriously, were you online back in 1994? Did you enjoy Trumpet Winsock, noisy 14.4 baud modems, and narrowband dial-up? Did you like loading up multiple 5 ¼ floppy disks to get an OS running so that you could even use your machine? Yeah, me neither.

But here’s the other forgotten factor: Until the Net was commercialized during that period, it had been an extremely closed system. As Geert Lovink reminds us, “The first decades the Internet was a closed world, only accessible to (Western) academics and the U.S. military. In order to access the Internet one had to be an academic computer scientist or a physicist. Until the early nineties it was not possible for ordinary citizens, artists, business or activists, in the USA or elsewhere, to obtain an email address and make use of the rudimentary UNIX-based applications. [..] It was a network of networks — but still a closed one.”  Moreover, it was only because Lessig and Zittrain’s much-dreaded AOL and CompuServe came along that many folks were even able to experience and enjoy this strange new place called cyber-space. “The fact that millions of Americans for the first time experienced the Internet through services like AOL (and continue to do so) is a reality that Zittrain simply overlooks,” notes Lovink. Could it be that those glorious “good ol’ days” Zittrain longs for were really due to the way closed “walled gardens” like AOL and CompuServe held our hands to some extent and gave many folks (not me!) a guided tour of cyberspace?  Regardless, we need not revisit that ancient history. Again, those walled gardens came crumbling down.

7)      Finally, there’s remarkably little said about possible solutions or an acknowledgment that alternative approaches can have costs or entail significant trade-offs.  At the end of the day, when you peel away all the techno-talk and worry-wart hand-wringing, what Zittrain doesn’t seem to like is that some people are making choices that he doesn’t approve of.  To be generous, perhaps it’s because he feels that they don’t fully understand the supposed dangers of the choices they are making.  But what, exactly, is it that Zittrain wants done, and who or what should make it happen?  Remarkably, he doesn’t offer many specifics in his book or in his essay.  Should consumers be discouraged from purchasing iPads, video game consoles, or TiVos because they are “too closed”? Or should the creators of such gadgets be forced to “open them up,” even if it means that might discourage their development in the first place?  Zittrain really never makes it clear, although he hints that once developers do open their previously closed systems a bit, they should not be allowed to close them back up.  But wouldn’t that discourage the developer from opening things up more in the first place? Again, no answer from him.

Regardless, to reiterate and close, my contention here and elsewhere has been: (a) that things just aren’t as bad as Zittrain makes them out to be; (b) that the evolutionary “open vs. closed” process itself has value; and, (c) who is he to say those choices are irrational or that this spontaneous, experimental process should be interrupted?  If some mere mortals choose more “closed” devices or platforms, then so what? It isn’t the end of the world.  Again, those devices or platforms aren’t really as closed as he suggests – in fact, they are far more open in some ways than the earlier technologies and platforms he glorifies. In sum: We can have the best of both worlds — a world full of plenty of “tethered” appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness.  We need not make a choice between the two, and we certainly shouldn’t be demanding someone else make it for us.

One final point that didn’t really fit anywhere above..  Zittrain worries about “The famously ungovernable Internet suddenly becom[ing] much more governable, an outcome most libertarian types would be concerned about.” He’s referring to a concern addressed in more detail in his book (and Lessig’s Code) that the Net could become more “regulable” because of changes in code and architecture over time. To the extent this is a problem at all – and I have my doubts for the reasons noted above – this is a problem we should handle by putting more constraints on our government(s), not by imposing more regulations on code or coders. Consider privacy and data collection concerns.  While, as a general principle, I think it wise for companies to minimize the amount of data they collect about consumers or websurfers, we need not, and ought not, force that by law, given the huge benefits of data collection and use for innovation and, yes, the openness if the Internet ecosystem! We should certainly hold companies to high standards when it comes to data security and breach (including by FTC enforcement). But, again, the way to deal with the “regulability” threat that Lessig and Zittrain raise is to tightly limit the powers of government to access private information through intermediaries in the first place.

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3 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    My read of the book is very different than yours. First, I don’t get an invocation of collectivism, at least as a paradigm put up against personal rights. On the contrary, I see a thread of individual liberty. Zittrain argues for investiture of community norms when he highlights examples like Wikipedia. It seems to me that he prefers bottom-up from the people, not top-down from the government mechanisms to promote an optimal Internet ecosystem. Perhaps that’s why you have such a difficult time in your #7 identifying regulatory solutions Zittrain proffers; he does propose solutions, but they are of a very different nature from those you are looking for. In fact, one of the problems he seeks a solution to is the “all-too-inexpensive control by regulators.” (III:1) The “radical interventions” he promotes are instead awareness and cooperation. He wants to empower individuals – and companies as well – to develop the tools and practices necessary to maintain the Internet environment that they have made an informed decision that they want. It’s the community park model: everyone works together to keep the park clean and safe instead of relying on hired workers and police to do it for them. Zittrain’s approach is pretty far from a heavy-handed state regulatory regime. And he advocates strongly for individual property rights – consumers’ rights to own what they purchased (Tivo v. Echostar) and do what they want with what they own (including cracking open their iPhones).

    Second, I think the pro-government, anti-corporation dichotomy lurking in the background of your critique is a false one. Zittrain points out plenty of potential abuses of tethered appliances by the government, because tethering makes devices more controllable. Companies figure in these stories most often as unwilling participants enabling such control under duress. In the case of Echostar, government is using the tether to control both consumers and the company (also relevant to your #5, sometimes companies get sued in order to force them to throw the kill switch and get held in contempt if they refuse).

    Third, a good reputation is an asset for any company, but it is hardly the greatest. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has mocked users’ privacy and trust in now public IMs; Google has flipped the kill switch on innocuous Android Apps; Apple has repeatedly been called out for its ambiguous and occasionally Pulitzer-slighting App Store standards. Backlash has been minimal, perhaps because the news cycle is so short. If such reputation backlash is the only counter-measure limiting companies’ shift toward closed systems – I’m not sure it is, but it’s the one you raise – then I don’t think it’s adequate.

    Fourth, Zittrain uses the term “generativity” in the book, specifically to address some of the concerns you have with our ability to define “open” and “closed” systems. It still takes some effort to conceptualize, but would a word that can be fully described in a sound bite be worth writing a book about? Zittain summarizes the factors to weigh when gauging the generativity of a system in Chapter 4, paragraph 12. Suffice to say, generativity is a spectrum, not a switch, so systems can be more or less generative, while only at the extremes will the rare platform be completely generative or completely sterile: the iPhone before third party development was allowed was less generative than the current iPhone. But suggesting that the characteristic of generativity is an invalid metric simply because there are positions on the dial between “on” and “off” misses the point. It’s my understanding that when gauging the prevailing Internet environment as a whole, we want the needle pointing as far over towards more generativity as necessary to promote innovation and not so far that we unduly risk security. Admittedly, that’s likely to be a hard sweet spot to hit, but that doesn’t mean that strategizing about how to get into that range shouldn’t be attempted.

    Fifth, the book describes the pattern of generativity. Yes, AOL et al. were surpassed by the Internet, but that’s because the technology was at that point in the pattern. Maybe you contest Zittrain’s characterization of the process, but he does explain why he thinks the Internet overcame proprietary networks then but is at risk now. And sure, floppy drives and dialup seem like relics, but shouldn’t that just serve to remind us how inglorious would it be to be stuck with the tech of today ten years from now? Zittrain never suggests that we revert. Nor does he admonish us to stop moving ahead. He proposes a way to divine the path forward into innovation that has fewest impediments.

    Finally, the book isn’t pessimistic, unless you consider the Boy Scout motto similarly bleak. You may disagree with the size and likelihood of the risks Zittrain identifies or the solutions he proposes, but recognizing potential problems and preparing to mitigate them is practical, not fatalistic.

  2. Anonymous Coward says:

    “But what, exactly, is it that Zittrain wants done, and who or what should make it happen?  Remarkably, he doesn’t offer many specifics in his book or in his essay.  Should consumers be discouraged from purchasing iPads, video game consoles, or TiVos because they are “too closed”? Or should the creators of such gadgets be forced to “open them up,” even if it means that might discourage their development in the first place?”

    Jennifer mentions the answer: “he advocates strongly for individual property rights – consumers’ rights to own what they purchased (Tivo v. Echostar) and do what they want with what they own (including cracking open their iPhones).”

    We need to make sure there is no protection in the law for locking platforms up. For example, cut the DMCA back to what it was sold as, a mechanism for solely copy protection rather than for gatekeeper control and competition suppression. The point, in general, is that if someone wants to make or use an app for a device like an iPhone, and they have to jailbreak it because the manufacturer won’t let them do it otherwise, the manufacturer (or the phone company, or anyone else) should have no legal right to enjoin them.

    As long as it is legal for anyone to “open” a closed device that they own, the problems attendant to closed devices will be mitigated, at a minimum, by people having that option. Moreover, if the makers of closed devices want to keep them closed they have to be sure not to abuse their customers to such a degree that the customers expend the efforts to, so to speak, break the devices open.

  3. [The message seems to be: “Enjoy the good old days of the open Internet while you can, because any minute now it will be crushed and closed-off by corporate marauders!”]

    That is odd, The.Big.Lie.Society has been the clique that has “crushed” innovation and “closed-off” access to better technology.

    It Seeks Overall Control