I’ve really enjoyed the back-and-forth in this symposium about the many issues raised in Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Net, and I appreciate that several of the contributors have been willing to address some of my concerns and criticisms in a serious way. I recognize I’m a bit of a skunk at the garden party here, so I really do appreciate being invited by the folks at Concurring Opinions to play a part in this. I don’t have much more to add beyond my previous essay, but I wanted to stress a few points and offer a challenge to those scholars and students who are currently researching these interesting issues.
As I noted in my earlier contribution, I’m very much hung up on this whole “open vs. closed” and “generative vs. sterile/tethered” definitional question. Much of the discussion about these concepts takes place at such a high level of abstraction that I get very frustrated and want to instead shift the discussion to real-world applications of these concepts. Because when we do, I believe we find that things are not so clear-cut. Again, “open” devices and platforms rarely are perfectly so; and “closed” systems aren’t usually completely clamped down. Same goes for the “generative vs. sterile/tethered” dichotomy.
That’s one reason I’ve given Jonathan such grief for making Steve Jobs and his iPhone the villain of his book, which is highlighted in the very first and last line of Future of the Net as the model of what we should hope to avoid. But is it really? Ignore the fact that there are plenty of more “open” or “generative” phones / OSs on the market. The more interesting question here is how “closed” is the iPhone really? And how does it stack up next to, say, Android, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Palm, etc.? More importantly, how and when do we take the snapshot and measure such things?
I’ve argued that Zittrain’s major failing in FoTN—and Lessig’s in Code—comes down to a lack of appreciation for just how rapid and unpredictable the pace of change in this arena has been and will continue to be. The relentlessness and intensity of technological disruption in the digital economy is truly unprecedented. We’ve had multiple mini-industrial revolutions within the digital ecosystem over the past 15 years. I’ve referred to this optimistic counter-perspective in terms of “evolutionary dynamism” but it’s really more like revolutionary dynamism. Nothing—absolutely nothing—that was sitting on our desks in 1995 is still there today (in terms of digital hardware / software, I mean). Heck, I doubt that much of what was on our desk in 2005 is still there either—with the possible exception of some crusty desktop computers running Windows XP. Read More