The Future of the Internet and How To Review It

I finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It” many weeks ago, and have been struggling with just what to say as far as a review. (Several folks on Twitter asked my opinion when I tweeted about it…) On one hand, it’s a terribly important book, as it gets at a critique of the direction technology is quickly moving today. On the other, I think it falls short in two ways; one that might be particular to me, and another, that’s far more important.

A google search for reviews of FOTI yields 150,000 results — apparently, the last thing this world needs is another review of this book! So, for brevity’s sake, here is the 30 second version: Because computer security has become so difficult to manage, there is a trend today pushing computer tech “safer” by making it more proprietary; unfortunately, this also makes computer tech less “generative.” In other words, we’re trading innovation for security. And that’s bad.

There are, overall, two very compelling components of this book. First, Zittrain writes a thorough history of the Internet, weaving the themes of security and innovation throughout. He spends time detailing the pre-web days, a history that is often overlooked. The “Internet,” of course, did not begin with Netscape — online pay services, such as Compuserve and Prodigy, provided the precursors to today’s distributed communities, the first time a critical mass of users were introduced to each other virtually. (Previously, online interaction had primarily been the domain of techies…) Yet these private pre-web domains also provided a model for a locked-down net — unlike today, where anyone can put up a website with relative ease, it was very difficult for users to get their content into these “walled gardens.” Fast-forward to today, and sites like Wikipedia enable user-generated content and, more importantly, a social community with guidelines and standards that have helped it become one of the most popular sites on the Internet.

Zittrain’s history of the net is certainly important for anyone not familiar with this subject matter. The problem, though, is for anyone who has studied this history, or — ahem — may be of a particular age, as — ahem — I am, may have actually lived through this history. For anyone who remembers the sound of a modem dialing up into their college’s bank of access numbers (some readers at this point may be asking, “What’s a modem?”), or remembers the feeling when they first entered a place like LambdaMOO and saw people interacting with people — and bots(!), or surfed the text-only web with Lynx, Zittrain’s version is somewhat, dare I say it…bland.

While this text could certainly serve as, for example, a college course’s text as a means to guide students through the early days of the net, there are much richer, more compelling texts that get at this period of time — Rheingold’s “Virtual Community” and Dibbell’s “My Tiny Life” immediately come to mind.

And while providing a more compelling narrative of the net’s history wasn’t at all Zittrain’s goal, it made the book somewhat, again, dare I say it, boring, only because so much of that history was already known to me. Throughout the first half or so of the text, I just kept wanting to fast-forward, to get something that was new. (It also did not help that I had seen JZ speak twice before reading the book, so I generally knew his argument going in.) So, while this may be particular to me and my personal knowledge of the subject matter, much of FOTI felt like a familiar history review.

The second compelling component of this book is, of course, the thesis itself. Zittrain’s warning is an important one. The trends we see today in computer tech — the popularity of devices such as the iPhone, the success of “cloud computing” and “SaaS,” the Facebook Terms of Service fiasco — all point in the direction of a less innovative, more controlled Internet. His notion of less-generative, “tethered” connections are similar to the central theme of Nicholas Carr’s “Big Switch,” in which Carr compares the Internet to electricity. Just as we get power from a monopoly, and the service is essentially unhackable, one day we may find ourselves using centrally-managed, completely unhackable software and hardware.

Yet, just as I agree with the importance of Zittrain’s message, I find myself less enthusiastic about his solution to this problem. Whether or not you agree his book falls short here may depend on just how optimistic or pessimistic you feel about human nature in general, for the future of the Internet, according to Zittrain, depends on our ability to pull together, to find common cause in an ethical approach to technology:

…we must figure out how to inspire people to act humanely in digital environments that today do not facilitate the appreciative smiles and “thank yous” present in the physical world. This can be accomplished with tools—such those discussed in the previous chapter and those yet to be invented—to foster digital environments that inspire people to act humanely. For the generative Internet fully to come into its own, it must allow us to harness the connections we have with each other, to coordinate when we have the time, talent, and energy, and to benefit from others’ coordination when we do not. Such tools allow us to express and live our civic instincts online, trusting that the expression of our collective character will be one at least as good as that imposed by outside sovereigns—sovereigns who, after all, are only people themselves.

Zittrain points to Wikipedia as a model of this collectively ethical and humane behavior. And while it’s true that the Wikipedians have helped to build a useful system that manages to somehow pull order out of the chaos that is a completely open and editable website, at the same time, Wikipedia is vulnerable to a very fair critique that, rather than being an encyclopedia of human knowledge, it has become a repository of “things that can be verified by CNN and other corporate-owned media.”

The Wikipedia Art project helped raise this critique. For another example, one I found somewhat at random, look at the discussion page for media theorist Joshua Meyrowitz in Wikipedia, whose entry was nominated for deletion on January 2, 2008. It was flagged both because, to the wikipedians, it seemed to be written be the author himself (“vanity” violations), and also failed for a lack of “reliable sources.” Now, the fact that his wikipedia entry stands today is perhaps a testament to how well Wikipedia works. But reading through the discussion page, I get the sense that if different, more adamant wikipedians were involved, Meyrowitz’s page may have been deleted. In any case, the point remains that “reliable sources” really means, “what we can find in a google search” — making Google the determining factor in Wikipedia’s usefulness.

Zittrain’s FOTI, then, left me feeling somewhat divided at the end. His message is a significant achievement in distilling the dangers of where we’re headed — I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re moving into uncharted territory when it comes to personal data being handed over to this “cloud” of a small number of corporate, profit-driven entities who may or may not protect our data, depending on whether or not it makes financial sense. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that making Apple the gatekeeper of what is “good” software and what is unacceptable (as they do for anything that gets onto the iPhone) is counterproductive.

At the same time, I worry that figuring out how to “inspire people to act humanely in digital environments” is an insufficient solution to this trend. While we can build tools and put our faith in the kinds of communities created on sites like Wikipedia, it may not be enough to stop the juggernaut that is the corporate entity. What’s most worrisome is that people seem to have no inhibitions about turning over their lives to Facebook and Google. That people are willing to submit themselves to becoming marketing fodder for the “free” use of a website. That people don’t know, and don’t seem to be interested in, even the basics of computer security and safety. (You sent me a link? Sure, I’ll click it!) And that these things are done day after day, without self-reflection, without questions.

The future of the Internet is unknown, but if it depends on people becoming more conscientious users of technology, I have my doubts.

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