Review: The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It

5 Star, Future, Information Society, Information Technology

Future InternetSuperb, Engrossing, Useful, Relevant, Alarming, March 25, 2008

Jonathan Zittrain

I ordered this book on the strength of the title, and on receiving it, discovered that the author is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at the Harvard Law School (they hate it when we just say “Harvard”–must be a culture thing). So right off I know this is at least as serious a book as I hoped for.

The book is instructive without being tedious, alarming without being hysterical. It is balanced, informed, and most relevant to all of us.

The entire book focuses on the transformation of the Internet from one in which the innovation could be done at the edges, with generative innovation that built on the provided software or hardware, to one in which we are allowed to buy tethered appliances like iPhone or X-Box that are “locked down.”

Even PCs are being locked down today, and with this and other examples the author has my total attention.

He suggests that the end point matters, and that the confrontation between flexibility and openness, versus security and perfect reliability (and later, perfect enforcement) is one that requires more creative thinking rather than knee jerk mandates one way or the other.

He notes that historically IBM tried to bundle everything, and they were forced by anti-trust to unbundle, just as AT&T was, as Microsoft was, and as Google will be if the USG Government ever gets either honest or informed–either will do. Look for my book review of “Google 2.0: The Calculating Predator” to understand this suprnational unsupervised threat to multiple sectors, never mind privacy and copyright.

In a nutshell, he frames the challenge as that of modularity within which the end-user can innovate, versus walled gardens that are locked down.

In passing the author vindicates both Morris, and the manner in which justice was applied. Morris intended to count the computers on the Internet, and screwed up the code. The judge intended to punish him but not end his promising career. All good.

The author discusses what Vint Cerf and others have, the degree to which bots have taken over tens of millions of computers, using broadband connections left on at all times to create a subrosa network that does evil.

On page 63, three important principles from the author on generativity:

1. Our information technology ecosystem functions best with generative technology (i.e. NOT with locked down appliances hard-wired to a center)

2. Generativity instigates a pattern both within and beyond the technological layers of the information technology ecosystem (i.e. content collaboration and social collaboration and value-added)

3. Proponents of generative systems ignore the drawbacks attendant to generativity success at their peril.

This is followed by a great discussion of features of a generative system as they would be hoped for by the author:

– Leverage
– Adaptability
– Base of mastery
– Accessibility
– Transferability

He cites benefits of a generative system as including:

– Non-profit social innovation
– Disruptive innovation
– Broad participation
– Generative systems from generative building blocks
– Recursion (of value) to content and then to society

The scary chapter in the book–the author is elegant but one needs little help to imagine the worst–discusses how tethered appliances enable “perfect enforcement” to include GPS devices turned on remotely to serve as audio surveillance on demand, and so on.

Turning to solutions, the author distinguishes between flexibility needed at the content level (he is laudatory about Wikipedia) and the technology layer. He discusses one possible solution, a Green-Red split system in which the Green system is locked down and totally reliable, and the Red system is open to innovation but also treated with caution.

He calls for better easier security tools for group and individual use, but as one who could never ever find a coder willing to document their code, and as one completely fed up with the pig code that comes out of Microsoft and Norton–pig in the sense of way too much crap and way too big a footprint–I fear that only an open source conversion experience will do. I note with interest a chart that shows that Sun Open Systems are the LAST to plug security holes, Not good.

The author suggests a “least harm” protocol.

He calls for a very large conversation among end-users, coders, manufacturers, regulators, and so on, and what I hear him saying is that the “system of systems” is on auto-pilot, the government is out of brakes (or brains, I would add), and if we don’t all do a collective “STOP, We Want to Discuss This,” we are destined to suffer the same fate as the sheep at Virginia Polytechnic who stood still while a moron killed 20+ of them–stood still while he reloaded. Had the sheep “rushed and crushed,” no more than one or at most two would have died. I am harsh here, because information technology can either be our cage or our liberation, and the author is very well qualified to present the case for concern.

I learn for the first time on page 174 of the National Science Foundation’s FIND initiative, and that alone is worth the price of the book.

Turning to protections, the author discusses data portability, network neutrality and generativity (I can assure all readers, Google is neither neutral nor generative), Application Program Interface (API) neutrality; privacy, individual liability versus technical mandates, and collective character (digital shunning combined with reputation bankruptcy and a clean sheet fresh start).

He discusses privacy 2.0 and problems such as code, patent, and content thickets. I like very much his reminding us that the Constitution provides for anonymity to encourage unpopular opinions. He naturally discusses data genealogy (what I call data provenance, like an art work), and reputation.

In passing, I love the brutal critique by Gene Spaford of the $100 laptop. He likens its projected impact–exposing millions to the bright side while not fixing their poverty, water, and disease–to subsidizing pet rats for every household just prior to the Black Death plague. My friend Lee Felsenstein is an equally virulent opponent of the $100 laptop, for different reasons. Me personally, I think the cell phone (but not the iPhone) is the only way to educate 5 billion people fast and with day to day relevance to their needs.

I put the book down feeling pensive, and wondering why CISCO CEO John Chambers, who has been asked in writing via Federal Express three times, continues to refuse to create a router-server that is both recyclable (or even better, updatable remotely without having to flip boxes) and that will provide data at rest encryption and Application Oriented Network (AON) features at the point of creation–in other words, every creator can control the privacy, content routing, access, sharing, and so on, and by implementing something like Grub Search on the same box, we can put paid to programmable search engines patented by Google that will only show you what the highest bidder has paid to “allow” you to see, and to the Googleplex, which “confiscates” everything it touches and then claims to “own” it–including your medical records.

This is a great and important book, if you care about the global role of the Internet is creating wealth and consequently peace.

Ten other books that come to mind as equally important:
The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World
Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West
Manufacturing Consent
Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin
Managing Privacy: Information Technology and Corporate America
Who Owns Information?
Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway
In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations
The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

My bottom line: as we all press toward localized resilience in community, I for one would be happy to shun all tethered appliances and rely solely on collective human intelligence in community. I really like the work of Naomi Klein (No Log, Disaster Capitalism) and Paul Hawken (Blessed Unrest, Natural Capital, Ecology of Commerce). We are all long overdue for a massive boycott of all that is not in our interest, and we can start by evaluating the true costs of fuel, long-distance food and clothing, and perverted uses of water that we are running out of.

Peace.

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