For the last class, watch Zittrain’s presentation on The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. This talk last roughly an hour, you can also watch him on the Colbert Report.
After watching, post your comment here.
Early on his talk, Jonathan Zittrain expresses a Gunkel-like distaste for binary oppositions. He proposes the terms “sterile” and “generative” to characterize machines, sterile meaning a machine that cannot be reprogrammed (e.g., Hollerith’s census tabulator), and generative meaning a machine that can be reprogrammed (e.g., Steve Jobs’ creation of the PC). Eventually, Zittrain reveals the third option in the sterile/generative binary: “contingently generative technology” or “tethered appliances.” These are generative technologies with a catch, or “tethered technology put into the web,” as he says. I think he said iPhone apps are contingently generative, since users create them, but they must be filtered through Apple’s scrutiny and then purchased through Apple.
I thought it was really interesting how Zittrain placed IBM’s early business model in context of the business model initiated by Hollerith. That is, a top-down model of scary machines that intimidate users so that if something goes wrong or they need something new, they must take the machine to the company for help. In 1977, Zittrain explains how Steve Jobs came up with a generative platform in the Apple PC, putting the power to update machines, add software, or change code in the hands of the user (I think that is what he said, but I might have that wrong). Continuing with his mini-history of generative technology, Zittrain explains how the internet, founded by “asocial nerds,” has no main menu, no plan, and no dependence on market research to figure out what users want. The internet is generative, and when it combined with the generative PC, the result was “the explosion of the 90s.” Although I am not certain what he meant by “explosion” (?), I suppose he means an increase in web sites and software.
The problem arises, Zittrain says, when we have “a collective hallucination that assumes people are reasonable and nice.” In the bottom-up, polyarchical quadrant of generative internet networks, it’s all fun and games “until a couch-surfer gets killed.” Zittrain says that we need cynicism in order to preserve a generative future, and that we have to think beyond the free/proprietary binary. We need to use the bottom-up, hierarchical quadrant to think of beneficial solutions to the “weird” problems that happen in a generative web environment. Having not read his book, I do think his claim is born from the frustration he feels as an Internet lawyer. He says his law firm (I think is what he said?) handles thousands of cases a week, and they have a 10-day lag time to handle appeals of reportedly hacked sites. Of course Zittrain and other Internet lawyers want some help from the community in dealing with such an “untenable situation,” as he calls it. Correspondingly, Zittrain calls for “community-oriented processes that blend the naivete of the earlier years with some of the cynicism we need today that can stop a future that doesn’t have the state coming in automatically to save us from ourselves.” I would be curious to know more details about how the field of Internet law would be affected (or injured?) if Zittrain’s call is answered over the coming years.
I’m glad he addressed the problem with the iPhone being a closed platform and that Apple has the right to remove any app from the App Store without any good reason for it, and that it’s really the old way of doing things. Surprised that he didn’t mention alternative install sources like the Installer and Cydia. I would have liked to hear his thoughts on the rogue iPhone developers. From my experience though, I noticed that there was a lot more talk about harmful and broken apps in the App Store than on the Installer, even though no one monitors the sources you add to it. An app would not be removed, but if you’re in the loop, you’ll know which apps not to install.
Humorous and interesting. Zittrain touched on several hot topics.
Certainly the topic of surveillance, wire taping, and privacy would be at the top of the list of rights they aren’t willing to give-up.
His discussion of radio in Korea.
I don’t see the problem with Apple, Google, or Facebook controlling the content of the apps that are allowed to run on their platforms. How is this any different that a retailer preventing products from being sold in their stores that are inconsistent with their family oriented environment. For example Borders declines to the distribute Hustler Magazine or package stores cease to sell tobacco products.
As for Microsoft and Quicken, Zittrain seems to have forgotten that Microsoft is notorious for squashing companies that refuse to play by their rules. Example Netscape.
I gathered from Zittrain’s talk that sterile technology is any technology in which the “menu” is the same from the time you buy it to the time it dies and generative technology is any technology that can run third-party software or that the user can change in a significant way. We came out of the sterile tech mode and into a generative technology with the advent of the computer, but, according to Zittrain, we are heading back toward sterile models with every new gadget.
If items like cell phones can be altered by the government to eavesdrop on our conversations, are they really sterile? The iPhone, which Zittrain held up as one of the beautiful tethered (the new sterile) items, is changeable. Apple says it takes good pictures, but jail breaking it allows for video. Apple has yet to release an iPhone that shoots video, but the right software turns that camera into motion pictures. So while tethered, the iPhone is most definitely a generative technology. Users just can’t tell Apple what they’re doing.
Does the fact that we are heading back to a sterile or tethered model mean we will get back to the CompuServe/Prodigy model of censoring what users can see? China does it, why not us? And that brings up huge privacy issues. Say we end up censoring everything (not too hard, really). That could lead to eavesdropping on everyone with the cell phone microphone trick. Slippery slope argument, I know, but it’s scary stuff. I’m personally fairly open, but I understand the need for privacy. Particularly after Zittrain’s discussion of the worm in the ChuckRoast site. How long before some hacker puts a worm into my smart phone or the FBI’s cell phone monitoring computers and get my medical information. Do they need to know the results of my most recent physical? Probably not. But Barack Obama’s most recent physical might be interesting. What if they find a melanoma on the CEO of company X? How long before the stocks drop to nothing? This is life changing potential stuff!
Zittrain’s required cynicism line is good, but how many people actually have and benefit from that cynicism? Not everyone knows what the site certificates are for. Nor does everyone know that iPhones can do more than Apple says it can. He’s right when he calls for the tinkerers and explorers to remain vigilant in the face of EULAs. But just in case the smart ones do wander off into the ether, what can the rest of us (who might not understand the inner workings of every technology we touch or use) do to ensure we aren’t tethered to the wrong entity?
Let’s say Steve Jobs is a curator.
The art gallery Apple asks you to create a work for the iPhone exhibition they are putting on. They give you paint and a canvas and you create. You submit your final product and they reject it, saying it is not to the show’s taste. You then seek out a gallery that will accept your artwork; you stumble into Google’s gallery, and see the exhibition named Android seems to accept any old thing people feel like hanging up. You hang up your art there; it’s accepted and admired by some. Google’s gallery is un-regulated however, and people could come in and paint over your canvas, altering the artwork you created maliciously. Also, in Apple’s gallery, if a certain piece of work isn’t enjoyed by people visiting they will take it down and hide it immediately; this makes art stagnant and banishes any hope of an artistic movement away from the current.
Although these sterile products exist, platforms will always be created for generative products once they are rejected by sterile platforms. If some revolutionary Android application is created and widely acclaimed, it will definitely be accepted by the iPhone. Do we need to have both sterile and generative? I’m not sure, but it seems like we can’t have one without the other. People need the safety net that the sterile platform offers us – what the sterile platform contains only exists because of generative innovation. That is my current understanding of this dichotomy and I don’t fully understand Zittrain’s move away from it, but I’ll look into it more once this semester is over and I have time to breath! It’s a very interesting topic.
Here are a couple of news stories about the dreaded CouchSurfing site. (I promise, everyone on there is REALLY nice so far.)
One from San Francisco and one from Dallas
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