The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It

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Full Title of Reference

The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It

Full Citation

Jonathan L. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It (2008). Web

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Key Words

Generativity, Transparency, Worm


This book explains the engine that has catapulted the Internet from backwater to ubiquity—and reveals that it is sputtering precisely because of its runaway success. With the unwitting help of its users, the generative Internet is on a path to a lockdown, ending its cycle of innovation—and facilitating unsettling new kinds of control.

IPods, iPhones, Xboxes, and TiVos represent the first wave of Internet-centered products that can’t be easily modified by anyone except their vendors or selected partners. These “tethered appliances” have already been used in remarkable but little-known ways: car GPS systems have been reconfigured at the demand of law enforcement to eavesdrop on the occupants at all times, and digital video recorders have been ordered to self-destruct thanks to a lawsuit against the manufacturer thousands of miles away. New Web 2.0 platforms like Google mash-ups and Facebook are rightly touted—but their applications can be similarly monitored and eliminated from a central source. As tethered appliances and applications eclipse the PC, the very nature of the Internet—its “generativity,” or innovative character—is at risk.

The Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity. Its salvation, Zittrain argues, lies in the hands of its millions of users. Drawing on generative technologies like Wikipedia that have so far survived their own successes, this book shows how to develop new technologies and social structures that allow users to work creatively and collaboratively, participate in solutions, and become true “netizens.”

  • From the book's introduction:

In the arc from the Apple II to the iPhone, we learn something important about where the Internet has been, and something more important about where it is going. The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules (either coded for a particular operating system, or respecting the protocols of the Internet). Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control. These appliances take the innovations already created by Internet users and package them neatly and compellingly, which is good—but only if the Internet and PC can remain sufficiently central in the digital ecosystem to compete with locked-down appliances and facilitate the next round of innovations. The balance between the two spheres is precarious, and it is slipping toward the safer appliance. For example, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 video game console is a powerful computer, but, unlike Microsoft’s Windows operating system for PCs, it does not allow just anyone to write software that can run on it. Bill Gates sees the Xbox as at the center of the future digital ecosystem, rather than at its periphery: “It is a general purpose computer.... [W]e wouldn’t have done it if it was just a gaming device. We wouldn’t have gotten into the category at all. It was about strategically being in the living room.... [T]his is not some big secret. Sony says the same things.”

It is not easy to imagine the PC going extinct, and taking with it the possibility of allowing outside code to run—code that is the original source of so much of what we find useful about the Internet. But along with the rise of in- formation appliances that package those useful activities without readily allowing new ones, there is the increasing lock-down of the PC itself. PCs may not be competing with information appliances so much as they are becoming them. The trend is starting in schools, libraries, cyber-cafés, and offices, where the users of PCs are not their owners. The owners’ interests in maintaining stable computing environments are naturally aligned with technologies that tame the wildness of the Internet and PC, at the expense of valuable activities their users might otherwise discover.

The need for stability is growing. Today’s viruses and spyware are not merely annoyances to be ignored as one might tune out loud conversations at nearby tables in a restaurant. They will not be fixed by some new round of patches to bug-filled PC operating systems, or by abandoning now-ubiquitous Windows for Mac. Rather, they pose a fundamental dilemma: as long as people control the code that runs on their machines, they can make mistakes and be tricked into running dangerous code. As more people use PCs and make them more accessible to the outside world through broadband, the value of corrupting these users’ decisions is increasing. That value is derived from stealing people’s attention, PC processing cycles, network bandwidth, or online preferences. And the fact that a Web page can be and often is rendered on the fly by drawing upon hundreds of different sources scattered across the Net—a page may pull in content from its owner, advertisements from a syndicate, and links from various other feeds—means that bad code can infect huge swaths of the Web in a heartbeat.

If security problems worsen and fear spreads, rank-and-file users will not be far behind in preferring some form of lock-down — and regulators will speed the process along. In turn, that lock-down opens the door to new forms of regulatory surveillance and control. We have some hints of what that can look like.

Enterprising law enforcement officers have been able to eavesdrop on occupants of motor vehicles equipped with the latest travel assistance systems by producing secret warrants and flicking a distant switch. They can turn a standard mobile phone into a roving microphone—whether or not it is being used for a call. As these opportunities arise in places under the rule of law—where some might welcome them—they also arise within technology-embracing au- thoritarian states, because the technology is exported.

A lockdown on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field. Stopping this future depends on some wisely developed and implemented locks, along with new technologies and a community ethos that secures the keys to those locks among groups with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, rather than in the hands of a single gatekeeping entity, whether public or private. The iPhone is a product of both fashion and fear. It boasts an undeniably attractive aesthetic, and it bottles some of the best innovations from the PC and Internet in a stable, controlled form. The PC and Internet were the engines of those innovations, and if they can be saved, they will offer more. As time passes, the brand names on each side will change. But the core battle will remain. It will be fought through information appliances and Web 2.0 platforms like to- day’s Facebook apps and Google Maps mash-ups. These are not just products but also services, watched and updated according to the constant dictates of their makers and those who can pressure them.

In this book I take up the question of what is likely to come next and what we should do about it.

Additional Notes and Highlights

Expertise Required: None

Review from the Sunday Times (UK)