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Getting a Tax Refund? Buy A Book — Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

Jonathan Zittrain’s new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, was released today. There is much to recommend in the book and too much to address well in a blog post. Still, having finished it, I can say that it offers many insights.

In short, as Zittrain explains in three principles: “Our information technology ecosystem functions best with generative technology at its core.” “Generativity instigates both within and beyond the technological layers of the information technology ecosystem.” “Proponents of generative systems ignore the drawbacks attendant to generativity’s success at their peril.”

The presentation of the history of generative systems is worth the candle alone. There Prof. Zittrain tracks not only the rise of the Internet as we know it, but cautions us with reminders of early battles in the world of IBM mainframes and AT&T telephones. By framing the issue so that one sees how easily the world of “tethered appliances” could have been our world, Zittrain offers a glimpse of how we could inhabit such a world.

The explanation of the generative pattern captures the way small, powerful, and potentially disruptive technologies allow for great and rapid changes with large upsides, but by their nature foster the possibility of pernicious behaviors when adoption spreads to a general population. When that happens several areas of concern such as cybersecurity, spam, privacy, net neutrality, intellectual property, and more impact the generative internet. (For those unfamiliar with the idea, generative technologies exhibit five characteristics leverage, adaptability, ease of mastery, accessibility, and transferability (p. 71-73); for a related model of understanding some of these ideas I suggest Brett Frischmann’s An Economic Theory of Infrastructure and Commons Management).

The discussions of all these areas alone makes the book worth a read. In addition, it appears that Prof. Zittrain picks up a theme I have started to explore (so I may be projecting here) that may surprise some: the law is not necessarily useful or the best way to address these problems. Rather, just as the Internet grew from community efforts, it may best be governed by such efforts. To be clear Zittrain is no fool. He knows that states, pan-state groups, and large trade or interest groups have roles to play. But he makes a compelling case that just as the Internet grew from individuals and small groups who “identify[ed] and belong[ed]” to the Net, today we need to re-create the Internet community so that people “identify and belong” to it such that they tend to it and allow it to continue to grow. For Zittrain such a shift will harness the efforts of numerous good actors to thwart the bad actors while keeping open room for the unpredicted, innovative, and in a word generative Internet that has provided so much to us thus far.

cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

1 thought on “Getting a Tax Refund? Buy A Book — Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”

  1. I just wanted to note that a portion of Prof. Zittrain’s book appears online at Boston Review, along with response pieces by a number of legal and technical luminaries:

    Bruce M. Owen of Stanford,
    Richard Stallman of the FSF,
    Susan Crawford from Yale Law,
    David D. Clark of MIT,

    Roger A. Grimes from Microsoft,
    and Hal Varian of Google

    The writers (unsurprisingly) offer a wide range of opinion and insight into Prof. Zittrain’s work, and raise a number of issues and challenges that we’ll be facing as the Internet continues to mature and change.

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