Jonathan Ziltrain: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it.
The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it
Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2008, Zohine
Here is an important and controversial book to be widely read. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it explores crucial issues. In spite of the technicalities of most of the topics, J. Ziltrain's writing is fluid and elegant, the arguments are clear and well documented. J. Zitrain is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and also one of the founders of the well-known Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard Law School).
In a few words, J. Ziltrain is performing "an urgent wake up call". The Internet is heading towards "ruin ... victim of its own success"! Indeed, Internet is a wonderful world of opportunities. This unanticiped achievement is nevertheless facing ever increasing security threats. Genuine or not, phenomena of anxiety or fear are spreading (viruses, spyware, cyber attacks, invasions of privacy, and so on).
Business Week in a recent issue warns of "The Dark Side of Web Anonymity" (BW, May 12, 2008). On the Princeton Campus a website, Juicycampus.com diffuses malicious gossips by unidentified users. This proliferation of interactive Internet sites provokes controversies, sparks new debates about free speech on line. The New Jersey Attorney General, where Princeton is located, is investaging Juicycampus.com with strong support among legal authorities from Connecticut to California.
Like it or not, there is a growing demand among Internet users for reliability, privacy, safety and security. Such new products and services such as iPods, iPhones, Xboxes or Tivos try to fulfill these legitimate and popular expectations. But there is a huge cost according to J. Ziltrain. To quote the author: "Security threats [...] are now driving us to a new form of "tethered" appliances, unable to be modified by anyone except their vendors [...]. Tethered appliances have unusual and worrisome features. They have already been used in remarkable but little-known ways: car GPS systems have been reconfigured to eavesdrop on their owners ... [...]. New Web 2.0 platforms like Google wash-ups and Facebook are righty celebrated but their applications, even those written by outsiders, can similarly be monitored and controlled from a central source".
As the reader expects the main casualty of the trend towards more "tethered" appliances is the original "chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution". J. Ziltrain is at his best when he surveys the unconventional developments of Internet and PC technologies that foster innovations and creative disruptions.
Using Wikipedia both as an experiment and as a prototype, J. Ziltrain explores pragmatic principles aiming at implementing a realistic "generativity", i.e.: "the system's capacity to produce unanticiped change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences" (cf. p. 70). Concretely a generative system exhibits five main features: (i) leverage: the more a system can do, the more capable it is of producing changes; (ii) adaptability: how easily the system can be built on or modified to broaden its ranges of uses; (iii) ease of mastery: how new contributors can master it; (iiii) accessibility; (iiiii) transferability: how changes in the technology can be conveyed to others.
Obviously the framework of generativity is related to other familial notions of information technology ("Free Software", "Affordance Theory", "Theories of the Commons"). One of the advantages of the notion of generativity is to be analytic and to offer opportunities for concrete operationalizations.
Nevertheless such a broad, concise and analytic framework faces the stubborn evidence: can the generativity framework deal with the increasing complexity of the Internet and the overwhelming power of commercial interests? Let's hope with J. Ziltrain that the promise of security will not give enough reason to give up imagination, entrepreneurship, social norms sharing and freedom. But can we expect the French government, for instance, to promote such a Schumpterian-Tocquevillian policy?