Jonathan Zittrain at the RSA

Jonathan Zittrain holds the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute. I’m a big fan of his because he makes me laugh uncontrollably – deliberately, I should say.

The RSA is a special place where you and I get to listAen to the world’s luminaries, such as Jonathan Zittrain, for free. Tonight we also received, for free, the bounty of the luminary’s book, in hardback, and after he had spoken, wine and snacks (AOL must be making a buck again). This was all very gratifying since the principal reason I decided to go was to find out about The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. I really like Becky Hogge, the chair, too. She heads the Open Rights Group, of which I’m an inactive member, writes on technology for the New Statesman, and used to be head of technology at OpenDemocracy.

So I want you to listen to the sound file and possibly even watch the video – I’d really recommend it. It’s not up yet but you can find it on the RSA site.

Jonathan Zittrain charted a history of computers from their ‘tethered’ beginnings with punch-card census machines whose inventor used to hire them out to the US Government at $50k per year “back when the US dollar meant something”, so assuming a mediating role between fixed-purpose technology and its user, moving on to the genesis of the personal computer which separated technology from its application and allowed “badly dressed mischievous a-social nerds” in backwaters across the planet to begin to create software (his notion of ‘generativity’), and ultimately where we are now – spam, malware, Facebook Apps and Wikipedia.

His worry is that the generativity will give way to a tethering where hardware and software companies dictate what can run on their kit, and who can do what with it. He pointed at the Facebook developers’ terms and conditions – basically they can pull the plug on you anytime. There’s a lot at stake – invasions of privacy, software applications reining themselves in overnight because of, say, patent infringement – he drew the analogy of your toaster developing a third slot one morning, pulling it the next, and making orange juice on the third – surveillance and invasions of privacy.

He wants small scale funding distributed to many backwater nerds, he wants diversity and parallel projects (such as Citizendium using Wikipedia as a starting point for its fork into an encyclopaedia which is less of a free-for-all).

Afterwards over appalling red wine (but, as I said about the coffee-flavoured urn wine at the carol concert last year, you do not look a gift horse in the mouth) Matt P and I had a number of interesting conversations with people from ORG, Privacy International, and Open Source Africa, among other institutions. ORG are starting a library of – what did she call it, dunno – ISP jumpiness, to record the kind of thing that happened to Eric Lee when threat of libel made his ISP pull the plug on Labourstart necessitating a move to a server in a whole different country. I will make sure they know about that one.

Because it occurred to me, I spent some time on my journey home trying to fit Jonathan’s and Becky’s politics into the small amount I know about socialism. The Internet in its current generative form seems to be an emancipatory force, and yet it is regarded as an enormous threat by all socialist states as covered in a previous post. In fact, Jonathan Zittrain kicked off with the image of South Koreans floating solar-powered radios into North Korea (where their receivers are broken to only receive 3 stations). The Internet is objectionable to any authoritarian, and socialism tends towards the authoritarian when pressured. Socialism depends on people cooperating according to a predefined way of doing things – unlike capitalism it is extremely vulnerable if even a small proportion of the masses at the bottom of the power hierarchy don’t play the game, and instead sow seeds of dissent or resentment. With capitalism, if you don’t play the game you have no chance to get the (enticingly dangled but by no means guaranteed) rewards – in other words, it looks after itself as a self-perpetuating system (I’d be very sorry if capitalism were the best we could do though). The generative, free-thinking qualities of today’s Internet are why the Chinese regime routinely censors it. Censorship constrains its democratic potential to the extent of an information tool which also serves to consolidate power.

But over here in all their freedom and merciful lack of responsibility, practically all the groupuscules on the Left stretch the Internet to its most unregulated and anti-proprietary extent (think Indymedia). Although this is good, it seems highly probable that this free use would decrease in proportion to the degree of power a socialist organisation gained – socialist societies are supposed to look unswervingly to the centre of power for their cues in life and submit to Party discipline. I know of no example to the contrary, at a state level. On the other hand, being far from power, the groupuscules are hives of dissent and argument – they are small, each member is close to leadership and has influence in an organisation whose ethos, in the ideal, is to value individuals equally and to reject the idea of power hierarchy (this is perhaps why they fracture before they can grow, and this is perhaps why the site of the biggest, the Socialist Worker, is so lifeless (it accepts comments but they’re proactively moderated – and strangely I can’t find any). If I had more time, I’d like to study how left groups use the Web for activism (I’m particularly interested in commenting tools and their use). Maybe I should put in a bid somewhere…

The ethos of Zittrain and Hogge with respect to technology (which is all I know them for) is liberal and democratic. Light restraints to limit the worst that could go wrong (protecting without wrecking), but otherwise as free as it can be without breaking. They’re for individual rights like freedom – to think, to adapt things, and to privacy. They stand against controlling corporations and against the bolting down of technologies. I’ve never really thought about this civil rights stratum of politics and where it fits into the political spectrum before. And I can’t seem to muster any insights now.

Matt P came with – will he blog it too?

Other news, members of University and College Union are splashing around in considerable amounts of antisemitism. And it seems we have to put up with it if we want to remain in UCU, because UCU will not act – in fact UCU has banned David Hirsh and subsequently those who post on his behalf. This is unbearable and I understand why people go public (read the comments, particularly Brownie’s responses to The Irie, who is very dense and not at all out of the ordinary).


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