Jonathan Zittrain is we, the users

I watched Jonathan Zittrain’s stand-up routine on The Future Of The Internet with my boss. Jonathan Zittrain is a bit like Ferris Bueller, Bugs Bunny or a much less tragic Max Fischer in Rushmore. When I want him to feel really good about himself, I tell Matt that if it wasn’t for him and me it would be me and Jonathan Zittrain. I’m sure he gets that all the time.

We’ve had a good run with technology but any minute now we are liable to find crunch time upon us. The channels we use to receive communication and information are the same ones through which we are infected with viruses and inundated with spam, and we should be feeling pretty vulnerable. But Zittrain is worried that if we devolve responsibility for dealing with this to the companies which provide our hardware and software environments, we will achieve sterilisation and reliability of the technologies we use at the expense of rights, privacy and the freedom to experiment. We will be affected by the whims and vulnerabilities of the companies who provide the sterile environments. He worries that companies like Apple with the iPhone are increasingly controlling what users do with the machines they sell us, obliging users forfeit our statutory rights if we want to tinker and do anything different, stopping users from experimenting, making the technology entirely dependent on the direction of the company in question and obliged to share its legal and financial fate, making users consent to remote updates as a condition of use, making us surveillable and so on. So Facebook frees us from Spam but makes it a default that we advertise to our friends, invites us to contribute third party apps but reserves the right to pull those apps without notice. The Amazon Kindle is only for reading Amazon books – no PDFs. And so on – a gradual diminishing of interoperability obliging us – particularly those of us who are not wealthy or not technologically intrepid – to limit ourselves to the narrow horizons of Apple, Amazon or a Tivo and the put-up-or-shut-up rollercoaster of developments this implies.

So what then? We can discuss norms but would be utopian to suppose that spam will stop or that the majority of us will become technologically nimble. Anybody who supposes that there is any such thing as a ‘digital native’ is missing a big point about the complexity of these technologies, the rapidity with which they evolve, and the nature of learning. Analogously, we’ve had financial systems which do complicated variations on the theme of abstracting market value from use value for quite some years now but generation after generation has to struggle to come to terms with its vagaries. So something needs to be done which protects systems from malware without turning our technological lives into the equivalent of the Truman Show. Regulation has to be balanced against rights. Will the sleeping geeks wake up once lock-down is upon us and hack us out of danger, or make us a new Internet? I wouldn’t want to rely on the philanthropical predisposition of geeks – they might pretend otherwise but they wouldn’t want me to either. There’s a balance to be struck between total unregulated laissez-faire generativity, which only favours the technological experts and the dangerous pacification and sterility of total control.

Jonathan Zittrain rejects the happy valley scenario where the misanthropic technorati tiptoe off to the new Internet unadulterated by mere mortals, the grubby capitalists and consumers who have spoilt the vanguard’s creation, leaving the rest of us wallowing in viruses, spam and dancing hamsters, or tethered to sterile technologies which only do what it has been preordained that they do and which report on us to their manufacturers, or worse, the government. He thinks we’re in this together, as a civil society, and we should have a sense of commitment to a generative Internet that anybody, no matter how novice, can use without risk, if that’s what they want. Generative ways to protect generativity – like StopBadWare and OpenNet.

Now please indulge me but I really like where he’s coming from. I’m not technically brilliant and I don’t want to have to choose between an open but clunky and perplexing iRex iLiad and a completely bolted-down Amazon Kindle (I chose the iLiad and I’m glad but our relationship could be better). I don’t want to spend my life upgrading my browser, clearing my cache and tinkering with my firewall to earn the right to use the Internet. But all the same, I want to benefit from the wisdom and energy of nerds and I don’t want to be fobbed off with lesser devices. I want the difference between me and the geeks to be small enough that I can straddle it. Not only one side or the other of the gaping chasm proposed by Apple. And considering my finances, news, work, and increasingly social life and health are there, I depend on the Internet so really I should have a say. Call this a sense of entitlement but when I say ‘I’ I mean ‘we’, because I’m fairly typical. All Jonathan Zittrain is saying is that we, the users, have a stake. He’s taking our ball from the geeks and giving it back to us. And our other ball that Apple and TiVo got hold of. This is why he’s up there with the other pin-ups.

Here is his book. Here is his blog. Here is the video of the talk.

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2 thoughts on “Jonathan Zittrain is we, the users

  1. Jonathan Zittrain is at the head of a long list of people that flesh would like to be with if it wasn’t for me, see if you can guess any of the others.

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