News & Politics

Is the Creative Internet Just About Dead?

The era of free, open online innovation may be coming to an end.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, an event where people from all over the world gather for a giant DIY technology show-and-tell extravaganza. There are robots, kinetic sculptures, rockets, remote-controlled battleship contests, music-controlled light shows, home electronics kits, ill-advised science experiments (like the Mentos-Diet Coke explosions), and even a barn full of people who make their own clothing, pillows, bags, and more. Basically, it's a weekend celebration of how human freedom combined with technology creates a pleasing but cacophonous symphony of coolness.

And yet the Maker Faire takes place against a backdrop of increasing constraints on our freedom to innovate with technology, as Oxford University researcher Jonathan Zittrain points out in his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). After spending several years investigating the social and political rules that govern the Internet -- and spearheading the Net censorship tracking project OpenNet Initiative -- Zittrain looks back on the Net's development and predicts a dystopian future. What's chilling is that his dystopia is already coming to pass.

Zittrain traces the Net's history through three phases. Initially it was composed of what he calls "sterile" technologies: vast mainframes owned by IBM, which companies could rent time on. What made those technologies sterile is that nobody could experiment with them (except IBM), and therefore innovation related to them stagnated.

That's why the invention of the desktop PC and popularization of the Internet ushered in an era of unprecedented high-tech innovation. Zittrain calls these open-ended technologies "generative." Anybody can build other technologies that work with them. So, for example, people built Skype and the World Wide Web, both software technologies that sit on top of the basic network software infrastructure of the Internet. Similarly, anybody can build a program that runs on Windows.

But Zittrain thinks we're seeing the end of the freewheeling Internet and PC era. He calls the technologies of today "tethered" technologies. Tethered technologies are items like iPhones or many brands of DVR -- they're sterile to their owners, who aren't allowed to build software that runs on them. But they're generative to the companies that make them, in the sense that Comcast can update your DVR remotely, or Apple can brick your iPhone remotely if you try to do something naughty to it (like run your own software program on it).

In some ways, tethered technologies are worse than plain old sterile technologies. They allow for abuses undreamed of in the IBM mainframe era. For example, iPhone tethering could lead to law enforcement going to Apple and saying, "Please activate the microphone on this iPhone that we know is being carried by a suspect." The device turns into an instant bug, without all the fuss of following the suspect around or installing surveillance crap in her apartment. This isn't idle speculation, by the way. OnStar, the manufacturer of a car emergency system, was asked by law enforcement to activate the mics in certain cars using its system. It refused and went to court.

Zittrain's solution to the tethering problem is to encourage the existence of communities like the ones who participate in Maker Faire or who edit Wikipedia. These are people who work together to create open, untethered technologies and information repositories. They are the force that pushes back against companies that want to sterilize the Internet and turn it back into something that spits information at you, television-style. I think this is a good start, but there are a lot of problems with depending on communities of DIY enthusiasts to fix a system created by corporate juggernauts. As I mentioned in my column ("User-Generated Censorship," 4/30/08), you can't always depend on communities of users to do the right thing. In addition, companies can create an incredibly oppressive tethering regime while still allowing users to think they have control. Tune in next week, and I'll tell you how Zittrain's solution might lead to an even more dystopian future.
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