another problem for the Zittrain thesis — old people!

by on April 12, 2008 · 59 comments

I swear I’m not trying to pick on Jonathan Zittrain, but I continue to find examples that create problems for his thesis from The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It that the whole world is going to hell because of the rise of what he contemptuously calls “sterile, tethered devices.” Again, in his provocative book, Zittrain argues that, for a variety of reasons, the glorious days of the generative, open Internet and general-purpose PCs are supposedly giving way to closed networks and closed devices. In my lengthy review of his book, I argued that Zittrain was over-stating things and creating a false choice of possible futures from which we must choose. I see no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds–a world full of plenty of tethered appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness. In a follow-up essay, I pointed out how Apple’s products create a particular problem for Zittrain’s thesis because even though they are “sterile and tethered,” there is no doubt that the company’s approach has produced some wonderful results. As I said..

Personally… I prefer all those “general purpose” devices that Zittrain lionizes. But, again, we can have both. Let Steve Jobs be a control freak and keep those walls around Apple’s digital garden high and tight if he wants. There are plenty of other wide open gardens for the rest of us to play in.

In my original review, I briefly mentioned another problem for the Zittrain thesis: old people! I was reminded about this when I was reading this New York Times article today entitled, “At a Certain Age, Simplicity Sells in High-Tech Gadgets,” by Alina Tugend. Tugend argues:

All right, everyone under the age of 40, go run around the block or something. This column is not for you. It is for people like me, inching toward 50, who are, let us say, not technology-averse, but do not embrace it with the unquestioning love that our children do. For them, no gadget is unnecessary, no add-on excessive, no upgrade superfluous. Now, I know this is not just a generational divide. Some people of any age — we all know a few — buy every new gizmo, the more bells and whistles and buttons, the better.

And some people in their 20s and 30s are not enamored with the high-tech side of life. But for those of us who remember getting off the couch to change the channel, technology is not necessarily as innate a part of our lives as it is for those chronologically behind us. I’m sure many of you have played the game with your children, seeing what most shocks them: “We had to watch movies in theaters!” “Phones were attached to the wall!” “We only had an AM-FM radio in the car!” And my personal favorite, “I typed my college senior thesis on an electric typewriter, and used Wite-Out for mistakes!”

O.K., enough dawdling on memory lane. The point is that technology does not always come naturally. And everything seems to be getting more diminutive and more complex just as I am getting older and slower. “There are folks who are feeling that things are getting too complicated,” said Jim Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. “The good news is that you have a lot of choices. The bad news is that you have a lot of choices.”

What this proves is that preferences cannot be generalized. What’s good for tech geeks and the digerati may not be best for everyone else. Here’s how I put it in my original review of Zittrain’s book:

put yourself in the shoes of a mere mortal. It’s easy for many us who are tech geeks to look down our noses at those who seem to want to have the hand held through cyberspace or digital experiences. But there’s nothing wrong with those people who seek stability and security in digital devices and their networking experiences—even if they find those solutions in the form of “tethered appliances.” Not everyone wants to have the same cyber-experiences we do. Not everyone wants to reprogram their mobile phones, hack their consoles, write their own code, or even just write a blog or join a social networking site. Millions upon millions of people live perfectly normal lives without ever doing any of these things! (It’s true, I even met a couple of these people… They are called my parents!) Still, many of those mere mortals WILL want to use many of the same toys we tech geeks use, or take cautious steps into the occasional cold pool called cyberspace—one tippy toe at a time. Why shouldn’t those folks be accommodated with “lesser” devices?

Tugend’s NYT article points out that the market for such devices is developing rapidly because there is hot demand for “simpler” devices (i.e., Zittrain’s much-lamented “sterile, tethered devices”):

Consider the ubiquitous cellphone. Two models of phones, Jitterbug by GreatCall Inc. and Coupe by Verizon, offer the most basic services available. One version of the Samsung Jitterbug, for example, has only three buttons: one you can program to call one number, say a friend, work or home; another to call a live operator; and a third to call 911. The other Jitterbug is more like a regular phone, but both have dial tones and larger keypads. Each Jitterbug costs $147, with minutes extra. There is no contract required.

Although the Jitterbug is being marketed primarily to older people (hearing aid compatible), with no cameras, games or confusing icons, I can certainly see the appeal. My children, however, laughed when they heard about the phone. “What’s the point with no games?” my older son asked. Consumer Reports, in fact, called the Jitterbug a cellphone “for the technology weary.” The Coupe ($40 with a two-year calling plan) is aimed at a similar market. It has a few more features than the Jitterbug. Both phones have received mixed reviews from users.

Microsoft and Apple have certainly noticed this growing market. Last year, Microsoft began selling the SeniorPC (Memo: may want to think about a name change). Hewlett-Packard’s computers, available as desktops or laptops, come with mental acuity games, prescription software (that provides reminders when to take medication at the correct dosage and when to reorder, as well as medical history), financial software and the option of a keyboard with larger buttons. They can also be used with a simplified desktop screen that hides options, for those who need just a few functions, said Rob Sinclair, director for accessibility at Microsoft. “A lot of technology was originally developed for people with severe disabilities,” Mr. Sinclair said. “But these solutions are proving valuable to a much broader range of people.” Many of these features, known as “ease of access settings,” are automatically available with Windows Vista, like screen readers that audibly describe what is on the screen, screen magnifiers, colors and fonts for easy reading and speech recognition, which allows you to direct the computer with your voice. We have Windows XP, the earlier version of the operating system, and it is easy to click into the accessibility options, which do not include speech recognition, through the control panel. But it has a wheelchair icon, which has been eliminated in the later version. “We now talk about ‘ease of access’ to a computer rather than ‘accessibility,’ ” Mr. Sinclair said. “The subtle change in language reflects a significant change in our approach.”

And what’s wrong with this? Answer: Nothing! People are getting the choices and configurations they want. Older generations are simply not comfortable with the “general purpose” devices that tinker-happy gadgeteers like Zittrain and me prefer. Shouldn’t those people get to enjoy some of the same digital experiences and communications options that the rest of us do without being expected to configure their cell phones or program their PCs?

Again, markets are responding to these needs, but not in ways that Prof. Zittrain prefers. Perhaps in another 25 years, when today’s generation of techno-geeks are grandparents, we’ll all be perfectly comfortable with the devices and networks that Zittrain (and I) prefer. For now, that is not enough. People demand more choices–even if they are “sterile and tethered.” They should get them, and luckily they are.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Adam, while JZ certainly does not need me to defend him, and I probably shouldn’t get-into-it, so I’m commenting here against my better judgment … that all being said, I believe you are not quite grasping the overall argument being made. Granted, there may be a relevant problem of what-he-said vs. what-he-meant. And I’ve certainly struggled over his points myself. Still, I suggest the above reading you make is far too simplistic.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Adam, while JZ certainly does not need me to defend him, and I probably shouldn’t get-into-it, so I’m commenting here against my better judgment … that all being said, I believe you are not quite grasping the overall argument being made. Granted, there may be a relevant problem of what-he-said vs. what-he-meant. And I’ve certainly struggled over his points myself. Still, I suggest the above reading you make is far too simplistic.

  • Adam Thierer

    Seth… If I have over-simplified Zittrain’s thesis above, I apologize. But this piece was meant as an extension of the lengthy original book review I posted last month. I don’t believe I over-simplified anything in that 4,000-word essay, but I will leave it to you to explain how I have and than I would be happy to respond.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Seth… If I have over-simplified Zittrain’s thesis above, I apologize. But this piece was meant as an extension of the lengthy original book review I posted last month. I don’t believe I over-simplified anything in that 4,000-word essay, but I will leave it to you to explain how I have and than I would be happy to respond.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think things went off the rails right around this point in your reply to him:

    “Again, I guess I just don’t see how all of us would “lose a sense of equilibrium between the generative and sterile spheres,” or that “platforms that are open to third party innovation at first” will “close off selectively” and “squeeze out fully generative technologies.””

    Well, that’s sort of what his book is all about, his arguments as to why that could happen (n.b. I’m not endorsing that here, just explaining what I view him as saying, roughly). If you want to claim he’s wrong, OK. But thereafter, you seem to start pummeling straw-men, endlessly, tediously. You seem to believe that he’s arguing that “sterile and tethered” devices are not useful to anyone for anything and never any good in any way, and set yourself to refuting this with great vigor. In the essays, you say things at length, but the length doesn’t help if the premise is off-base.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think things went off the rails right around this point in your reply to him:

    “Again, I guess I just don’t see how all of us would “lose a sense of equilibrium between the generative and sterile spheres,” or that “platforms that are open to third party innovation at first” will “close off selectively” and “squeeze out fully generative technologies.””

    Well, that’s sort of what his book is all about, his arguments as to why that could happen (n.b. I’m not endorsing that here, just explaining what I view him as saying, roughly). If you want to claim he’s wrong, OK. But thereafter, you seem to start pummeling straw-men, endlessly, tediously. You seem to believe that he’s arguing that “sterile and tethered” devices are not useful to anyone for anything and never any good in any way, and set yourself to refuting this with great vigor. In the essays, you say things at length, but the length doesn’t help if the premise is off-base.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I haven’t read Zittrain’s book – Santa Clara County’s library doesn’t have it and the publisher hasn’t responded to my request for a review copy – so I obviously can’t go into any depth regarding whose interpretation of Zittrain’s thesis is right.

    From the reviews and surrounding commentary, it appears that Zittrain forecasts a dystopian future for Internet-connected devices; we wouldn’t need to stop the future of the Internet if it were going along swimmingly. Now doesn’t that imply a preference for more of the complicated end-user-programmable devices the old folks don’t want to be bothered with?

    I’m guessing Zittrain romanticizes the solitary hacker who’s going to start the next Google while strapped into a child safety seat by re-writing the code in his baby monitor (; I could be wrong, I was once before.)

    If that’s the case, well, I hear he’s an entertaining speaker.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Sigh. “Preference” doesn’t necessarily mean “The other stuff must die! die! die! It must be removed from the face of the Earth, wiped from the pages of history …”. That’s the strawman I’m talking about. I don’t see him making a Richard M. Stallman kind of argument that everyone must only use that which is ideologically pure.

    I *think* Zittrain could be partially summarized as arguing for strong anti-trust, like the European Union just did with Microsoft.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I haven’t read Zittrain’s book – Santa Clara County’s library doesn’t have it and the publisher hasn’t responded to my request for a review copy – so I obviously can’t go into any depth regarding whose interpretation of Zittrain’s thesis is right.

    From the reviews and surrounding commentary, it appears that Zittrain forecasts a dystopian future for Internet-connected devices; we wouldn’t need to stop the future of the Internet if it were going along swimmingly. Now doesn’t that imply a preference for more of the complicated end-user-programmable devices the old folks don’t want to be bothered with?

    I’m guessing Zittrain romanticizes the solitary hacker who’s going to start the next Google while strapped into a child safety seat by re-writing the code in his baby monitor (; I could be wrong, I was once before.)

    If that’s the case, well, I hear he’s an entertaining speaker.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Sigh. “Preference” doesn’t necessarily mean “The other stuff must die! die! die! It must be removed from the face of the Earth, wiped from the pages of history …”. That’s the strawman I’m talking about. I don’t see him making a Richard M. Stallman kind of argument that everyone must only use that which is ideologically pure.

    I *think* Zittrain could be partially summarized as arguing for strong anti-trust, like the European Union just did with Microsoft.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I need to actually read his book before commenting further. I distrust all law professors who pontificate about the Internet, because of previous history, so that bias is coloring my uninformed opinions about Zittrain. Well, that and his being a Berkman dude, of course.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I need to actually read his book before commenting further. I distrust all law professors who pontificate about the Internet, because of previous history, so that bias is coloring my uninformed opinions about Zittrain. Well, that and his being a Berkman dude, of course.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    Many technically-oriented people have critiqued his arguments. However, my point is only that this post is very far afield.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    Many technically-oriented people have critiqued his arguments. However, my point is only that this post is very far afield.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/04/12/jerry-brito-getting-upset-at-e_f-comments/ e_f

    Adam:

    I don’t believe that he presented it as black and white as you maintain.

    Having a preference for generative and open as opposed to closed and controlled does not mean that one would disappear completely.

    However, seeing clearly the danger and freedom removing possibilities of locked down devices may remove partially the likelihood of the worst case scenarios coming to pass.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Adam:

    I don’t believe that he presented it as black and white as you maintain.

    Having a preference for generative and open as opposed to closed and controlled does not mean that one would disappear completely.

    However, seeing clearly the danger and freedom removing possibilities of locked down devices may remove partially the likelihood of the worst case scenarios coming to pass.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Given that the vast majority of gadget-users aren’t going to write code for their gadgets in any case, we don’t actually lose anything if these users’ gadgets are closed to hacking.

    The overwhelming majority (99.999%) of the hacking that leads to new products and services is actually done by professionals, most of whom have access to APIs and SDKs for closed devices, so the notion that non-professional hacking is a significant source of tech progress is simply malarkey.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com enigma_foundry

    Given that the vast majority of gadget-users aren’t going to write code for their gadgets in any case, we don’t actually lose anything if these users’ gadgets are closed to hacking.

    Richard:

    that would be akin to saying that normal users don’t get any benefit from GPL’D software, because they won’t use their freedom to modify the source code.

    With the internet, essentially a no-cost medium for distributing information, many users benefit from the work of the 1%. Just look at how many apple phones have been unlocked; certainly most of those who unlock their iPhone are not hackers.

    Then there is also the quality issue. Open devices allow many to inspect the software. Is it important to you to stop the NSA from building a ‘back-door’ into a mobile device? It’s much more possible to stop this with open software. Just look at what AT&T has provided the feds with, without even a warrent.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Given that the vast majority of gadget-users aren’t going to write code for their gadgets in any case, we don’t actually lose anything if these users’ gadgets are closed to hacking.

    The overwhelming majority (99.999%) of the hacking that leads to new products and services is actually done by professionals, most of whom have access to APIs and SDKs for closed devices, so the notion that non-professional hacking is a significant source of tech progress is simply malarkey.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    GPL’d code, like all code, is mainly written by professionals, we aren’t really affected by this open vs. closed philosophical debate. There are open phones and closed phones, just as there are open laptops and closed ones. Markets reject the open code model resoundingly.

    We can debate the reasons for that if you wish, but there’s really no doubt that open source has been a failure except for a few isolated examples, most of which are professional programers’ tools in any case.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Given that the vast majority of gadget-users aren’t going to write code for their gadgets in any case, we don’t actually lose anything if these users’ gadgets are closed to hacking.

    Richard:

    that would be akin to saying that normal users don’t get any benefit from GPL’D software, because they won’t use their freedom to modify the source code.

    With the internet, essentially a no-cost medium for distributing information, many users benefit from the work of the 1%. Just look at how many apple phones have been unlocked; certainly most of those who unlock their iPhone are not hackers.

    Then there is also the quality issue. Open devices allow many to inspect the software. Is it important to you to stop the NSA from building a ‘back-door’ into a mobile device? It’s much more possible to stop this with open software. Just look at what AT&T has provided the feds with, without even a warrent.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    GPL’d code, like all code, is mainly written by professionals, we aren’t really affected by this open vs. closed philosophical debate. There are open phones and closed phones, just as there are open laptops and closed ones. Markets reject the open code model resoundingly.

    We can debate the reasons for that if you wish, but there’s really no doubt that open source has been a failure except for a few isolated examples, most of which are professional programers’ tools in any case.

  • http://www.noooxml.org/ e_f

    Richard:

    The market shows that the open model is preferred by consumers, when they are offered the choice. They rarely are, but that’s about to change.

    Note the very many iPhones that have been unlocked. That shows that:
    1- the benefits of open accrue to many non-hackers.
    2 – there is substantial demand for open

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    More people use Windows than all forms of Linux, EF, and more people use their iPhones with AT&T than with any other network.

    These are the facts.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Richard, it may be that I’m now talking about the book I wish JZ wrote instead of the one he did write, but “most of whom have access to APIs and SDKs for closed devices” is a blithe assumption that has been the subject of some very extensive court cases, i.e. Microsoft anti-trust. Moreover, the EU has very strong laws in favor of reverse-engineering. These are significant issues which are not merely the abstract theorizing of a ivory-tower professor.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Richard:

    The market shows that the open model is preferred by consumers, when they are offered the choice. They rarely are, but that’s about to change.

    Note the very many iPhones that have been unlocked. That shows that:
    1- the benefits of open accrue to many non-hackers.
    2 – there is substantial demand for open

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    More people use Windows than all forms of Linux, EF, and more people use their iPhones with AT&T than with any other network.

    These are the facts.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Richard, it may be that I’m now talking about the book I wish JZ wrote instead of the one he did write, but “most of whom have access to APIs and SDKs for closed devices” is a blithe assumption that has been the subject of some very extensive court cases, i.e. Microsoft anti-trust. Moreover, the EU has very strong laws in favor of reverse-engineering. These are significant issues which are not merely the abstract theorizing of a ivory-tower professor.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Firefox and Open Office manage to run quite nicely on the published Windows APIs, Seth.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com e_f

    However, seeing clearly the danger and freedom removing possibilities of locked down devices may remove partially the likelihood of the worst case scenarios coming to pass.

    In other words, if I see a boulder in the middle of the road, I can swerve or brake to avoid it. If I don’t see it, I’ll probably hit it.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    If you’re talking on your iPhone while driving, will you see the boulder?

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Firefox and Open Office manage to run quite nicely on the published Windows APIs, Seth.

  • http://sethf.com/anticensorware/ Seth Finkelstein

    Richard, the anti-trust lawsuits weren’t brought for fun. The point is that there’s an issue there which can’t be easily dismissed.

    I assume you know that many developers have said that what Microsoft publishes is not the full story, and that outside developers are thus placed at a competitive disadvantage.

    [tedious anti-straw-man: This is not refuted by saying it's possible to develop to it anyway]

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I assume that the foreigners bring suit against MS because they hate our freedom.

    But seriously, I’m aware that MS has some undocumented APIs that they probably use for their own purposes. It’s not clear how significant they are, however.

    The point was simply that full disclosure of the source code isn’t necessary as long as the published API documentation is sufficient. Windows can be a black box, but as long as all the doors and tunnels are open, it’s not a barrier to innovation.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    However, seeing clearly the danger and freedom removing possibilities of locked down devices may remove partially the likelihood of the worst case scenarios coming to pass.

    In other words, if I see a boulder in the middle of the road, I can swerve or brake to avoid it. If I don’t see it, I’ll probably hit it.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    If you’re talking on your iPhone while driving, will you see the boulder?

  • http://sethf.com/anticensorware/ Seth Finkelstein

    Richard, the anti-trust lawsuits weren’t brought for fun. The point is that there’s an issue there which can’t be easily dismissed.

    I assume you know that many developers have said that what Microsoft publishes is not the full story, and that outside developers are thus placed at a competitive disadvantage.

    [tedious anti-straw-man: This is not refuted by saying it's possible to develop to it anyway]

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I assume that the foreigners bring suit against MS because they hate our freedom.

    But seriously, I’m aware that MS has some undocumented APIs that they probably use for their own purposes. It’s not clear how significant they are, however.

    The point was simply that full disclosure of the source code isn’t necessary as long as the published API documentation is sufficient. Windows can be a black box, but as long as all the doors and tunnels are open, it’s not a barrier to innovation.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/04/12/jerry-brito-getting-upset-at-e_f-comments/ e_f

    More people use Windows than all forms of Linux, EF, and more people use their iPhones with AT&T than with any other network.
    These are the facts.

    And they obviously do not refute my point at all which is: Many people besides hackers receive benefits of open-ness, and that there is a substantial demand for open as opposed to locked down devices, much greater than the .001% you maintain are hackers.

    This statement was made in October of 2007 by Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, Richard:

    “Since June 29, approximately 250,000 iPhoneshave been unlocked.”

    This was out of 1.4 million sold. Hardly an inconsequential number, and certainly there were more who wanted untethered devices, but who didn’t actually unlock there phones…

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    More people use Windows than all forms of Linux, EF, and more people use their iPhones with AT&T than with any other network.
    These are the facts.

    And they obviously do not refute my point at all which is: Many people besides hackers receive benefits of open-ness, and that there is a substantial demand for open as opposed to locked down devices, much greater than the .001% you maintain are hackers.

    This statement was made in October of 2007 by Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, Richard:

    “Since June 29, approximately 250,000 iPhoneshave been unlocked.”

    This was out of 1.4 million sold. Hardly an inconsequential number, and certainly there were more who wanted untethered devices, but who didn’t actually unlock there phones…

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Just FYI… Zittrain and I debated these issues in person at the New America Foundation on November 6th. The video of that event can be found here.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Just FYI… Zittrain and I debated these issues in person at the New America Foundation on November 6th. The video of that event can be found here.

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