another review of Zittrain’s “Future of the Internet”

by on September 20, 2008 · 12 comments

Zittrain Future of the Net coverSorry if it seems like I am beating a dead horse here, but the folks at the City Journal asked me a pen a review of Jonathan Zittrain’s new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.  Faithful readers here will no doubt remember that I have already penned a review of the book and several follow-up essays. (Part 1, 2, 3, 4). I swear I am not picking on Jonathan, but his book is probably the most important technology policy book of the year–Nick Carr’s Big Switch would be a close second–and deserves attention.  Specifically, I think it deserves attention because I believe that Jonathan’s provocative thesis is wildly out of touch with reality.  As I state in the City Journal review of his book:

[C]ontrary to what Zittrain would have us believe, reports of the Internet’s death have been greatly exaggerated. [...] Not only is the Net not dying, but there are signs that digital generativity and online openness are thriving as never before. [...]

Essentially, Zittrain creates a false choice regarding the digital future we face. He doesn’t seem to believe that a hybrid future is possible or desirable. In reality, however, we can have a world full of some tethered appliances or even semi-closed networks that also includes generative gadgets and open networks. After all, millions of us love our iPhones and TiVos, but we also take full advantage of the countless other open networks and devices at our disposal. [...]

Further, while it’s true that the creators of iPhone and TiVo maintain a high degree of control over the guts of the devices or their operating systems, the technologies themselves are hardly sterile or non-generative. In fact, these devices have amazing uses, and they have both recently become more open to third-party add-ons and applications. Geeks who demand still more are also hacking away at these and other digital devices to get them to do everything but wash their dishes.Most of us want networks and digital devices that work.

Zittrain, by contrast, seems to long for the era when we all had to load floppy disks into our PCs each morning to get our operating systems running. But those were hardly the good old days. Device makers realized that only techno-geeks would tolerate such hassles, and so our PCs and phones now come with more software and services built in to make our lives easier. Nothing stands in the way of those who still prefer the rugged individualist approach to conquering cyber-frontiers and digital devices. But what Zittrain does in The Future of the Internet is generalize his personal preferences to the whole of cyber-society. What’s good for the ivory-tower digerati may not be what the rest of us want or need.

If you are interested you can read the entire review here.  Again, I encourage you to read Zittrain’s entire book and decide for yourself if my critique is unfair.  Despite my criticisms, it’s a very well-written and interesting book.  As with everything Jonathan does, he has a special gift for making nerdy tech policy issues both interesting and entertaining.

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