You’d Have to Be Smoking Dope to Believe the Zittrain-Lessig Thesis

by on September 15, 2009 · 19 comments

Up in SmokeOver the past couple of years here, I have relentlessly hammered Harvard’s dynamic duo of digital doom, Jonathan Zittrain (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and Lawrence Lessig (see 1, 2, 3), for their extraordinarily gloomy predictions about the Internet creating a world of “perfect control.”  In the hyper-pessimistic Lessig-Zittrain view of things, cyberspace is perpetually haunted by the specter of nefarious corporate schemers out to suffocate innovation, screw consumers, and quash dissent.  In the 1990s, Lessig’s big-bad-bogeyman was AOL.  Today, Zittrain casts Apple in the lead role of Cyber-Big Brother.  The problem with their thesis? In a word: Reality.  As Tim Lee has pointed out before, “Lessig’s specific predictions in Code turned out to be… spectacularly wrong”:

Lessig was absolutely convinced that a system of robust user authentication would put an end to the Internet’s free-wheeling, decentralized nature. Not only has that not happened, but I suspect that few would seriously defend Lessig’s specific prediction will come to pass.

Absolutely correct, and the same is true of the fears and predictions Zittrain tosses around in The Future of the Internet.  And yet, as we saw most recently during my debate with Lessig and Zittrain over at Cato Unbound upon the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the publication Code, neither of them have relented one bit. Indeed, they have actually been escalating their morose rhetoric recently.

The fact that Zittrain casts Apple as the central villain in his drama is particularly interesting because millions upon millions of people absolutely love the company and its amazingly innovative products — even if I’m not one of them.  And there is absolutely no way Zittrain can continue to sell us this story of Apple quashing innovation when, in just one year’s time, there were 1.5 Billion iPhone Store downloads of over 65,000 free and paid apps by consumers in 77 countries.  I mean, seriously, is there any application you cannot get for the iPhone these days?

Apparently not, because over at the Wall Street Journal “Digits” blog,  Andrew LaVallee writes of the latest innovative application to pop up in the Apple iPhone Store, iPot — a tool to help you find dope shops in California!!

Seeing an untapped opportunity in the growing number of legal California dispensaries and limited advertising outlets, app developer NexStudios launched iPot, an application for Apple’s iPhone that lists nearby stores. .. The free version of the app provides basic location information for nearby stores, while the $2 upgrade adds reviews and ratings and does away with advertising. The two apps have been downloaded nearly 100,000 times since their July launch, with about 80% opting for the free one.

pot on your phoneHoly smokes, pot on your iPhone!  Geo-located in real time!  With reviews!  Am I living in a “Cheech & Chong” movie?

OK, seriously, let’s get back to that Zittrain-Lessig thesis.  My point here is that, contrary to their belief that the whole digital world is going to hell in a handbasket because of excessive “control” by corporate actors, in reality, things are getting better all the time.  Does Apple exercise some “control” over the iPhone store? Yes. Do they use that control to bock innovation at every juncture, restrict choice, and screw consumers?  Show me the evidence.

And when I say I want to see evidence, it has to be something more than a random anecdote like this “gem” I have heard Zittrain use many times:

Recently Apple got rid of the “I Am Rich” app, which cost the maximum $999.99, and simply featured a glowing red gem on buyers’ screens. Eight people apparently bought it, with several receiving refunds.  (”Category: Lifestyle.”  Heh.)  The app’s author doesn’t yet know whether he’ll get the money from the rest, minus Apple’s 30% vig.

Come on, seriously?  Is that the best you got? Moreover, Jonathan is willing to acknowledge that at least a certain amount of “gatekeeping might help keep malicious or poor quality apps away.”  Indeed, that’s about all the gatekeeping Apple does.  For God’s sake they are apparently not even trying to keep out the potheads anymore!  And finally, it goes without saying that Apple can’t even keep people from jailbreaking their phones in a matter of hours after release when users want to do even more with them.

How all this adds up to the specter of “perfect control” is beyond me.

  • Ryan Radia

    It's worth noting that Apple has on a number of occasions rejected iPhone apps on the grounds that they “duplicate existing iPhone functionality.” Google Voice, for instance, was blocked not because AT&T objected to it but because Apple believed it duplicated the built-in iPhone voice feature. Zittrain et al have been very vocal in opposing Apple's policy of refusing to allow duplicative iPhone apps, and I think the Lessigites are far more concerned about Apple refusing to allow Google Voice on the Iphone than they are about Apple ayanking the I Am Rich app.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    hmmm…lessig warns of a rock in the middle of the road. Car swerves, misses rock. Back seat driving TLFers claim rock never existed.

    Yes, that is exactly what happened.

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com/ Peter

    Apple can’t even keep people from jailbreaking their phones [...]“

    The fact that jailbreaking is against the law and that people have to break the law in order to break free from being controlled is the point. For people who want to follow the law and use technology like Free software, the amount of control being exerted over such people is significant.

    The fact that you argue how easy it is to break the law in order to prove how easy it is to be free of control demonstrates just how much you misunderstand the point people like Lessig and Zittrain (and many others) make.

  • Kontra

    Yes, “Apple’s evil”…except for all the others.

    Before Apple introduced the iPhone…
    http://counternotions.com/2009/08/26/pre-iphone/

  • robharalson

    I have to agree with Adam Thierer on this one. Zittrain's pessimism is completely unfounded. Also, jailbreaking an iPhone illegal. However, it is against the terms of service agreement which voids the warranty.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    As I recall (someone correct me if I'm wrong), unlocking your own phone yourself is legal but the DMCA's anti-circumvention procedures prevent anyone from helping others to unlock their phones by writing software to do so or just doing it for them. This is why the T-Mobile store can't help iPhone users unlock their phone so they can use it on the T-Mobile network, even though individual T-Mobile employees may be able to figure out how to do this with their own phones. I assume the same is true for jailbreaking your phone so you can run whatever apps Apple might block but, again, someone please correct me if this analogy doesn't hold.

    EFF has proposed a DMCA exemption for jailbreaking your phone:
    Computer programs in the form of firmware that enable wireless telephone
    handsets to connect to a wireless telephone communication network, when
    circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a
    wireless telephone communication network, regardless of commercial motive.

    So here's my question: Let's suppose that EFF got what they wanted and it became legal for anyone to help others jailbreak and unlock their phones (to take them to another carrier)—either (a) for non-commercial purposes only (T-Mobile couldn't help you but free hacking software would be legal) or (b) for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial. Would either form of user empowerment be enough to satisfy the concerns about openness expressed by the Zittrain-Lessig crowd? Would legalizing jailbreaking assistance be enough or would we have to legalize assistance with phone-unlocking?

    In short, what is the bare minimum amount of regulatory change necessary to protect “Openness”?

  • http://gnuosphere.wordpress.com/ Peter

    You can believe what you want but Apple has made it clear that they consider jailbreaking a DMCA violation. Just the fact that it may be in (at best for the iPhone owner) a grey area is an indicator of control.

    Regardless, proprietary software _is_ control. If one wishes to use only Free (technologically and legally liberated) software, one quickly sees just how limited one's access is to many things. The _control_ becomes stingingly clear. Perhaps the author of this post should try getting by on only Free software and abiding the law – and then tell us how exaggerated the claims are of people like Lessig or Zittrain when it comes to control.

    It's easy to claim that things are not so bad when one is willing to give up one's liberty, then cut corners in an attempt to make up for selling out. Hey, if the author wants to sell out then that's his business, but to then turn around and criticize those who understand the issues 10-fold more than he, is simply foolish.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    “In short, what is the bare minimum amount of regulatory change necessary to protect “Openness”?”
    That seems backwards. We should not have “regulations” protecting “openness”. Since the intent of the TLF is to minimize regulatory involvement, the obvious solution is to eliminate the DMCA to restore “openness”.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    This isn't quite right, Berin. Right now, jailbreaking is probably illegal for anyone–customer or third party–to do. Exemptions apply only to the act of circumvention (1201(a)(1)) and not to “trafficking” in circumvention technologies ((a)(2) and (b)) So if EFF gets its exemption, it will become legal for customers to use jailbreaking tools, but it will probably still be illegal for third parties to provide jailbreaking tools.

  • angelia110

    <h2 align=”center”>Ugg Boots–More Fashion Or Just A Trend Now?</h2>

    –>Several years ago, a new popular wind has been blowing the nation. Some adored it while others are amazed and confused by its success. This fashion trend is known as the Ugg boots. Although an unattractive appearance, Uggs has gained a huge following among all fans. Not only they are extremely trendy,but also their features to keep feet warm in cold day and cool in summer.

    –>But Uggs is more than just sheepskin boots; it has casual uggs, slippers as well as handbags and other accessories. Ugg cardy, Ugg Short, Ugg Tall, .Classic ugg boots are comfortable, stylish, and great to wear in any occasion. Ugg slippers are warm and comforting that both indoor or outside is ok . Ugg also offers a full line of high-quality handbags and backpacks to match your Uggs. A pair of Ugg boots, matched Ugg handbag is the perfect shows.

    –>Why Be Fashionable – Why Not? This fashion style, perfect deductived by famous stars, had blow up a fashion to imitate of wearing UGGs, to perfectly match with long jeans, minipants, skirts,etc.

    –>With Kate Winslet, "Declaimer," "Revolutionary Road," two outstanding performances in the film won the Golden Globe for best supporting actress and best leading actress in the film drama category, won several Oscar nominations . She was photographed shoed a pair of UGGs, with her daughter the same impersonation. And reporters caught Hayden Panettiere at a vegetarian Thai restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Hayden sported a denim hot pants and Ugg boots.

    –>Ugg Boots–Is More Fashion Or Just A Trend Now?

    –>The Ugg boot is made with sheepskin instead of regular leather which helps you stay cool in the summer and keeps you warm and dry in the winter making it the perfect boots to wear in all seasons.

    –>No matter is fashion or just a tread now, it also can be your style that makes you be more fashion mastering trend pop. With it, you will feel comfortable, look trendy, and be the envy of everyone around you. I don't have permission to require you finding the ugg boots at goodugg.co.uk, but shout out if you find them!

  • angelia110

    <h2 align=”center”>Ugg Boots–More Fashion Or Just A Trend Now?</h2>

    –>Several years ago, a new popular wind has been blowing the nation. Some adored it while others are amazed and confused by its success. This fashion trend is known as the Ugg boots. Although an unattractive appearance, Uggs has gained a huge following among all fans. Not only they are extremely trendy,but also their features to keep feet warm in cold day and cool in summer.

    –>But Uggs is more than just sheepskin boots; it has casual uggs, slippers as well as handbags and other accessories. Ugg cardy, Ugg Short, Ugg Tall, .Classic ugg boots are comfortable, stylish, and great to wear in any occasion. Ugg slippers are warm and comforting that both indoor or outside is ok . Ugg also offers a full line of high-quality handbags and backpacks to match your Uggs. A pair of Ugg boots, matched Ugg handbag is the perfect shows.

    –>Why Be Fashionable – Why Not? This fashion style, perfect deductived by famous stars, had blow up a fashion to imitate of wearing UGGs, to perfectly match with long jeans, minipants, skirts,etc.

    –>With Kate Winslet, "Declaimer," "Revolutionary Road," two outstanding performances in the film won the Golden Globe for best supporting actress and best leading actress in the film drama category, won several Oscar nominations . She was photographed shoed a pair of UGGs, with her daughter the same impersonation. And reporters caught Hayden Panettiere at a vegetarian Thai restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Hayden sported a denim hot pants and Ugg boots.

    –>Ugg Boots–Is More Fashion Or Just A Trend Now?

    –>The Ugg boot is made with sheepskin instead of regular leather which helps you stay cool in the summer and keeps you warm and dry in the winter making it the perfect boots to wear in all seasons.

    –>No matter is fashion or just a tread now, it also can be your style that makes you be more fashion mastering trend pop. With it, you will feel comfortable, look trendy, and be the envy of everyone around you. I don't have permission to require you finding the ugg boots at goodugg.co.uk, but shout out if you find them!

  • Dave

    Good article — I'd argue that this proclivity towards gloomy pessimism is endemic to the entire Keynesian/fixed-pie mentality so common among many academics and journalists, as I wrote in my critique of Nick Carr's The Big Switch (see http://taylorfrigon.blogspot.com/2008/06/critiq… ). “It's not that we don't believe that there can be negative consequences to new technologies: clearly there can be, and attempts to foresee those (such as Mr. Carr's book) are valuable and necessary. But The Big Switch puts forth the common pseudo-economic arguments (popularized primarily by Keynesian economists and especially the late John Kenneth Galbraith) that businesses bend societies to do their bidding, enslaving consumers and forcing them to spend to the detriment of those consumers and to the detriment of society in general. For example, in discussing the changes brought about by electricity, Mr. Carr complains that because of the new capabilities in ironing and cleaning that electricity enabled, consumers (especially women) in the twentieth century actually became enslaved to the new electric regime. He says: 'Clothes had to be changed more frequently, rugs had to be cleaner, curls in hair had to be bouncier, meals had to be more elaborate, and the household china had to be more plentiful and gleam more brightly' (99).” Ah, the tyranny of vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, and electric curling irons.

    As for the tangential conversation about whether jailbreaking an iPhone is legal or illegal, the real question is, “Does anybody force you to purchase an iPhone against your will?” I didn't think so.

  • Facebook User

    The DMCA is a poor example to bring up in this debate because it's not an example of corporate schemers using market power to setup controls, but rather corporate lobbyists manipulating Congress in order to setup controls. Lessig and Zittrain would likely propose that Congress get involved to stop AOL or Apple from controlling all that we see on the net, but they don't seem to realize/acknowledge that granting those types of regulatory powers to Congress or one of the various agencies will only invite more corporate influence and manipulation of the system.

    Lessig clearly understands this phenomenon of manipulation of government power as it applies to copyright, but fails to see the light when it comes to regulatory control of lots of other things. His proposal to abolish the FCC and replace it with something that's just about an exact clone of the FCC betrays this fact. It seems that Lessig only sees regulatory capture when it suits him.

    The Internet is a network of networks–a community of cooperating, yet independent actors–so it shouldn't be possible for any one company to become its dark overlord…unless, of course, they get help from Washington.

  • Pingback: InfoBore 49 « ubiwar . conflict in n dimensions

  • Dave

    Good article — I'd argue that this proclivity towards gloomy pessimism is endemic to the entire Keynesian/fixed-pie mentality so common among many academics and journalists, as I wrote in my critique of Nick Carr's The Big Switch (see http://taylorfrigon.blogspot.com/2008/06/critiq… ). “It's not that we don't believe that there can be negative consequences to new technologies: clearly there can be, and attempts to foresee those (such as Mr. Carr's book) are valuable and necessary. But The Big Switch puts forth the common pseudo-economic arguments (popularized primarily by Keynesian economists and especially the late John Kenneth Galbraith) that businesses bend societies to do their bidding, enslaving consumers and forcing them to spend to the detriment of those consumers and to the detriment of society in general. For example, in discussing the changes brought about by electricity, Mr. Carr complains that because of the new capabilities in ironing and cleaning that electricity enabled, consumers (especially women) in the twentieth century actually became enslaved to the new electric regime. He says: 'Clothes had to be changed more frequently, rugs had to be cleaner, curls in hair had to be bouncier, meals had to be more elaborate, and the household china had to be more plentiful and gleam more brightly' (99).” Ah, the tyranny of vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers, and electric curling irons.

    As for the tangential conversation about whether jailbreaking an iPhone is legal or illegal, the real question is, “Does anybody force you to purchase an iPhone against your will?” I didn't think so.

  • Facebook User

    The DMCA is a poor example to bring up in this debate because it's not an example of corporate schemers using market power to setup controls, but rather corporate lobbyists manipulating Congress in order to setup controls. Lessig and Zittrain would likely propose that Congress get involved to stop AOL or Apple from controlling all that we see on the net, but they don't seem to realize/acknowledge that granting those types of regulatory powers to Congress or one of the various agencies will only invite more corporate influence and manipulation of the system.

    Lessig clearly understands this phenomenon of manipulation of government power as it applies to copyright, but fails to see the light when it comes to regulatory control of lots of other things. His proposal to abolish the FCC and replace it with something that's just about an exact clone of the FCC betrays this fact. It seems that Lessig only sees regulatory capture when it suits him.

    The Internet is a network of networks–a community of cooperating, yet independent actors–so it shouldn't be possible for any one company to become its dark overlord…unless, of course, they get help from Washington.

  • Pingback: Veras Fitness Reviews CT-50

  • Pingback: 1300 phone numbers

  • Pingback: jadwal premier league

Previous post:

Next post: