This is the second of two essays making “The Case for Internet Optimism.” This essay was included in the book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (2011), which was edited by Berin Szoka and Adam Marcus of TechFreedom. In my previous essay, which I discussed here yesterday, I examined the first variant of Internet pessimism: “Net Skeptics,” who are pessimistic about the Internet improving the lot of mankind. In this second essay, I take on a very different breed of Net pessimists: “Net Lovers” who, though they embrace the Net and digital technologies, argue that they are “dying” due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight. In particular, they fear that the “open” Internet and “generative” digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties. Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the Internet that we currently know and love.
Leading exponents of this theory include noted cyberlaw scholars Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and Tim Wu. I argue that these scholars tend to significantly overstate the severity of this problem (the supposed decline of openness or generativity, that is) and seem to have very little faith in the ability of such systems to win out in a free market. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with a hybrid world in which some “closed” devices and platforms remain (or even thrive) alongside “open” ones. Importantly, “openness” is a highly subjective term, and a constantly evolving one. And many “open” systems or devices are as perfectly open as these advocates suggest.
Finally, I argue that it’s likely that the “openness” advocated by these advocates will devolve into expanded government control of cyberspace and digital systems than that unregulated systems will become subject to “perfect control” by the private sector, as they fear. Indeed, the implicit message in the work of all these hyper-pessimistic critics is that markets must be steered in a more sensible direction by those technocratic philosopher kings (although the details of their blueprint for digital salvation are often scarce). Thus, I conclude that the dour, depressing “the-Net-is-about-to-die” fear that seems to fuel this worldview is almost completely unfounded and should be rejected before serious damage is done to the evolutionary Internet through misguided government action.