More Challenges to the Lessig-Zittrain-Wu Thesis

by on February 27, 2011 · 3 comments

Writing over at Forbes, Bret Swanson notes that the progression of information technology history isn’t going so well for those Net pessimists who, not so long ago, predicted that the sky was set to fall on consumers and that digital innovation was dying. Specifically, Swanson addresses the theories set forth by cyberlaw professors Lessig, Zittrain, and Wu (among others), whose theories about “perfect control,” the death of “generativity,” and the rise of the “master switch,” I have addressed here many time before.  [See this compendium of TLF essays discussing "Problems with the Lessig-Zittrain-Wu Thesis."] Swanson summarizes what went wrong with their gloomy Chicken Little theories and their predictions of the coming cyber end-times:

As the cloud wars roar, the cyber lawyers simmer. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The technology law triad of Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain and Columbia’s Tim Wu had a vision. They saw an arts and crafts commune of cyber-togetherness. Homemade Web pages with flashing sirens and tacky text were more authentic. “Generativity” was Zittrain’s watchword, a vague aesthetic whose only definition came from its opposition to the ominous “perfect control” imposed by corporations dictating “code” and throwing the “master switch.”

In their straw world of “open” heros and “closed” monsters, AOL’s “walled garden” of the 1990s was the first sign of trouble. Microsoft was an obvious villain. The broadband service providers were of course dangerous gatekeepers, the iPhone was too sleek and integrated, and now even Facebook threatens their ideal of uncurated chaos. These were just a few of the many companies that were supposed to kill the Internet. The triad’s perfect world would be mostly broke organic farmers and struggling artists. Instead, we got Apple’s beautifully beveled apps and Google’s intergalactic ubiquity. Worst of all, the Web started making money.

Swanson goes on to argue that, despite all the hang-wringing we’re heard from this triumvirate and their many, many disciples in the academic and regulatory activist world, things just keep getting more innovative, more generative, and yes, even more “open.”  As I noted in my book chapter on “The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 2 – Saving the Net From Its Supporters” as well as my recent Reason magazine essay on “The Rise of Cybercollectivism,” scholars like Lessig, Zittrain, and Wu:

seem trapped in what Virginia Postrel labeled the “stasis mentality” in her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies. They want an engineered world that promises certain outcomes. They are prone to taking snapshots of market activity and suggesting that those temporary patterns are permanent disasters requiring immediate correction. (Recall Lessig’s fear of AOL, which once had 25 million subscribers who were willing to pay $20 a month to get a guided tour of the Internet, but which ignored the rise of search and social networks at its own peril. It didn’t help that the company’s disastrous merger with Time Warner ended with over $100 billion in shareholders losses and an eventual divorce.) The better approach is what Postrel termed dynamism: “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition.” Dynamism places heavy stress on the heuristic and believes there is inherent value in an experimental, evolutionary process, no matter how messy it can be in practice.

Moreover, I think these scholars fail to appreciate a point I tried to make in my essay earlier this week on “Techno-Panic Cycles“:

many people overlook the importance of human adaptability and resiliency.  The amazing thing about humans is that we adapt so much better than other creatures. When it comes to technological change, resiliency is hard-wired into our genes.  … We learn how to use the new tools given to us and make them part of our lives and culture.

Just as that is true for social or speech-related technology developments, so too for economic developments. People don’t sit still — consumers, coders, new companies, etc. — they respond to marketplace developments and incentives. They seek out new ways of doing things.  They hack. They crack. They code. They are always looking to build or buy a better mousetrap. And when they find them, they don’t just settle for the state-of-the-art ; they expect everything to be reworked and re-launched constantly with revisions and improvements at every level. For example, the original Verizon Droid 1 that I got just 15 months ago now feels like an antique compared to the latest devices on the market. I am dying to upgrade to a new model, which will give me more processing power, more storage, more high-speed access, more apps, more of everything. I am so pampered by the pace of progress that expect and demand it!

No doubt, the ivory tower worrywarts will continue to grumble about how their techno-cratic philosopher king approach would supposedly make the world even more innovative and consumer-friendly, if only we adopted a healthy dose of top-down planning and centralized direction. But we need to ask ourselves whether their prescription for planning can really beat the track record that is unfolding on a daily basis right before our eyes.

  • Anonymous

    I guess the Wu’s of the world may also believe in adaptability, too – “Hey, let’s pass Net Neutrality regulations…and people / markets will just adapt to them.” Of course, so do the regulators and competitors, and others that seek to capture segments of the marketplace or public interest.

  • http://twitter.com/SeanFlaim Sean M. Flaim

    There is a difference between aspirational guideposts that say “go no further past this point” and heavy-handed regulation from the top down.

    I can kind of see Zittraine, et al.’s point that certainly lots of bad things could occur without intervention. But is it really top-down regulation they seek, or simply some signals from the powers that be that “hey, we’re watching you [insert name of dominant market player here] so don’t get too cute.” I can’t say for certain; some weeks it’s one, some weeks the other.

    I think the specter of government intervention by itself is enough to keep most companies honest in this economy. That and the specter of turning your customer’s base of goodwill for your product against you by restricting their access to and enjoyment of the web. Anything more simply risks regulatory capture of one sort or another.

  • http://twitter.com/sivavaid Siva Vaidhyanathan

    Adam, I think you are conflating warning with predicting.

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