Well, here we go again. Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain has penned another gloomy essay about how “freedom is at risk in the cloud” and the future of the Internet is in peril because nefarious digital schemers like Apple, Facebook, and Google are supposedly out to lock you into their services and take away your digital rights. And so, as I have done here many times before (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 + video!), I will offer a response arguing that Jonathan’s cyber-Chicken Little-ism is largely unwarranted.
Zittrain’s latest piece is entitled “Lost in the Cloud” and it appears in today’s New York Times. It closely tracks the arguments he has set forth in his book The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It, which I named the most important technology policy book of 2008, but not because I agreed with its central thesis. Zittrain’s book and his new NYT essay are the ultimate exposition of Lessigite technological pessimism. I don’t know what they put in the water up at the Berkman Center to make these guys so remarkably cranky and despondent about the future of of the Internet, but starting with Lawrence Lessig’s Code in 1999 and running through to Zittrain’s Future of the Internet we have been forced to endure endless Tales of the Coming Techno-Apocalypse from these guys. Back in the late 90s, Prof. Lessig warned us that AOL and some other companies would soon take over the new digital frontier since “Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.” Ah yes, how was it that we threw off the chains of our techno-oppressors and freed ourselves from that wicked walled garden hell? Oh yeah, we clicked our mouses and left! And that was pretty much the end of AOL’s “perfect control” fantasies. [See my recent debate with Prof. Lessig over at Cato Unbound for more about this “illusion of perfect control,” as I have labeled it.]
But Zittrain is the equivalent of the St. Peter upon which the Church of Lessigism has been built and, like any good disciple, he’s still vociferously preaching to the unconverted and using fire and brimstone sermons to warn of our impending digital damnation. In fact, he’s taken it to all new extremes. In Future of the Internet, Jonathan argues that we run the risk of seeing the glorious days of the generative, open Net and digital devices give way to more “sterile, tethered devices” and closed networks. The future that he hopes to “stop” is one in which Apple, TiVo, Facebook, and Google — the central villains in his drama — are supposedly ceded too much authority over our daily lives because of a combination of (a) their wicked ways and (b) our ignorant ones.
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