Oh Farts! The Droid, the iPhone & the Lessig-Zittrain Thesis

by on November 12, 2009 · 26 comments

DroidSeems like everywhere I turn someone is gushing about their new Droid phone, including my TLF colleagues Berin Szoka, Braden Cox, and Ryan Radia, who all had great fun rubbing their new toys in my nose over the past couple of days. And why not, it’s a very cool little device.  It makes my HTC Touch seems positively archaic in some ways, and it’s only a year old.  Apparently, 100,000 people already picked up a Droid in just its first weekend on the market.

But here’s the first thing that pops in my mind every time I see someone showing off their new Droid: How can a device like this even exist when America’s leading cyberlaw experts have been telling us that the whole digital world is increasingly going to hell because of “closed” devices, proprietary code, and managed networks?  I’m speaking, of course, about the lamentations of Harvard professors Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and their many disciples.  As faithful readers will recall, I have relentlessly hammered this crew for their unwarranted cyber-Chicken Little-ism and hyper techno-pessimism. (See my many battles with Zittrain [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 + video] and my 2-part debate with Lessig earlier this year).

“Left to itself,” Lessig warned in Code, “cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.”  He went on to forecast a dystopian future in which nefarious corporate schemers would quash our digital liberties unless benevolent public philosopher kings stepped in to save our poor souls. Code was the Old Testament of cyber-collectivism. The New Testament arrived last year with Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. In it, we hear the grim prediction that “sterile and tethered” digital technologies and networks will triumph over the more “open and generative” devices and systems of the past.  The iPhone and TiVo are cast as villains in Zittrain’s drama since they apparently represent the latest manifestations of Lessig’s “perfect control” paranoia.

Apple’s “Angel of Death”

How completely out-of-control has this thinking gotten?  Well, here’s David Weinberger — another Harvard Berkman Center worrywart — talking about that supposed satanic font of all evil, the Apple AppStore:

The AppStore is the seductive angel of death for computing. It enables Apple to keep quality up and, more important, to keep support costs down. But a computer that can’t be programmed except by its manufacturer (or with the permission of its manufacturer) isn’t a real computer. The success of the AppStore is a gloomy, scary harbinger. From controlling the apps that can go on its mobile phone, it’s a short step for Apple to decide to control the apps that can go on its rumored slate/netbook device. And since so much of the future of computing will occur on mobiles and netbooks, this portends a serious de-generation of computing, as predicted by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

The “angel of death”? A “gloomy, scary harbinger”? Wow, who knew!  In Weinberger’s world, Apple is guilty of the heinous crime of “keep[ing] quality up and, more important, [keeping] support costs down.”  OH MY GOD, how dare they.  Somebody make them stop!  No, seriously, how silly is all this? It’s like those Republicans who, in their zeal to do anything to defeat health care nationalization, decide it’s OK to make up spooky stories about “death panels” hidden deep inside congressional bills.

I find Weinberger’s claim that “a serious de-generation of computing” is looming because of the iPhone to be especially ridiculous. It’s the same sort of rubbish Lessig was spewing in Code when he predicted that AOL’s walled garden model was going to take over the entire cyber-world and ensure “perfect control,” just one of the many things Lessig got wrong in the book.  And it’s the same silliness we see at work in Zittrain’s work when he claims that we’re doomed to live in a world of closed “sterile and tethered” digital technologies and networks. Similarly, last year, Public Knowledge analyst Alex Curtis managed to reach the zenith of this rhetorical insanity when he likened the Apple App Store to an Orwellian Big Brother that was bringing us a “1984 kind of total control.”  You know, because Apple is forcing us all to own iPhones and locking us into re-education camps.  Right.

I Fart, Therefore I Am (Generative)

Which brings me back to the Droid.  If all these dour predictions about the death of digital generativity and the rise of closed networks and walled gardens were true, how in the world does a phone with an open source operating system and a completely open applications process for developers even exist? (Android devices like the Droid don’t require users to rely exclusively on the Android Marketplace for apps; you can run other apps if you like).

Moreover, it’s not just that a remarkably innovative and generative device like the Droid gets widespread release and praise, it’s the fact that there are countless other mobile devices and applications on the market today much like it. On the Zittrainian “generative-vs.-sterile appliance” spectrum, the range of mobile devices just continues to grow and grow in both directions. You can decide exactly what type of device you want.  But here’s the more important point: How much of a difference does it even make how “open” these phones and app stores are?  You’ve got more “closed” systems like Apple’s iPhone and Palm’s Pre on one end of the spectrum and then more “open” systems like the Droid and even many Windows Mobile devices on the other end, but do these competing models really result in many difference in terms of functionality and innovation?  The reality is this: tons of innovation is occurring across all of these devices and platforms regardless of how “open” or “closed” they may be.

For example, when I go to Handango, a terrific mobile application marketplace, and search for “all apps” available for my HTC Touch (which runs a Windows Mobile OS), my senses are assaulted with 6,677 choices.  It’s all a bit overwhelming.  Luckily, a quick search can get me right to the important applications I really need — like the “Pocket Fart” app.  Folks, let me tell you, no “generative” device is worth its salt without a good farting application.  I don’t care how bad of a mood my kids are in, when I fire up a fart app, it puts an instant smile on their faces!

But hey, guess what… that “angel of death,” the iPhone Store, offers fart apps, too!  Dozens and dozens of fart apps, in fact.  In terms of Zittrainian generativity, the iPhone is positively fart-tastic. Just check out that video below. And in addition to those dozens of flatulence apps, the Apple AppStore has another 100,000 apps available for downloading, making it the largest applications store in the world. And back in September, Apple announced that more than two billion apps had been downloaded from the App Store in its short existence. That’s Billion with a “B”.  Does this sound like it “portends a serious de-generation of computing” as Weinberger suggests?  Incidentally, if he’s so frightened that Steve Jobs is the Grim Reaper incarnate he can always go find another phone. Seriously, Steve Jobs doesn’t force anybody to buy one of these expensive toys.

If the iPhone is Good Enough for Zittrain, Why Isn’t It Fine for the Rest of Us?

Incidentally, despite all the fear and loathing about Steve Jobs and the iPhone that one finds in Future of the Internet, I was very entertained to discover that Jonathan Zittrain is an iPhone user himself!  I used some shameless McCarthyite tactics during our debate at New America Foundation last year — “Are you now, or have you ever been, an iPhone user!” — to publicly out him. [Go to the 55:00 minute mark of the video to see.]  But my point to him that day was a serious one: If you so fear the death of generativity because of that little demonic device, than why carry one in your coat pocket?  Why not use a device that lets you break all the rules because it essentially has no rules?  There are multiple open source mobile operating systems and a thriving community of “homebrew” developers. Go spend a few minutes at PCC Geeks or Howard’s Forums and see what I mean.

But the Berkman boys don’t seem content with all that.  And I wouldn’t usually give a damn about the lunacy of these hyper-pessimistic prognostications from the Harvard crew if it was all just harmless cyber-sourpuss ramblings from the ivory tower geeks with too much time on their hands.  But the problem is that these people want regulators to take steps to correct these supposed “code failures,” as Lessig calls them.  Zittrain calls for “API neutrality” in his book, which would force net neutrality-like mandates on digital devices. And in a New York Times editorial this summer entitled “Lost in the Cloud,” he made it clear that cloud neutrality regulation was next on the list. [Others are joining that call.] I’ve got a serious problem with that, as I detailed extensively in earlier essays (here and here), and Berin Szoka and I have discussed how these escalating neutrality wars are bound to lead to the digital equivalent of “mutually assured destruction” within the tech community before it’s all over.

Finally, when the Berkman gang, which is the most respected cyberlaw shop in the land, go around casting these debates with terms like “evil” applications and “angels of death,” then I have a serious problem because the game you are playing becomes hazardous to the health of the digital economy.  This poisons the public policy debate by using absurd moralistic rhetoric about something as fundamentally agnostic as digital platforms and protocols.  These things are neither good nor evil; they are just choices.  They represent different ways of promoting innovation.  And we should be happy that our current digital marketplace is offering us a rich mosaic of business models and options that can fill almost any need and fit almost any picky user’s desires.  If that ain’t progress, I don’t what is.

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