Another Sky-is-Falling Zittrain Editorial

by on February 5, 2010 · 7 comments

Harvard Berkman Center professor Jonathan Zittrain has published another pessimistic, Steve-Jobs-is-Taking-Us-Straight-To-Cyber-Hell editorial building on the gloomy thesis he set forth in his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. His latest piece appears in the Financial Times and it’s entitled, “A Fight over Freedom at Apple’s Core. Concerning the recent Apple iPad announcement, Zittrain warns: “Mr Jobs ushered in the personal computer era and now he is trying to usher it out.”

I’m not going to go into yet another lengthy dissertation about what it so misguided about his thesis that cyberspace is becoming more “regulable” and that digital “generativity” is dying because of the rise of devices like the iPhone & iPad, or sites like Facebook.  Instead, I will just point you to the many things I’ve written before explaining just how far off the mark Prof. Zittrain is on this point. [See the complete list down below + video of our debate.]

But let me just say this… Ignoring that fact that he is an iPhone user himself — which makes no sense considering that he thinks of Apple as the font of all cyber-evil — he can’t muster any substantive empirical evidence proving that the Net and digital devices are being more “closed, sterile, and tethered,” as he repeatedly claims in his book and editorials.  And that’s not surprising because the reality is that the digital world is more open and generative than ever, and even if there are some “closed” devices and systems out there, they are actually quite innovative and not perfectly closed as Zittrain suggests. The spectrum of “open vs. closed” systems and devices is incredible diverse and nothing is perfectly “open” or “closed.”  We can have the best of both worlds: many open systems with some partial “walled gardens” here and there (or hybrid systems combining both). Regardless, we are witnessing greater digital “generativity” and innovation with each passing year. Until Zittrain can prove the opposite, his thesis must be considered a failure.

Finally, I want to associate myself with this excellent critique of the Zittrain thesis by Prof. Ed Felten, who points out that Zittrain’s argument doesn’t even work for the iPad, which I would agree is a fairly “closed appliance” in the Zittrainian scheme of the things:

For the iPad to become a Zittrain-type appliance, two things must happen. First, Apple must remain picky about which apps are available in the App Store. Second, Apple must limit the device’s browser so that it lacks the features that make today’s browsers viable application platforms. Will Apple be able to limit their product in this way, despite competition from other, more general-purpose tablets? I doubt it.

But even this — even an appliance-style iPad — would not be enough to prove Zittrain’s thesis. Zittrain argued not just that appliances would exist, but that they would replace general purpose computers. Amazon’s kindle is an appliance, but it doesn’t prove Zittrain’s thesis because nobody is ditching their laptop in favor of a Kindle. Instead, the Kindle is an extra device which is used for its purpose, while the general-purpose device is used for everything else. If the iPad ends up like the Kindle — a complement to the laptop or netbook, rather than a replacement for it — this will not prove Zittrain’s thesis.

It seems unlikely, then, that the iPad, even if it succeeds, will provide strong support for Zittrain’s thesis. General-purpose computers are so useful that we’re not likely to abandon them.

Exactly right. And here’s a few more things you might want to read to see why Zittrain’s thesis doesn’t add up (the first and the last one probably provide the best overview):

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