Are Digital Generativity and Openness Overrated?

by on February 23, 2010 · 2 comments

So, do I need to remind everyone of my ongoing rants about Jonathan Zittrain’s misguided theory about the death of digital generativity because of the supposed rise of “sterile, tethered” devices? I hope not, because even I am getting sick of hearing myself talk about it. But here again anyway is the obligatory listing of all my tirades: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 + video and my 2-part debate with Lessig and him last year.

You will recall that the central villain in Zittrain’s drama The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It is big bad Steve Jobs and his wicked little iPhone. And then, more recently, Jonathan has fretted over those supposed fiends at Facebook. Zittrain’s worries that “we can get locked into these platforms” and that “markets [will] coalesce [around] these tamer gated communities,” making it easier for both corporations and governments to control us.  More generally, Zittrain just doesn’t seem to like that some people don’t always opt for the same wide open general purpose PC experience that he exalts as the ideal. As I noted in my original review of his book, Jonathan doesn’t seem to appreciate that it may be perfectly rational for some people to seek stability and security in digital devices and their networking experiences—even if they find those solutions in the form of “tethered appliances” or “sterile” networks, to use his parlance.

Every once and awhile I find a sharp piece by someone out there who is willing to admit that they see nothing wrong with such “closed” platforms or devices, or they even argue that those approaches can be superior to the more “open” devices and platforms out there. That’s the case with this Harry McCracken rant over at Technologizer today with the entertaining title, “The Verizon Droid is a Loaf of Day-Old Bread.” McCracken goes really hard on the Droid — which hurts because I own one! — and I’m not sure I entirely agree with his complaint about it, but what’s striking is how it represents the antithesis of Zittrainianism: 

Yesterday, Google announced Google Earth for Android. It looks neat–and it requires Android 2.1, so it won’t run on the less-than-four-months-old Droid. That’ll get fixed when Verizon rolls out an update for the Droid, which may happen soon. But it points out frustrating, potentially crippling issues with Android: The platform is splintering, and it’s changing so rapidly that the majority of Android handsets feel stale. Even the Droid–I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that Amazon is selling it for fifty bucks, or one-quarter of Verizon’s original after-rebate price. Over at InfoWorld, Galen Gruman has a good post with more evidence of Android’s fractured nature. There are multiple, incompatible versions of the OS out there, and I don’t know of any good reason to think the situation’s going to get better rather than worse. Google surely isn’t setting a good example by releasing an Android version of Google Earth which won’t run on most Android phones.

But wait… doesn’t Android represent an example of near Nirvana in terms of Zittrainian generativity? Isn’t this the model we should all be hungry to have dominate all devices? McCracken sure doesn’t think so. He’s all aboard the Steve Jobs “Screw Openness” Express:

Do I need to recap the situation with Apple’s iPhone OS? It gets only one major upgrade a year, instantly available to all owners of existing devices, and all software works on any iPhone OS gizmo that has the proper hardware.

Android will never be like that, of course: It’s an open-source product that runs on an array of gadgets with varying hardware specs and capabilities. But how big a bummer is it going to be if it takes a nerdish interest in version numbers to determine if a given app works on your phone? Isn’t it a problem if the hot Android phone of the 2009 holiday season feels stale by February, even if the situation is somewhat temporary?

In short, wouldn’t it be healthy for Android if it evolved a little more slowly, and everyone responsible for its fate agreed that compatibility is a key goal?

Now isn’t that interesting! Here, in essence, we have an argument that generativity and openness are bad for us.  McCracken is praising Apple’s “you’ll get your OS upgrades when we let you” model versus the wild west approach of rolling upgrades for Android devices. Are you OK with that? Personally, I’m not. But more on that in a moment.

Part of what McCracken is actually getting at here is something I talked about in an old essay here wondering what constitutes “Too Much Platform Competition.” That is, how many platforms or operating systems are too many? Do we really need dozens of video game consoles? I don’t know about you, but I personally wouldn’t want to buy more than the 3 consoles I have already spent way too much money on. And game developers absolutely hate having to code for multiple platforms. The same is now true for mobile application developers. They are not particularly fond of the sudden proliferation of mobile operating systems and apps stores using competing standards. It’s just more development expense from their perspective.

What the iPhone brings, by contrast, is stability, security, and certainty.  People value that even if Zittrain fears it.

But now for the not so dirty little secret I have whispered here before — I hate Apple for all this!!  I am more of Zittrainian than Zittrain!  Jonathan actually carries an iPhone around in his pocket when I wouldn’t consider owning one in a million years.  I want to hack away at my stuff and tweak it to my heart’s content. And when McCracken talks about that “nerdish interest in version numbers to determine if a given app works on your phone,” well, that’s me, baby!  I am the kind of uber-dork that sits around constantly hitting the refresh button on the Droid’s “About Phone” menu to see if new OS upgrades are ready to roll.  (Yes, sad, I know. Do you believe someone actually married a dork like me?) And as far as security and stability go… well I say screw that. I have bricked several phones trying to hack away at them. It doesn’t help that I almost never know what I am doing, but I do have an healthy spirit of digital adventurism!

Anyway, here’s the really important point: We can have the best of both worlds — a world full of plenty of “tethered” appliances and semi-walled gardens, but also plenty of generativity and openness at the same time. And we can have plenty of hybrid solutions, too.  On the “generative-vs.-sterile appliance” spectrum, the range of devices and platforms just continues to grow and grow in both directions.

Moreover, these “open” vs. “closed” notions are always hopelessly over-simplified in digital technology policy debates. It’s rare to find any device or platform that is perfectly open or closed. Indeed, the very notion that Apple is a “closed’ platform is somewhat misleading. As I mentioned just last night, Apple’s App Store alone has over 100,000 apps in 20 different categories (available in 77 countries) to choose from. So, even though Steve Jobs & Co. keep a tight grip on operating system upgrades and Apps Store policies, the reality is that there’s a whole lot of generativity taking place on top of that OS and within that app store. It’s somewhat reminiscent of what happened when supposedly Big Bad Bill Gates pissed off the whole world in the 90s by building a code empire around a proprietary operating system that he tightly controlled:  Countless exciting innovations developed for that platform even if Bill & Microsoft didn’t hand over the keys to OS to the rest of the world so they could tinker away with it.

Again, I am not saying that generativity and openness are overrated; only that they other side of the story rarely gets told.  And the ideal world, of course, is one in which we have options on both sides of the “open” vs. “closed” spectrum from which to choose. Luckily, that is increasingly the world we live in today.

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