The Gospel of Generativity
In today’s New York Times, Steven Johnson shared his recent crisis of faith. Johnson has long believed in open platforms to promote innovation and diversity online. In his view, the “gospel” of openness goes like this: “In the words of one of the Web’s brightest theorists, Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard, the Web displays the ‘generative’ power of a platform where you don’t have to ask permission to create and share new ideas. If you want democratic media, where small, innovative start-ups can compete with giant multinationals, open platforms are the way to go.” Johnson has apparently devoted a hundred pages of book chapters, essays, and blog posts spreading the “gospel” of openness.
Now, Johnson is rethinking his belief in openness. Why? As Johnson explains, Apple’s iPhone software has been the “most innovative in the history of computing.” More than 150,000 applications have been created for the iPhone in less than two years, and small developers created so many of them. As Johnson notes, “it’s conceivable that, had Apple loosened the restrictions surrounding the App Store,the iPhone ecosystem would have been even more innovative, even more democratic. But I suspect that this view is too simplistic. The more complicated reality is that the closed architecture of the iPhone platform has contributed to its generativity in important ways.” Consumers have been willing to experiment with apps because they come from a trusted source. At the same time, the single payment mechanism helped nurture the ecosystem by making it easier to by apps “impulsively” with one-click ordering. In Johnson’s view, while the iPhone/iPad ecosystem likely could benefit from a little more openness, it has made clear that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”
This summer, Concurring Opinions will take up this question in earnest. Jonathan Zittrain will join us for an online symposium on his book The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. The Future of the Internet has already generated (forgive the pun) exciting reviews. Ann Bartow’s review recently appeared in the Michigan Law Review and James Grimmelmann and Paul Ohm have a forthcoming one in the Maryland Law Review. We are going to build upon this literature, joining legal academics and computer scientists to discuss the net’s future. Perhaps even Steven Johnson will join in on the fun.