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Why Zittrainian Techno-Pessimism is Unwarranted

Adam Thierer

Adam is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He previously served as President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Director of Telecom. Studies at the Cato Institute, and Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

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3 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    My read of the book is very different than yours. First, I don’t get an invocation of collectivism, at least as a paradigm put up against personal rights. On the contrary, I see a thread of individual liberty. Zittrain argues for investiture of community norms when he highlights examples like Wikipedia. It seems to me that he prefers bottom-up from the people, not top-down from the government mechanisms to promote an optimal Internet ecosystem. Perhaps that’s why you have such a difficult time in your #7 identifying regulatory solutions Zittrain proffers; he does propose solutions, but they are of a very different nature from those you are looking for. In fact, one of the problems he seeks a solution to is the “all-too-inexpensive control by regulators.” (III:1) The “radical interventions” he promotes are instead awareness and cooperation. He wants to empower individuals – and companies as well – to develop the tools and practices necessary to maintain the Internet environment that they have made an informed decision that they want. It’s the community park model: everyone works together to keep the park clean and safe instead of relying on hired workers and police to do it for them. Zittrain’s approach is pretty far from a heavy-handed state regulatory regime. And he advocates strongly for individual property rights – consumers’ rights to own what they purchased (Tivo v. Echostar) and do what they want with what they own (including cracking open their iPhones).

    Second, I think the pro-government, anti-corporation dichotomy lurking in the background of your critique is a false one. Zittrain points out plenty of potential abuses of tethered appliances by the government, because tethering makes devices more controllable. Companies figure in these stories most often as unwilling participants enabling such control under duress. In the case of Echostar, government is using the tether to control both consumers and the company (also relevant to your #5, sometimes companies get sued in order to force them to throw the kill switch and get held in contempt if they refuse).

    Third, a good reputation is an asset for any company, but it is hardly the greatest. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has mocked users’ privacy and trust in now public IMs; Google has flipped the kill switch on innocuous Android Apps; Apple has repeatedly been called out for its ambiguous and occasionally Pulitzer-slighting App Store standards. Backlash has been minimal, perhaps because the news cycle is so short. If such reputation backlash is the only counter-measure limiting companies’ shift toward closed systems – I’m not sure it is, but it’s the one you raise – then I don’t think it’s adequate.

    Fourth, Zittrain uses the term “generativity” in the book, specifically to address some of the concerns you have with our ability to define “open” and “closed” systems. It still takes some effort to conceptualize, but would a word that can be fully described in a sound bite be worth writing a book about? Zittain summarizes the factors to weigh when gauging the generativity of a system in Chapter 4, paragraph 12. Suffice to say, generativity is a spectrum, not a switch, so systems can be more or less generative, while only at the extremes will the rare platform be completely generative or completely sterile: the iPhone before third party development was allowed was less generative than the current iPhone. But suggesting that the characteristic of generativity is an invalid metric simply because there are positions on the dial between “on” and “off” misses the point. It’s my understanding that when gauging the prevailing Internet environment as a whole, we want the needle pointing as far over towards more generativity as necessary to promote innovation and not so far that we unduly risk security. Admittedly, that’s likely to be a hard sweet spot to hit, but that doesn’t mean that strategizing about how to get into that range shouldn’t be attempted.

    Fifth, the book describes the pattern of generativity. Yes, AOL et al. were surpassed by the Internet, but that’s because the technology was at that point in the pattern. Maybe you contest Zittrain’s characterization of the process, but he does explain why he thinks the Internet overcame proprietary networks then but is at risk now. And sure, floppy drives and dialup seem like relics, but shouldn’t that just serve to remind us how inglorious would it be to be stuck with the tech of today ten years from now? Zittrain never suggests that we revert. Nor does he admonish us to stop moving ahead. He proposes a way to divine the path forward into innovation that has fewest impediments.

    Finally, the book isn’t pessimistic, unless you consider the Boy Scout motto similarly bleak. You may disagree with the size and likelihood of the risks Zittrain identifies or the solutions he proposes, but recognizing potential problems and preparing to mitigate them is practical, not fatalistic.

  2. Anonymous Coward says:

    “But what, exactly, is it that Zittrain wants done, and who or what should make it happen?  Remarkably, he doesn’t offer many specifics in his book or in his essay.  Should consumers be discouraged from purchasing iPads, video game consoles, or TiVos because they are “too closed”? Or should the creators of such gadgets be forced to “open them up,” even if it means that might discourage their development in the first place?”

    Jennifer mentions the answer: “he advocates strongly for individual property rights – consumers’ rights to own what they purchased (Tivo v. Echostar) and do what they want with what they own (including cracking open their iPhones).”

    We need to make sure there is no protection in the law for locking platforms up. For example, cut the DMCA back to what it was sold as, a mechanism for solely copy protection rather than for gatekeeper control and competition suppression. The point, in general, is that if someone wants to make or use an app for a device like an iPhone, and they have to jailbreak it because the manufacturer won’t let them do it otherwise, the manufacturer (or the phone company, or anyone else) should have no legal right to enjoin them.

    As long as it is legal for anyone to “open” a closed device that they own, the problems attendant to closed devices will be mitigated, at a minimum, by people having that option. Moreover, if the makers of closed devices want to keep them closed they have to be sure not to abuse their customers to such a degree that the customers expend the efforts to, so to speak, break the devices open.

  3. [The message seems to be: “Enjoy the good old days of the open Internet while you can, because any minute now it will be crushed and closed-off by corporate marauders!”]

    That is odd, The.Big.Lie.Society has been the clique that has “crushed” innovation and “closed-off” access to better technology.

    It Seeks Overall Control