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Author: Quinn Norton

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Future of the Internet Symposium: Casting a Wider Net

The project behind writing a book like The Future of the Internet is not only admirable, it should and does inspire people to think about major philosophical and social questions about the inherent politics in technological infrastructure. The project is also hard, and likely to draw critics, both valid and not. When you set out to talk about the future of something as broad and culturally revolutionary as the internet, you can’t possibly hope to succeed, you can only hope to fail better over time.

To continue the evolving failure, I’d like to take an ecological approach to The Future of the Internet and ask what context do Zittrain’s points exist in? We are told that more developers are writing for iPhone and Facebook than Linux, that iPhones dominate the landscape, that iPads might determine something of our political future. But this is only true for something that is already a walled garden– the American socio-economic middle and upper class. Beyond this barrier of perspective the landscape is very different. Is it true that people develop for the iPhone in favor of other platforms in Kenya? What about China or South Korea? Probably not, but the transnational nature of the net means we have to care about those places as well if we want to come up with a true picture of what’s going on, or going to happen.

Skype is one of the most often cited examples of an application people want to protect in the net neutrality debate. It was developed by Estonian hackers previously famous for the illegal file sharing app Kazaa. When Kazaa came out, no analysts and tech pundits were saying “Look to Estonia to revolutionize the telecommunications debate.” But it’s obvious that Skype was informed by the peer-to-peer nature of Kazaa, and by the legal and technical troubles the Kazaa builders wrestled with. Now the walled gardens of the net have to quickly take and maintain a stance on Skype, both on a technical and political level. What these kinds of applications ultimately demonstrate is that the next killer app has no pre-definable vector, and if you lock down one part of the net, chain up one cohort, then some other will be the source of disruption. To imagine that the governments of the world will somehow line up and cooperate on a net policy that universally kills this creative impulse is like waiting for a one world government to solve the problems of climate change. Sure, it seems possible on paper, but don’t hold your breath.

Even if we could reliably regulate the internet, what is the internet? It’s a specific implementation of telecommunication infrastructure. But not terribly specific. It’s easy to say what is definitely the internet, harder to say what isn’t. Is text messaging part of the internet? My first instinct is to say no, but it’s an interface and control on many internet applications. It’s been a key part of monitoring and tightly integrated at administrative levels of the net for as long as it’s been around. So perhaps we have to allow it in the pool. What about phone calls themselves? Again, problematic, as telecom companies will sometimes use the same protocols and wires to transit calls as net traffic. African, Afghani, and Filipino programs that move banking onto cell phones show that generativity  moves to the edges of the net/telecom division when you can’t access the net itself for some reason.

What is generative? This is also hard. The telecom infrastructure was built to be non-generative, non-open, and not user friendly. It was built top-down and tightly regulated. But the net was built on top of it, so it ultimately was generative despite the intentions of its builders. The net nested a bottom-up social structure in that top-down architecture. The total generativity of a system can only be determined in retrospect from how it was used, not from how it was architected. To focus only on the protocols as written to understand whether a technology will be generative is like trying to determine whether an artist has a good eye by looking at his DNA.

Generative and non-generative systems have always emerged from strange parents, and given birth to strange children. I’ve seen nothing to make me fear for the future of the net in general, though I think Facebook, Apple, and Zittrain’s points make me fear that the respectable net will be an increasingly boring place. Nevertheless they will fall in time. To keep their captive audience happy Apple has to be right all the time. The general purpose environment only has to be right once. People are not sticky, and getting less sticky by the day, and a change that captures their imagination  will drag them away from a platform or a business model or a political system with scary haste. We can’t see these changes coming from looking at how things are structured to work. We have to look at the limits of how they might be messed with.

If you want to understand the future of the internet, or the future in general, you have to look past how technology is used, and see how it’s misused. Can the net go horribly wrong? Oh yes, but not only in the ways we can predict here, now. The radio was key to allied victory in WWII, and to instigating the Rwandan genocide 50 years later. Undoubtedly the net and cell phones will grow closer together, and have their moments of glory and horror in human history.