The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It (review)
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The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. By Jonathan Zittrain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. vi+342. $30.

Jonathan Zittrain has written a clear and compelling argument for preserving the productive potential of the global infrastructure of networked PCs and their (potentially) collaborative users which we increasingly refer to as “Web 2.0”. Both the internet and the PC, he argues, have expressed a property he calls “generativity,” or “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” (p. 70). This notion of generativity extends from the broad-based production of new applications for information systems to the widespread use of those applications to produce new ideas and insights within the larger culture. According to Zittrain, [End Page 962]

The ubiquity of PCs and networks—and the integration of the two—have thus bridged the interests of technical audiences and artistic and expressive ones, making the grid’s generativity relevant not only to creativity in code-writing as an end, but to creativity in other artistic ventures as well, including those that benefit from the ability of near-strangers to encounter each other on the basis of mutual interest, form groups, and then collaborate smoothly enough that actual works can be generated.

(p. 96)

But this generativity in application development and knowledge production is threatened by its very success, Zittrain fears. The ability of the same generative network to allow (and perhaps encourage) online viruses, spam, malware, phishing, and fraud may convince producers and consumers alike to settle for a use-restricted and user-monitored “appliancized” digital environment instead. Thus Zittrain warns, “The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control” (p. 3).

In the first half of his book, Zittrain is actually more concerned with the past than the future, and he offers a brief summary of the secondary history on the PC and the internet. He believes that the key historical design decision was the implicit adoption of the “procrastination principle” which “rests on the assumption that most problems confronting a network can be solved later or by others,” at the endpoints of the network by clever application programming, rather than in the middle of the network through restrictive architecture or protocols (p. 31). From this decision came the key risk to such networks, however: the “trust-your-neighbor approach” which assumed that these application programmers would be “more or less competent and pure enough at heart that they would not intentionally or negligently disrupt the network” (p. 31).

Over time, “Multiplying breaches of that trust can threaten the very foundations of the generative system” such that “people will come to prefer security to generativity” (p. 43). Zittrain calls this security-based solution the “information appliance,” exemplified by such digital consumer-electronics products as “Digital video recorders, mobile phones, BlackBerries, and video game consoles” (p. 57). Such appliances are often “tethered” to the corporate interests which produce, sell, and service them, allowing vendors to monitor customer use and even alter the terms of that use from afar. The consequences of such a shift, Zittrain warns, would be devastating, not only to digital innovation itself, but to “individual freedoms and opportunities for self-expression” (p. 64).

Zittrain has an impressive command of both the technological and legal nuances of the topics he writes about. He is at his best in his chapter on Wikipedia, in which he argues that this online collaborative amateur encyclopedia [End Page 963] represents both the risks and rewards of “innovative output” and “participatory input” that generative systems enable. The broad range of his inquiry complements the recent literature on the social and political consequences of online activity, somewhere between legal scholar Lawrence Lessig’s Code (2nd edition, 2006) and communication historian Tarleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut (2007). Zittrain’s ideas also invite further work by scholars in other fields. For example, he suggests (but does not develop) the notion that part of the push for taming the generative platform of the networked PC relates to the varied demands of...