January 22, 2009 9:41AM

The Future of Free Ice Cream and How to Stop It

I'm reading Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and I'm having a hard time granting plausibility to the book's thesis. Zittrain writes as follows:

As ubiquitous as Internet technologies are today, the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today's Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity -- and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. (p. 8 )

As examples, he contrasts the Apple II, a classic of early personal computing, to the iPhone of today. The first is wide-open to outside development, insecure, not always dependable, and susceptible to hacking by both friendly and unfriendly parties. The second is sterile, secure, and, we are told, entirely under the thumb of a now much more sinister corporation. Unless we do something, that corporation's control over information technology will, he believes, quickly morph into state control as well. Zittrain seeks a world that is open to the personal computer, which he views as as a device that enables a particular computing ethos -- one of open, freewheeling exchange and innovation. The iPhone represents that world's antithesis, and the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

Although I'm certainly concerned about civil liberties and privacy issues on the Internet, I have a lot of questions about Zittrain's thesis.

First, the example he uses is far from perfect. The Internet abounds with descriptions of iPhone hacks, many of them well-documented and remarkably successful. The menacing control exists, but it's often a paper tiger. And although Apple didn't originally publish an iPhone software development kit, it does now. So which one is it? Is the iPhone still not hacky enough? Or should we find another, better example? But the hacking community delights in finding supposedly uncrackable devices, and in cracking them -- often within days of release. Offhand, I can't think of a single recently released Internet-enabled device that someone hasn't hacked. (Another of Zittrain's purported bad examples, the Xbox 360, supports an avid hacking community, albeit with far less support from Microsoft. It isn't a community for everyone, but then, hacking isn't for everyone. Neither is macrame.)

Second, it seems pretty obvious that there's room, and demand, for both kinds of devices, relatively secure and relatively open. It's not got to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It's not like "the Internet" is ever only going to be one thing. We can't expect every user of every new device to master the very steep learning curves entailed by the wide-open do-it-yourself user interfaces that Zittrain clearly favors.

Some products will sell to some markets because they are relatively secure, common-sense, and uniform. Other products will sell to other markets because they are open to change, because they require high-level knowledge, and because with that knowledge comes the power to extensively modify the device itself, often at your own risk. So much the better -- let everyone take their choice.

Indeed, the very same person may want devices at opposite ends of the continuum. A highly dedicated computer hobbyist, of the type who writes his own software or mods his store-bought devices in his spare time, might still want a reliable telephone for calling 911 in an emergency. (Given our now-extensive ability to mod the iPhone, this may simply entail buying a second iPhone.) We need not be afraid of any of this.

Nor need we be afraid of present trends toward greater security. Present trends do not necessarily continue indefinitely into the future. Indeed, they almost never do, and information technology is no exception to the rule. As Zittrain himself does a good job of documenting, there's been quite an ebb and flow in approaches to information technology over the decades, from security to openness and back again. It puzzles me why he believes that today's trend is somehow different.

Third, and most importantly, I don't think that the relevant comparison is between the iPhone and the Apple II PC. A better comparison might be between the iPhone and the clunky, wall-bound telephones of 25 years ago: now these were sterile, non-generative devices, subject to command and control! It would be interesting to take an iPhone back in time, and show it to telephone users in 1984.

"Wow," they'd say, "you people in the future must love all the creative outlets this thing allows you. Sound and video, games, even some kind of new paperless... letter-writing. Encrypted paperless letter-writing, if you wanted. You can talk to all your friends, set up appointments, read the news, or just spend all day tinkering around with it, kinda like we do with our Apple computers. To get all the same creative outlets, we'd have to buy maybe five or six different devices, all of them very expensive. And together they'd be big enough to take up a whole room of the house. But the iPhone fits in the palm of your hand!"

To which, we'd have to reply, "Yeah, but see, there's this guy named Jonathan Zittrain, and he says it's not 'generative' enough..."