Saturday, November 20, 2004

Jonathan Zittrain presented at GU on Free Software and the Future of the Internet, an extension of his earlier work on Normative Principles for Evaluating Free and Proprietary Software. Brief summary from my notes:

Two historical oddities of note: (1) The computer, an item that wasn’t very useful as it came off the production line, but was fairly easy to write programs for. Creators of .exe files came from all places, including college dropouts. Consumers bought computers based on their current functionality, but that potential openness vaulted PCs past dedicated/more vertically integrated technologies such as word processors. Zittrain calls this “generative” technology, technology that encourages new uses and applications. (2) The Internet with its hourglass architecture. At the bottom, electrons can flow through any medium – copper, fiber, radio. Internet Protocol is in the middle, TCP/UDP above that, SMTP/HTTP/RTP etc. above that, and on top email, www, phone, etc. Thus, the system is neutral with respect to applications users might run. And those applications are easy to adopt, like blogging software. Indeed, blogging software was what finally got me to learn whatever html I know, which isn’t much but is enough to play.

But there are countertrends. First, entrepreneurial: SCO’s claims against Linux, where SCO is trying to market “new and innovative licensing programs” rather than non-legal products. Second, regulatory: all those lawsuits over file-sharing etc. Third, technical: from an owner’s point of view, you don’t want your mode of communication to be your mode of control – e.g., you don’t want phone customers to be able to get free calls by picking up the phone and playing the right tone on a whistle. The Internet, similarly, is vulnerable in that the very routers that send packets are instructable by the right kind of packets. Thus the virus/malware problem, especially since the technology is so widespread now that plenty of people (like me) use technology they don’t understand.

Implications: more dedicated devices, with the premise that you can trust such devices more, such as Diebold’s voting machine (an ironic example). Even if you can hack your Blackberry or your TiVo, how many people want to? Zittrain suggests TiVo is a very powerful example of using tech to separate the sheep from the geeks. “Warranty void if screw removed” is a greater deterrent to tinkering for most consumers than threats of lawsuit by the RIAA if you use Kazaa. Some people will still hack, but they won’t share what they’ve done with the rest of us when we’ve got all these dedicated boxes.

Zittrain is worried by this end of openness. He wants it to be reasonably easy to make something cool and different based on the same platform that everybody else is using. My take is that he’s not really worried about the end of hacking – people who tinker are always a small subset of people who use a mature technology, and the relative and even absolute decline in “smart” Internet users is neither odd nor even sad in my opinion. He’s more worried that innovations created by hackers will not be able to spread, commercially or noncommercially, because of regulatory and technological barriers.

This is a great project. I’d like to see more clarification of the types of creativity Zittrain wants to protect, though, since he says he’s most interested in letting people collaborate on the creation of meaning. Celebrating Blogger is not the same as celebrating tinkering with your DVR; one is about the immediate generation of content, albeit often highly derivative content like my post here, and the other is more mechanical, though it may result in communicative activity if you manage to put your recording of Desperate Housewives up on Bittorrent.

Is hacking your DVR really collaborating on the creation of meaning? If it is, then tinkering with your car is doing so too, though in a different way – and this is especially true if you then write into a tinkerer’s magazine sharing your insights, or if you take your hot-rodded car out and drag race with other buffs. (I find it unlikely that there were ever more software programmers working in their garages than amateur auto mechanics working in their garages, even if Bill Gates did hit the big time.)

Zittrain suggests that tinkering with motorcycles and chemistry sets is more dangerous than hacking, though he admits that malware problems might equalize some of those risks. Maybe there’s something to be said for danger – Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood is eloquent on the wonders of the chemistry set for teaching a young mind to think. More generally, Zittrain’s project is in a way part of the history of technology, and therefore we might learn something from comparing the trajectory of the Internet from enthusiast’s hobby to modern necessity with the trajectory of other universalized technologies like cars and radio.

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