Friday, June 04, 2010

recent reading: Bartow on Zittrain

Ann Bartow, Portrait of the Internet as a Young Man, reviewing Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It: Okay, let me admit my seething jealousy for the perfection of Bartow’s title, which manages to be both funny and incisive, encapsulating a key element of the review. It’s a short review of a smart book (look at the iPad, which Zittrain described well before Apple did and before Steve Jobs admitted that he just doesn’t like the idea of people reading or looking at sexually explicit materials on one of his devices, so he’s going to do his best to prevent that); I recommend both, despite disagreeing with various things both of them say.

In particular, Bartow argues that Zittrain’s vaunted generativity (roughly, the ability to do new and unanticipated things with a technology) operates at multiple levels: the App Store is generative in one sense, though locked down in many others. I don’t think Zittrain ignores this, but I was struck by Bartow’s extension of the argument to say that “[f]or companies, closely following the acts and omissions of their customers or client base is generative behavior, even though it relies on tethers. Information about consumers can lead to innovations in goods and services as well as in marketing them.” Eric von Hippel’s work on user innovation seems quite relevant here: if true innovation, as opposed to improvements in known uses/devices, rarely comes from producer companies, then gathering information about what consumers do with the stuff they’re handed is far from sufficient to protect innovation, and the argument for allowing jailbreaking/tinkering etc. is stronger. As Bartow points out, consumer protection law might be a fruitful source of relevant principles—which would mean that we’d have to do more to unify consumer protection and competition policy.

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