I finished reading The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it a couple of days ago, but previously (having read most of it) I went along to the Innovation Reading Circle where seven or eight people sat around discussing the book.
Cyber law expert, Jonathan Zittrain, argues in this book, that that the internet’s future could be bleak, as we see it become more locked-down, less free and open and less inviting of innovation. He uses the term “generativity” to describe technologies which provide open platforms for tinkering and unexpected invention. The internet itself is generative at various layers, and our “end-point” PCs are also built to be generative, but new devices are less so. Tethered to their supplier and restricted in their programmability, these otherwise highly capable web-enabled devices represent a shift towards an undesirable future for the internet. Problems like spam and viruses, the downside of open generativity, may drive change through market forces, or ill-conceived legal interventions which fail to take account of the value of generativity.
The book’s title is obviously deliberately provocative, and in our discussions we were largely trying to decide whether he was overstating the doom and gloom. On the whole I felt that he constructed a detailed end-to-end argument and unlike the title, he didn’t really push an overly alarmist message that disaster is inevitable. Nonetheless I did find myself convinced that there is a problem with the way the internet is going, and whilst we can surely rely on market forces to keep us from some kind of total internet lock-down, the pendulum could still swing quite heavily in that direction if the consuming public and the law-makers do not grasp the issues.
And perhaps the most disturbing thing about the book, was that it did need a whole book (or at least the first two thirds of the book) to explain the issues from top-to-bottom. The merits and abuses of generativity ripple up and down the full technology stack, presenting recurring legal and technical cat and mouse games at every level. Take a narrow viewpoint, and the solutions seem simple.