The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It
I watched a video last night of a talk given in April 2008 by Professor Jonathan Zittrain. Prof Zittrain is a compelling speaker and he was talking about the contents of his book “The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It”…
I have been pondering where the internet is going for a number of years myself, whenever tearing myself away from working on it has given me the time to truly ponder what is going to happen to it.
I have myself been concerned recently about the Berlin-wall that is building up around Facebook and how an ever growing number of people enter the net through it. Those people aren’t freewheeling through the internet like I was when I first got on board in ’93 (although I sent my first email in 1984) – they’re unknowingly inside a closed community, like one of those god-awful gated communities you find in Noth America. I’d actually liken it to being inside a prison. Not that they’re not free to communicate with people who are also on the inside, but that their freedoms are severely limited inside Facebook compared to the freedoms available on the old wild world wide web. Just look at how they are preserving their legal rights to so much of our private information. And we just willingly give it up because we can’t imagine what could possibly be malevolent about this.
Because so many of the newbies (who are really oldies) joining the internet don’t know of any other kind of online world, they are blissful in their ignorance. It not only frightens me, but appalls me in terms of the potential for compliant censorship of ideas, and therefore potentially another massive slowdown in the development of human potential, not dissimilar to the Dark Ages. I say this in context of the massively exciting period we lived through ’95-’07 when all things online were possible (i.e there were no “Terms and Conditions” for putting up a music app online. Try creating one for the iPhone now. And no-one could stop you producing anything on the grounds of ‘taste and decency’. Who decides what’s tasteful and decent for fuck’s sake?)
Admittedly, I have spent most of my time thinking about how this would factor in on the niche world of internet marketing. I have seen other marketers dive in headfirst with Facebook and Twitter and the like. I have dabbled myself. I even managed a 100% click-through-rate with a Facebook advert, against the average of 0.04%. They sent me a T-shirt.
Professor Zittrain has been thinking about this too, but he goes much deeper and places the development of the internet, which is a fascinating story in itself, within the context of sterile and generative technologies developed throughout the 20th century. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s been a fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and is currently (I think) at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. He’s internet royalty as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve also been interested about the way that coders are being tempted to create programmes (or applications, or “apps” as you probably know them as now) within the constraints of Facebook and the iPhone because of the fact that these are “cool” and “killer” and because of the massive income potential they offer. In the old days, coders created apps for the fun of it. You could create anything and anyone could download it from anywhere. Good stuff went viral and made a name for the coder. They often went on to monetise these ideas in massive ways (skype, anyone?). But now, when you create an app for Facebook or the iPhone, you’re writing it for “The Man”. Don’t take my word for it (I’m not a coder) – take a look at this interesting blog entry by coder Brian Webster.
The Prof also makes the point about how it is the generative nature of the internet as an open network based on IP that is both the basis of it’s brilliance, but also it’s downfall because of the pure ease in which a malicious piece of software can be placed on any computer in the world at any time. It’s the security fears that lead to the gated community. It is not an easy dilemma to solve, and the direction it goes in will have profound effects on us all.
The reason why I urge you to make a cup of tea and spend an hour in a quiet room watching this video is because of the message behind Professor Zittrain’s ideas – it’s up to all of use to collectively be aware of what’s happening in order for us to collectively help shape the future of that most wonderful of human inventions, the internet…
You can get his book from here: The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It
There’s another interesting article by Professor Zittrain in the Boston Review, and an excellent appraisal from Tony Curzon-Price called “From Zittrain to Aristotle in 600 Words“