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Jonathan Zittrain on generativity and the future of the Internet

Jonathan Zittrain gave his inaugural lecture at Oxford this afternoon. For those of us watching via videoconference from Harvard, we got to see just what sort of perks JZ is experiencing now that he’s teaching on the other side of the pond:

– The entire hall rises as he enters the room. (He’s lucky if people look up from their laptops when he speaks at Berkman.)
– He gets to wear full academic robes, a mortarboard and crimson hood. (This really helps him save on dry-cleaning costs. He’s wearing jeans and a Ramones t-shirt under the gown.)
– He marches into the room led by a Dame who is carrying a mace. (Occasionally, while walking through rough neighborhoods of Cambridge, JZ has been know to carry mace.)
– He delivers his lecture in front of stained glass windows lit by the setting sun, wrapping him, saint-like, in a curtain of light. (We occasionally achieve the same effect in Cambridge by shining the LCD projector directly in his eyes.)

Dame Averil Cameron alerts us that JZ is the first holder of the chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford… as well as listing his various Harvard-related academic honors. We’re invited to listen to the lecture and congratulate JZ afterwards, but not to answer questions. (This seems somewhat paradoxical given that the talk is about the interactive and generative nature of the Internet, but we’ll let that slide.)

The talk is titled “The Future of the Internet… and How to Stop It.” (It is not, alas, a how to guide.) It’s a preview of a forthcoming book on the generative internet and the possible legal barriers to preventing the Internet from becoming what it should be. (And it’s available as a webcast, via Real Player…) As per usual, JZ approached the topic with “a nerd-like joy at the power of the Internet” and a fascination for the way the internet is redefining common terms.

JZ begins to look at how the Internet is redefining the term “privacy”. In a very traditional sense, we can think of privacy as “defence” – the walls of Windsor Castle keep thousands of the “public” outside, allowing the very public figure – the Queen – to have a private life, as well as a public life. Without walls and guards, that privacy would be impossible.

Governments attempt to defend our privacy on the internet against those who would intrude upon it. Private firms post privacy policies and absolutely no one reads them. It’s possible that the firms that use them don’t even read them – they simply copy them, boilerplate, from another site. “Do they matter? I think not.” Under California law, if you expose your customer’s data to others, you need to alert them. This is also a great opportunity to send them coupons for discounts for goods and services, providers who’ve been forced to do this have discovered.

Privacy as protection doesn’t always mean protecting the user. If you wanted to read Steven King’s “Riding the Bullet”, you can to use a “glass book reader” – i.e., your laptop screen. While the reader doesn’t give you the ability to print the book and read it offline, it does have the ability to send reader data back to King, perhaps allowing him to polish up the passages where readers put the book down.

Sony – as has been documented ad nauseum by Boing Boing and others – recently released a set of music CDs which installed a set of code – a rootkit – on the hard drive of users who had the misfortune to put those CDs in their computers. This code tried to prevent users from copying the CD and, quite possibly, opened a backdoor to those machines as well. JZ offers his list of top Sony titles – Van Zandt’s “Get Right with the Man”, The Coral’s “Invisible Invasion”, The Bad Plus’s “Suspicious Activity” and, of course, Our Lady Peace’s release, “Healthy in Paranoid Times”.

JZ envisions a future where no one ever pays the sticker price – stores keep track of our purchases and our loyalty and target their pricing to our purchasing behavior. He posits a store – AllMuzak.com – which adjusts prices to our browsing behavior. Visit the site once and the CD is $18. Bookmark it, come back, reconsider, browse around, and it might drop to $15… Is this any different from stores that use frequent buyer cards and reward you for your loyalty? Is it worse because it’s sneaky and invisible? What if stores starting doing this for provisioning custmer service? Get a reputation for asking difficult questions and you’ll discover that the store staff disappear when you enter a store…

JZ posits a new possible model – “Privacy as Strategy” and suggests that there’s an economic value in letting users control the information they choose to disseminate. He points to the $1 billion dollar market in iPod accessories, suggesting that the devices are so popular is that people build an identity with the devices, believing their iPods learn their tastes. He references YouTube, which generates 100 million page views per month, with content solely created by users – none of the content belongs to YouTube. iTunes has gotten into the act with their Podcast store – search for Harry Potter and you’ll get four podcasts, none of which are authorized or approved by J.K. Rowling.

100 million people logged in worldwide to play interactive computer games. If a virtual world is shut down, it’s not like being thrown out of the movie early – it’s like losing part of your identity.

32,000 people have sent photos to Sorry Everybody, a site that lets US citizens offer their apologies to the world for (re?)-electing President Bush. It’s turned into a book project, as well as spawning responses, like Apology Accepted (which is also turning into a book project.) Of course, not everyone is thrilled with this turn of affairs, which means that there’s also sites like “sorryjustisntgoodenough.com” and “wehavenothingtobesorryfor.com”. (Regretably, I can’t find either of these sites. Sorry…)

We’ve long wondered whether a million monkeys and a million typewriters would produce Shakespere – thanks to the Internet, we know they won’t. But they might produce 32,000 political photographs.

This leads JZ to talk about “Private as the New Public”. He begins with an example borrowed from Yochai Benkler – the NASA Clickworkers study. NASA wanted to do something very complicated – automated feature identification and vectorization of lunar and planetary impact features. (They wanted people to draw circles around craters.) This would have taken a graduate student a very long, boring year – inviting the web to help, the project took a week.

Similar techniques are working to clean up texts scanned with OCR (optical character recognition), so that Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of HTTP) doesn’t get turned into The Timberners League (a lumberjack bowling league, we’re guessing).

One of the most amazing groupwork projects is Wikipedia. The articles that generate the most controversy are often the ones that come out the highest quality, like the article on anti-Israel protester Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent it from knocking down Palestinian houses. The talk page associated with the article has been hosting a conversation not unlike the editorial arguments one would hear in Britannica’s offices… if Encyclopedia Britannica would ever write an article on a little-known peace activist. Should the article include a photo of Corrie burning an American flag? Above or below the fold? “We see not only what the Oracle says, but the debates that precede them.”

Of course, these tools can be yanked out of their context – Encarta, Microsoft’s Wikipedia competitor (heh) offers you the ability to suggest changes to an entry. In other words, you can offer your work to Microsoft and there’s a chance that your uncredited, uncompensated labor will be used to better their commercial product.

Moving the privacy conversation to a new front, “Public Versus Government”, JZ introduces us to Jing Jing and Cha Cha, cartoon representations of Shenzen’s internet police. They’re a reminder that online space is increasingly a surveillance space, a reminder that US internet users have recently gotten from AT&T, which has apparently introduced a new motto: AT&T. Your world. Delivered. To the NSA.

Referencing Google’s amazing ability to optimize search results based on clickstream analysis – tapping into people’s judgements – JZ suggests that there are ways to combat surveillance through collective action. If users were able to alert a central clearinghouse if they weren’t able to access a website… if other users could retrieve pages you can’t retrieve from your computer… if the software were smart enough to tell you whether you’re blocked by your parents, your ISP, your government… or because you unplugged the Ethernet cable… The resulting system, would be a “collection of gauges, more accurate the more of us who use them”, mapping the accessibility of the net in real time. We could test how filtering works worldwide, the quality of the code we’re running, and other aspects of our net existence by sharing data with other users asking the same questions we’re asking.

Turning to a less optimistic view, JZ suggests that we’re facing a future where “Public versus Public” may be more an issue that public versus government. Security issues – spam, viruses, bots – are a consequence of the generative internet. Skype was banned until very recently at Oxford, because it routes traffic for other users… which contravened Oxford network policy.

As spam became epidemic on the web, Paul Vixie (hardcore geek responsible for key unix utilities, one of the DNS rootservers and countless other good stuff) began a blacklist of people who couldn’t send him mail because he believed them to be spammers. He allowed other people to use this list as well, which some ISPs decided to do. At one point, Hotmail adopted Vixie’s blacklist, which meant that anyone Vixie had blocked was inaccessible to all Hotmail users. What does “due process” mean when you’re dealing with an individual and his private project? What obligations does Vixie have to hear your appeal to be removed from a blacklist?

Facebook.com, one of the most popular sites for college students, allows anyone to tag a photograph with your name. When someone searches for you, they’ll find photos someone else has tagged with your name, flattering or otherwise. Imagine future cameras that upload photos automatically to Flickr, tagged, geolocated and dated. Add in face recognition technology like that developed by Riya, and you can imagine a future where you are automatically identified and tagged in every photo you appear in. Before you get too comfortable with this, pay a visit to the Christian Gallery News Service, which photographs women and the license plates of their cars as they leave the offices of doctors who provide abortions…

The technology that allows people to find people on their buddy lists in a cafe via geolocation could be used to round up political dissidents, in the hands of a repressive government. What if Amazon puts its substantial collaborative filtering might towards calculating this similarity: “Other people who enjoyed this subversise text also enjoyed long prison sentences, arbitrary detentions…”

JZ hopes we’ll take hints from three institutions as we head towards the future. The first is the IETF – the Internet Engineering Task Force. The rules the organization follows are very simple:

– Keep it simple
– Keep it open
– It’s not a democracy – it’s a technical meritocracy, run by rough consensus
– Assume that people are reasonable
– Assume that people are nice.

Those last two principles really do show up in the code. Ethernet cards, when they discover a packet collision, both wait a random interval before resending packets. It’s not the most efficient way to ensure throughput – resending immediately, and assuming the other guy will pause is – but everyone does it, because it’s the nice way to resolve the conflict. IETF’s mascot is the bee, perhaps because scientists (until very recently) couldn’t figure out how the bee would be able to fly, as it seems aerodynamically impossible.

IETF’s philosophy seems hopelessly naive, but Wikipedia relies on the same magic – they politely ask people not to vandalize, but to be constructive instead, hoping that people will choose to add to the project instead of damaging it.

By contrast, JZ hopes we’ll take very few cues from ICANN, ITU and WSIS. “The best thing about these organizations is that they keep the busybodies in a room talking with each other,” leaving the rest of us alone to work out the future of the ‘net. He hopes that we’ll ask a question these organizations rarely ask, “What are the digital environments that inspire people to act humanely?” This is not a typical lawyer’s question, but it acknowledges that, sometimes, the groups that work best are very small and very open. Town meetings work great in small New England towns, but don’t scale up especially well. But they’re great learning environments, allowing people to apprentice in the art of politics.

The success of the future internet requires us to “make slices of decisions matter”. The community of people arguing about the Rachel Corrie Wikipedia entry was just one of thousands of small Wikipedia communities having similar decisions – as a whole, they’re a new kind of encyclopedia, but atomically, they’re a small community.

JZ believes that it’s critical that you have the opportunity to do wrong. Wikipedia works, in part, because it’s possible for you to vandalize entries. Every time you interact with Wikipedia, you make a conscious decision not to do so, to be a good citizen.

The third set of institutions considered is the University, which JZ thinks is largely failing to use the net well. He offers an overview of truly regrettable university internet developments, including SAGrader, which automatically grades student essays, and the University of Texas lecture copyright policy, which appears to punish you should you have the temerity to learn from a lecture in the class.

The future of universities on the Internet has to be more than digitizing libraries and putting them online. It needs to involve creating new knowledge using the tools the Internet gives us. If you’re organizing a class, you are putting together an intellectual playlist, and this should be shared, remixed, and used to help match you to classes with similar interests. It’s crazy that students write essays to be read by one person, when they could become part of Wikipedia and evaluated by others.

This new vision for universities involved “inverting the pyramids” – rather than creating monuments to individual egos, we need start understanding what we can build as a group, understanding that there are bad people amongst us, inaccuracies generated, and still a great work achieved.

A hell of a talk. The kind that leaves you wanting more, waiting to ask JZ some questions… Guess we’ll have to wait until he comes back to this country. And puts down the mace…

If you have questions for JZ resulting from this talk, please feel free to post them here – I’ll do my best to summarize those questions and put them to JZ.

6 thoughts on “Jonathan Zittrain on generativity and the future of the Internet”

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  2. Thanks for the blow by blow. What are your personal opinions on building communities based his talk? I walked by a meeting you were speaking at in Berkman. You were talking about LARPing and the types of communities that things like that inspired. I almost burst in the room to ask questions, but since I didn’t know what the meeting was about I thought better of it.

    JZ briefly brought up Cyworld, which I have been watching like a hawk and desperately trying to get in on the beta. From the Korean pages I have seen it seems to simplify the good things about Second Life and boil them down into practical tools that people can use to socialize and collaborate.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Jason. The conversation you overheard was me ranting about “community” projects on the internet that seem to believe that community is the product of community tools – my contention is that RL communities figure out how to use tools – almost any set of tools will do – and that this leads to far more dynamic communities than the tool-droven ones.

    I’m about to spend two days at a SL-driven Metaverse conference. Should be interesting to see if I’m able to argue this point… and how it goes over with a tool-obsessed crowd…

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