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Eyes closed at Berkman at Ten

I came to the Berkman at Ten conference under doctor’s orders to keep my eyes closed. This leads to an unusual – for me, at least – approach to conference-going. I’m here in Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School with a heavy blindfold on, sitting next to my friend Thomas Kriese, who’s telling me about the slides projected at the front of the room.

The blindfold is off now, because I lost a challenge with David Weinberger – it turns out that I cannot, in fact, liveblog blindfolded. I can, but what results isn’t exactly readable – turns out that I move one key in a random direction every few minutes if I’m not typing continuously.

Anyway. This event is an interesting blend of birthday party, complete with a certain degree of self-congratulation, and academic conference, featuring Berkman faculty as speakers. There’s a lot to celebrate. John Palfrey, our fearless leader, has just been elevated to vice-dean of the law school, responsible for the library and information services of the institution. The Center is moving from a Law School center to a “university-wide” center… though it’s a bit unclear what that move will mean. Yochai Benkler has joined our team, and with Cass Sunstein moving to Harvard Law, we’re hoping he’ll join as well. And Dean Elena Kagan urges us to use this conference as a chance to convince Jonathan Zittrain to accept an offer to take a tenured position at Harvard, where he taught until a few years ago.

Zittrain is the opening speaker, offering an overview of the argument in his new book, “The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It“. His argument – in a nutshell – is that the amazing power of a programmable computer and an open internet, which he refers to as “generativity”, may be in danger of making the internet such a dangerous place that we try to shut off this generative magic.

Zittrain uses the “g-word” infrequently in today’s talk – instead, he refers to this magic as “the dark energy” of the internet… which is appealing to me, as the world is very dark indeed with this blindfold on. But the darkness of his vision provokes some serious pushback from the audience, which includes net luminaries like Scott Bradner and David Reed, who helpfully point out that people have been predicting the implosion of the internet for a long, long time now… and somehow the network proces resilient enough to survive.

Terry Fisher, framing Zittrain’s talk, explains that most conversation about the net has focused on a debate between market forces and open, commons-based creation. Zittrain offers a different model – a matrix that includes axes from top-down to bottom-up, and from hierarchy to polyarchy. The generative net has lived in the quadrant defined by bottom-up and polyarchy. Many of the solutions to the scary problems of the net move towards top-down, centralized solutions like that offered by the ITU. Zittrain’s hope is for a bottom-up, but hierarchical solution.

That’s the quadrant he’s pointing to on the screen, but his argument seems a lot more basic – we need to trust human nature and people’s willingness to do the right thing. I’m reminded that when I spoke to Brooke Gladstone at On the Media a week or so ago, she told me that all net visionaries she knows ultimately believe that human nature will save the Internet – it’s interesting to discover that JZ is soundly in that camp.

5 thoughts on “Eyes closed at Berkman at Ten”

  1. Great to hear your input about Berkman 10 conference . I agree–not code but common human understanding will save the net.

  2. Ethan, hope the blindfold is off soon–until it is I will expect continued explorations of the metaphor. I cast my vote with the optimists, on the grounds that the left side of the graph charting the march of Internet (better, smarter, faster means of producing and manipulating content, code, and data) trends us toward a more semantically complete (complex) understanding–to wit, it increases the gravitational pull of ‘truthiness’ and the velocity of knowledge.

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