Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review of “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”

Posted on August 18, 2008 by crackerbelly

In “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” published in 2008 by Yale University Press in New Haven and London, Oxford University Professor and co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Jonathan Zittrain describes the open and generative nature of personal computers and the Internet. He paints the early days of computing and the early days of the network we now call the Web with colorful and playful stories.

In reading his first chapters, he made me feel wonderful about being able to say that I was there at the beginning and I remember. Zittrain’s book is a treatise of caution, however. He argues that because the Internet was framed in a spirit of openness and cooperation, an ethic that greatly enhances the generative nature of the technology, there are, as a result, holes and vulnerabilities that lend them to exploitation. Spam, viruses, worms, zombie code, root kits and spyware are just a few examples of the burgeoning security threats that confront information technology and the Internet today. Zittrain argues that if we do not act proactively to curb the impulse to trade security for freedom in response to this proliferation of risk, we might be destined to settle for an information economy that is more industrial than digital in nature.

Kevin Kelly, an editor of Wired Magazine, says in a TED lecture that was recently released to the Web at the following URL,, that Wikipedia is something that should be impossible and yet it exists. Kelly goes on to say that the first lesson of the Web is that we have to get better in believing in the impossible. I believe this captures the sense of awe that Zittrain is communicating when he refers to the generative nature of the Internet. It is almost mystical. He refers to the dark matter of the Web.

Zittrain dedicates a chapter to Wikipedia in his book. He calls out the three key attributes that spawned Wikipedia.
1. Verkeersbordvrij: maintain a neutral point of view and all errors can be repaired by reverting to the previous version.

2. Discussion: every article is accompanied by a discussion page where participants can discuss points of disagreement and come to consensus.

3. Dedicated core: initially there was a core of dedicated staff, mostly editors, who came from the Nupedia project, the predecessor to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia embodies not only what Zittrain sees as the best of generative technology but he also holds up its approach as a good example of how the future problems of the Internet can be avoided.
Zittrain eschews the prospect of seeking security and risk avoidance in the sterile control of government or in the proprietary rigidity of one or two corporations. This is the future of the Internet that he seeks to stop. He hopes for open and creative solutions that allow for the impossible. He offers suggestions for what these solutions can be.

One of the principles that has made Wikipedia a success is versioning. Whenever an article has been damaged, either through error or by malice, the last known good copy can be restored. The same approach can be taken with PC systems. He calls it the “Red and Green”. A Personal Computer, even one used in a public setting, could have virtual versions, a red version and a green version. The green version has a stricter set of security controls and this is where valuable data and programs could be maintained. The red PC would be the version where more risky and questionable things could be tried. If something went wrong, it could be reset with the push of a button.
Zittrain values the relative lack of central control on the Internet. He believes, however, that we can guard against problems through better informed experiments. This system would take the form of tool kits that would act much like spyware but with the opposite ethos. At the moment someone is deciding whether to run some new software, the tool kit’s connections to other machines could say how many other machines on the Internet were running the code, what proportion of machines of self-described experts were running it, whether those experts had vouched for it, and how long the code had been in the wild.
A chapter is dedicated to strategies for a generative future. Zittrain advocates for maintaining data portability. In other words, our appliances and applications should not be dependent upon the whim or control of one particular entity, company, or government. He argues for network neutrality and for API neutrality, open standards on the network and in applications. He champions maintaining privacy as software becomes a service.
There is a way for us to keep the wonderfully generative nature of the Internet. It is up to us to act proactively in order to make sure that happens. Zittrain offers a blueprint for making this happen. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to see the next 5,000 days of the Web be as amazing as the first 5,000 days.


About CherryPal for Everyone (CP4Every1 or CPFE)

CP4Every1 is constantly crawling the web (on human hands and knees) to find unique information of value regarding green technology, cheap and reliable connectivity, personal, portable and sustainable industry developments, future and social/cultural transformative technology, political relevance and news that is NOT just another re-posting of the same press release pushed out by the industry.

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