Book Review: The Future of the Internet

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Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the internet – and how to stop it. New Haven, CT: Yale. Paperback. 328 + x pages. $17.00. ISBN: 978-0-300-15124-4.

In The Future of the Internet, Jonathan Zittrain explores the development of personal computers (PCs) as generative devices that allowed for the Internet to explode in popularity in the way that it has in the last ten years. He argues that while open networks were the only way for PCs and the Internet to be runaway successes initially, it is now time to reassess the generative PC and put security of our networks first. Without doing so, we stand to lose the greatest asset of our networked society: innovation. The author presents his message in a thought-provoking manner, alerting readers to the danger of continuing on the current path and prompting users to be more savvy “netizens” who help to make the Internet a safer communication platform for everyone. His argument for a solution – the development of a “community ethos” online – has implications for the general public whom he is writing to, as well as for rhetoricians, to consider.

Zittrain organizes his argument into three parts: a history of the explosion of PCs and the Internet, a discussion of generativity and its implications for networked society, and finally, a presentation of solutions for moving past the current state of generativity to a more secure and sustainable networked society. The first section, “The Rise and Fall of the Generative Net,” gives a selective history of networked computers and introduces readers to the initial struggle between centralized proprietary networks, such as early AOL and CompuServe offerings, and the Internet, examining the features that led to the demise of the former and success of the latter. The Internet, Zittrain writes, began with few rules and expectations, growing exponentially to the point that it is at now, connecting people all across the world. PCs, furthermore, developed in much the same way: with hardly any regulations and instead an open platform that allowed anyone who wanted to tweak and improve both hardware and software. Zittrain posits that the openness of the system led to significant vulnerability and the inevitable development of viruses, worms, malware, and spam that proliferate on the Net today. Internet threats are spiraling out of control: highly communicable and available almost instantaneously around the globe to networked computers, programmers and Internet security companies cannot keep up with the volume. The remainder of the book is developed on the premise that the current “status quo” of cybersecurity (or lack thereof) is not sustainable and requires intervention – though not primarily on the part of technology companies or software developers, but on the part of individual users around the globe. (More after the jump break…)

The second section, “After the Stall,” identifies more precisely how PCs and the Internet are generative, illuminating the benefits and drawbacks to such an open system. By examining the different layers of the Internet – physical, application, social, content, and protocol –, Zittrain explains how generativity works within and across these layers. He defines generativity as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” (p. 70, emphasis in original). This principle assigns users to the role of active participants in the development of the Internet instead of merely being passive consumers. Zittrain credits generativity for all of the innovation we have seen with PC technology and the Internet, saying that it encourages people to pitch in and help with the development of new and better ways to connect and interact with each other online. With the benefit of generativity, however, comes potential disruption, which we have seen increase exponentially over the last decade. Zittrain warns that technology companies are overreacting to the all of the harm that exists on the Net by creating “tethered appliances” (p. 102). Products like iPhones, Blackberries, DVRs, and Kindles are “tethered” because even after being purchased by a consumer, they are directly connected to their vendors and are easily reconfigured by vendors from afar. Zittrain also calls them “appliances” because unlike generative PCs, they are not easily reconfigured by any consumer who wants to tinker with them. While tethered appliances may be safer in the short run (less susceptible to viruses and malware due to tight control by vendors), the author claims that they are detrimental to creativity and innovation in the long run.

Instead, Zittrain argues that we need solutions that foster creativity as well as internal security. He uses Wikipedia as an example of a content-layer community that self-regulates to preserve the integrity of the system. It began with no rules or governing body – just like the Internet itself – and as the system evolved, so did a legislative group and acceptable terms of use. The regulations came from people who cared about the community and wanted to see it succeed, and Zittrain suggests that the same principle can be applied to Internet security and generativity.

In the final section of the book, “Solutions,” Zittrain presents his ideas for moving forward to “the future of the Internet.” The obvious solution to the technology companies, he says, is to produce more tethered appliances to “clamp down” on malintentioned users in cyberspace. Instead, he argues, in order to preserve technological innovation, we need to foster generativity at both the technical and content layers of the Internet and promote a community defense, such as the one used to maintain Wikipedia. He likely loses some readers at this point with his call to “figure out how to inspire people to act humanely in digital environments that today do not facilitate the appreciative smiles and ‘thank yous’ present in the physical world” (p. 195). After thoroughly discussing the development of all the harmful things found on the Internet today, this solution in particular is anti-climactic and hardly seems feasible. If all Internet users desired to “act humanely in digital environments,” Zittrain would not have had to write the book that he has here. He indicates that solving generativity issues at this layer, the social one, might also work to solve problems found in other layers, such as the content and technical ones, but never explicitly states how the transference of solutions could happen. Overall, this solution comes across as preachy instead of pragmatic, the opposite of the first two sections of his exposition.

In this final part, Zittrain also considers many of the legal aspects of privacy and network security and the implications if we do not pursue better enforcement in the future. A professor of law at Harvard, he adeptly adapts the legal discussion for his lay audience for maximum understanding. Much the of the network security discussion, however, is directed toward an informed audience with previous knowledge of code, network design, and other technical language and may leave many less-informed readers in search of the Wikipedia entries for offending terms. Further, his solutions for a more secure network also assume that most Internet users have this basic knowledge of code, malware, website security certificates, and other network issues in order to be viable. Perhaps in his Harvard University Berkman Center, a significant number of his peers possess this knowledge, but a majority of the general public would certainly not have the technical know-how to set his plan in motion. If they did have knowledge of these issues, as he concedes a couple of times in the final section, network security would not be an issue for us to solve in the first place.

Overall, the greatest benefit of Zittrain’s book for rhetoricians lies in his explanation of generativity and the key role it has played in the development of the PC and the Internet. As scholars, we see great benefits in the peer production of Web 2.0, but as Zittrain points out, we must also be aware of the security and privacy dangers associated with such an open network. One of his solutions, a community ethos, is worth exploring from a rhetorical perspective. In what way can Web 2.0 build a community ethos from the ground up? His prime example of this is the development of Wikipedia and its key community of frequent users who developed and still maintain standards for all users, claiming, “Wikipedia, as a tool of group generativity, reflects the character of thousands of people” (p. 198). What constitutes character in a group-governed online encyclopedia? How does community ethos work in an online setting? Rhetorical scholars might also investigate which features of peer production are most salient for discussions of community ethos. Zittrain claims that community ethos is made possible by generativity, and he attempts to show this in his explanations of copyright issues on the Internet, the procrastination principle of networks (which assumes problems can be solved later and by others), and the replicability of ethos from one layer of the Internet to another. Rhetorical scholars are also beginning to look at issues of rhetoric and intellectual property (Reyman, 2010), and Zittrain’s work begins to explain the importance of clear copyright regulation and the consequences of not establishing feasible expectations for intellectual property governance. Using his ideas, rhetorical scholars should continue to explore the rhetoric of copyright in the digital age. Overall, this book provides a solid foundation for the principle of generativity and a prompt to study community ethos in greater depth and its implications for the future of the Internet.

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