Possible Downside of IPhones: Scary Dystopia!

By Jonathan L. Zittrain
Yale University Press, 342 pages, $30

As part of a program called “verkeersbordvrij,” the Dutch city of Drachten has done away with traffic signs, parking meters and even parking spaces. The result, so far, has been shocking: Traffic safety has improved dramatically. Under some circumstances, it seems, people will take it upon themselves to look out for their own and others’ best interests, even in the absence of rules and enforcement.

In a new book about the problems implicit in the way the Internet is developing, The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It, Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain writes that the Internet is threatened because, instead of applying the lessons of verkeersbordvrij, we’re leaning toward simpler, cheaper, less chancy-seeming means of online regulation. This, he explains, would be a catastrophe because it would eliminate the “generativity” that created the virtual world we’re all now, to some extent, living in.

The only flaw in Mr. Zittrain argument is this: What if you don’t think the Internet should continue to grow and develop? What if you saw the title of this book and hoped that it would actually contain step-by-step instructions for stopping the Internet? I’d imagined masks, explosives, a nighttime meeting in a field somewhere, and then, in the information blackout that would ensue, a kind of global snow day. Gamblers, gamers and office procrastinators would stumble, blinking, out into the sunlight. Formerly anonymous blog commentors would have to say their piece out loud, face to face.


I’M BEING FACETIOUS, of course. No one can deny that there are beneficial, even essential things about the Internet, innovations that society would suffer without, freedoms that shouldn’t be curtailed. Also, I’d miss being able to look up movie times so easily. But this good stuff is at risk, Mr. Zittrain says, because of the rise of what he calls “tethered appliances”—recent inventions like Xboxes, iPods, iPhones and DVR recorders, machines that contain PC technology but lack the PC’s ability to be altered by anyone besides their makers. That alterability—what Mr. Zittrain calls “generativity”—is what enabled the birth of what we now know as the Internet. In fact, as Mr. Zittrain tells it, personal computing’s history has been a continuous struggle between generative and non-generative technologies: “Just as the general-purpose PC beat leased and appliancized counterparts that could perform only their manufacturers’ applications and nothing else, the Internet first linked to and then functionally replaced a host of proprietary consumer network services.” So why doesn’t he have confidence, then, that generativity will continue to triumph?

Largely because the people using PCs aren’t all nerdy hobbyists anymore. Most people who own computers aren’t using them to collaboratively develop code that will simplify everyone’s lives, motivated by the sheer joy of figuring out what’s possible. They’re using them to send their grandchildren vacation pix, and when the spam and malware that are the price we pay for PCs’ unique powers trouble them, they probably won’t hesitate to switch to a safer, more neutered version of the same machine—not realizing, of course, that this seemingly logical decision, writ large, has scary dystopian implications.

The thing about machines that can only be controlled by their makers is that those machines’ users are completely at those makers’ mercy. Not only does this mean that you can’t hack your iPhone to make it do cool things, it means that your iPhone—or any phone—could easily be used to spy on you, just as the F.B.I., by obtaining a judge’s order, can now track any vehicle equipped with an OnStar navigation device. But aside from their potential for use as tools of active surveillance, tethered machines are also tools of passive control. An iPhone, in a way, is like a North Korean radio that’s built to be able to access only approved frequencies. “Regulators,” Mr. Zittrain writes, “finally have a toolkit for exercising meaningful control over the famously anarchic Internet.”


WE FACE A censored future if we can’t figure out a way to distinguish “bad generative results”—network security breaches, lies on Wikipedia and privacy violations—from good ones. Mr. Zittrain posits a bunch of thoroughly researched solutions to our problems, all of which have one requirement in common: Generative technologies need “artistically and intellectually skilled people of goodwill to serve as true alternatives to a centralized, industrialized information economy.” He believes in our collective goodwill—sometimes, it seems, credulously.

In remarks about Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose blurb is situated prominently on the book’s jacket, Mr. Zittrain writes that “apart from a few instances he has since publicly regretted, Wales has not edited the [Wikipedia] articles himself, nor does he directly instruct others to change them with specific text.” But Mr. Wales was recently embroiled in a scandal after IM transcripts showed that he did exactly that on behalf of a woman he was dating.

Mr. Zittrain still believes that people are capable of using the power of the Internet wisely, and let’s hope he’s right; let’s hope we can all be wise Dutchmen and avoid the coming crash.


Emily Gould, a writer and YA author, used to edit Gawker.com. Her personal blog is EmilyMagazine.com. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Possible Downside of IPhones: Scary Dystopia!