Is Success Killing the Internet?

A few weeks ago, I attended my first event at the New America Foundation. I wrote about it beforehand, it was a debate primarily between Jonathan Zittrain and Adam Thierer covering the main points of Zittrain’s new book, “The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It”.

I haven’t read the book, yet, at least not beyond the first chapter or so of the electronic version. This may bias my impression but I did not feel like Zittrain’s presentation was merely rehashing contentions and data from the book. Zittrain is a lively speaker and brings humor and energy to the subject matter making the experience of seeing him live distinct. He also seemed to have more current examples, including a project, Herdict, formulated explicitly as a constructive response to some of the books critics.

The focus of his presentation seemed to be the latent ambiguity inherent in the actions of past civic minded hackers. He outlined several contrasting technologies, some that were in fact drawn from the materials covered in the book. Where we have been able to struck a successful balance between open and closed, restricted and generative, he explained how the actions of self organizing, usually volunteer hackers and activists has made a difference for the better.

Unlike Zittrain’s critics, I really didn’t come away feeling he is playing the part of Cassandra. Thierer in his rebuttal pretty much laughs off Zittrain’s worries as being far from a foregone conclusion. I don’t think that is really the point.

Thierer did explicitly characterize the situation as graduated continuum between the poles Zittrain highlights, that of restrictive, tethered technologies versus open, generative systems. Again, I don’t think the poles are the point, but how trends evolve in that continuum space. We’ve been intensely lucky, Zittrain’s examples really reinforce that. The newer examples he brought to the talk highlighted the need for civic minded action to directly address real and significant dangers.

To me, that seemed to be all he was trying to accomplish. He does so by pointing out the dangers and the benefits, explains what kinds of actors and systems have best supported progress, and urges us to simply be more mindful. Using terms like civic defense and civic mindedness seem like prods to wake us up, to do intentionally what others in the past have done more organically.

I certainly can’t fault him for that. I think viewed in this light, there is a lot of room in the discussion for market advocates, like Thierer, as well as everyone else to participate. I don’t think it does any harm or curtail individual, public or market freedoms to try to identify risky trends and encourage thought on how best to manage them.

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