Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Jonathan Zittrain has a new book called The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. Zittrain’s belief is that we are headed towards a security nightmare, that without major changes in the architecture of the internet a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money through compromises of their online identities. And if that happens, Zittrain believes, there will be a kind of retreat from personal computers to “information appliances,” more specialized machines that do some of the cool stuff we’ve become accustomed to enjoying but that are locked-down in ways that make us less economically and personally vulnerable. (Zittrain thinks that the iPhone, with its closed system and centrally controlled App Store, is the biggest step so far in this direction.) And Zittrain believes that if that happens, if we start to close doors that have been open since the internet got here, we’ll lose a lot of creativity of dialogue and invention — we’ll lose what Zittrain calls “generativity.”

There’s a terrific review by Tim Wu of Zittrain’s book in the new New Republic. TNR tends to put some content online temporarily and then later remove it (except for subscribers), so I don't know how long a link will work, but for now here it is. Wu believes that the development of the internet has a strong parallel nearly a century ago in the development of radio, and the story he tells is fascinating. I’ll leave you with a taste of it:

While it sounds surprising, there were probably more broadcast radio stations in the 1920s than there are now (excluding satellite). A guide to the nation's stations in 1922 declined to provide listings for New York City, because "a list of all that can be heard with a radio receiver anywhere within three hundred miles of Greater New York would fill a book. At any hour of the day or night, with any type of apparatus, adjusted to receive waves of any length, the listener will hear something of interest." And early radio, like the early Internet, was aggressively non-commercial. At a radio conference held by the Commerce Department in 1922, all agreed that "direct advertising in radio broadcasting service be absolutely prohibited." Herbert Hoover, speaking at that conference, declared that "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter."

The point is that both radio and film were, in their early days, much like the Internet is today: new, unreliable, and full of content that was not ready for prime time. These were easy industries to get into, like dot-coms in the 1990s or Web 2.0 in the 2000s. To get into film in the 1910s required little more than converting a store into a movie theater, which is how William Fox (20th Century Fox), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), and Carl Laemmle (Universal) got their start. They were low-budget entrepreneurs, the Larry Page (Google) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay) of their day.

I do not mean to glorify the age of silent film or local radio. I have watched plenty of silent films, and there is much to be said for sound. I want only to insist that where the Internet is now, we have been before. What Zittrain calls a "generative" media was not invented by the Internet's founders. And that is why understanding what happened next may be our best guide to the Internet's future.