Monday, 30 June 2008

Warning on Internet's Future

Jonathan Zittrain believes that viruses and security threats will bring about a closed network where innovation will be restricted. Meanwhile, Lee Siegel worries about the loss of originality and real democracy on the web.

You can watch the two interviews - extended versions of those broadcast on TV - by using the links below.


In his book The Future of The Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain celebrates the freedom the PC and the internet has given people to openly create and share their innovations with us all.

He points to innovations such as the web, e-mail and the wiki which were all given to society by their creators.

But increasingly with such freedom has come viruses, security threats and malware.

Zittrain describes these as "bad code" and he fears this is starting to drive us towards closed, guarded networks where everything is watched over and approved by a gatekeeper.

"I think more people will be driven into the waiting arms of either sterile information appliances - things like the iPod, iPhone and Sony PlayStation - which don't allow outside code on the machine at all, or without the permission of the platform vendor," he explains.

"Or they will end up migrating towards the web itself and by that I mean they will find someone on the web to deliver services to them which substitute what they do on their PC.

"They'll do their documents in Google Docs, their e-mail in Google Mail, their messaging on Facebook."

Software rights

For people who just want their devices to work this might not be a problem, but for innovators working to closed platforms like Apple, Google or Facebook, it changes the game.

"The natural presence of the platform online means that Facebook gets to control it far more," says Zittrain.

"If you read the Facebook terms of service. It contains things - provided automatically by the lawyers, it's not evidence of some terrible plan by Facebook - but it contains rights that Bill Gates, Mr Proprietary, could never have dreamed of.

"[There are] rights to charge the makers of applications for the privilege of allowing that application to continue to exist on Facebook at any rate Facebook chooses. Rights to terminate any application that they don't like, for any reason."

Product lockdown

If just a few big names had played gatekeeper in the past, would applications like Skype have got off the ground?

With no money in it for operators, Zittrain fears commercial interests would have strangled free international calling over the internet.

If the music industry had easily been able to kill off the file-sharing applications used to illegally swap songs, would the BBC's iPlayer exist, which uses the same technology?

So, if we move to locked-down managed gadgets in a bid to get a more reliable service, do we risk caging innovation itself?

"I think we need, either by law or technology, to make sure that when we move to cloud computing or to tethered devices, that the tether isn't too tight that new stuff can be strangled before it's had a chance to prove its worth," says Zittrain.


Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob was bullied when he wrote about his views online which challenged the beliefs held by many bloggers, YouTube performers, and social networkers. It was, for him, a case of publish and be damned.

For Siegel, the online world is not so much inhabited by us as by our egos, which are slowly destroying civilization.

Humans are regressing to a "look-at-me" culture.

We are so desperate to be loved - chasing page rank, viewing figures, and "friends" we do not really know - that we are practically begging for others approval.

"It creates a culture of popularity," explains Siegal. "People look to the crowd for approval without getting in touch with their own instincts, without heeding their own conscience."

"People want to be watched, they want to be surveilled. Fame is the new wealth, obscurity is the new poverty. They want all eyes upon them," he adds.

Copycat culture

This dependence on approval is damaging originality.

Imitation is commonplace, a copycat culture where everything starts to look the same. It used to be called plagiarism, now it is celebrated and provides a quick-and-easy fix for our attention-seeking egos.

"I think life changes when a camera is put upon you," says Siegel.

"I don't think that you can have a natural, organic society when people are existing at that level of self-consciousness. They begin to perform for other people.

"They begin to market themselves. Authenticity becomes more and more rare."

Drowning voices

It is not just teenagers making videos. Many of us have carefully-crafted profiles designed to attract others on social networking sites.

Siegel believes our egos are now running riot on the web.

We have started to kick back at anyone who may try to lead us, or try to inform us. We will not be told.

Siegel points to the rise of the blog.

Strong opinions need little research or fact checking, yet the blog has quickly gained influence. He fears this trend will reduce what the truth is to whoever shouts the loudest.

"I think that's very, very dangerous because there are experts. No-one would talk of citizen heart surgeons, for example," he says. "But on the internet they talk of citizen journalists, because it seems that anyone can take up a keyboard and write a story.

"If the only truth is the result of the strongest, most emphatic assertion, what happens to the patient, soft spoken, contemplative people? They'll get drowned out."

Rational review

Lee Siegel knows his book is controversial but only because few people have questioned the net's show-offs and bullies.

"Unlike earlier transformative technologies, like radio and television, the internet has not been subjected to critical examination. It has escaped that.

"I think it's time to look rationally and level headed at this thing and talks about its dark side as well as its virtues," he says.

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