What is the difference between generative and tethered technologies?

Professor of Law and Computer Science

Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources for the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, he was the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute.  He was also a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law and Stanford Law School.

Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.

He is also the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop Itas well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is the difference between generative and tethered technologies?

Jonathan Zittrain: So there's one axis along which you can judge a technology, and I say that's between a generative and a sterile end point. And it's not like I've already picked a winner. I'm not setting this up as a simplistic dichotomy of generative good, four legs good, two legs bad, kind of thing. Generative does give us surprises because nerds write stuff for it that you would never expect to be popular, and who knows? It takes off, whether it's a dancing hamster or a flying toaster or stuff a little more serious but still whimsical. I'd put in that category Kazaa and Skype, and other stuff that's been truly transformative and popular, and perhaps troublesome to people with legally protected interests: witness Kazaa and Skype, with the music and telecommunications industries respectively. But these technologies, what makes them generative is that third parties can write new code for them, can repurpose them, and share that with people who aren't necessarily nerds. That's generativity at the technical layer. That then can produce generative stuff at the content layer. If Jimbo Wales, in 2001, had to sell Avici or a gatekeeper of some kind, Mr. CompuServe. Here's something you should offer through CompuServe, an encyclopedia that anybody can edit at any time, starting with seven articles. Then we just let it roll. I don’t think CompuServe would spring for it. I don't think Avici would fund it. It's a crazy idea. It's the stupidest idea ever. Wikipedia is the dumbest idea in the world, and what do people say about it? It works in practice but not in theory. Jimbo's able to try it out, and sure enough, it worked. And there's a thousand other Jimbos that try stuff that really are just flat out stupid ideas, and they don't work. But occasionally, the crazy idea works, and having a generative platform to try it out can be crucial to letting that idea sing. Now the sterile technologies, on the other hand, are much more reliable, much more controllable. There might be one hand or firm guiding how the technology will work. If it goes wrong, you have a number to call to fix it. All of this is good. I would like my heart monitor to be a sterile technology. I probably want my automobile to be a sterile technology, although there's some interesting variations in that. A number of people have hacked their Priuses. The car actually has an operating system and you can go in and run some new code on it, and make it so that it doesn't make a noise when it backs up. I don't know how many people have to be killed by hacked Priuses, before we're like, "Okay, maybe that should be a sterile technology." So in that sense, I'm not saying generative always trumps sterile, but I'm excited to have a technology ecosystem in which the generative stuff can produce bizarre things, and then firms can come along and lock them into cool, sterile compartments. Now, my worry is that if we don't solve some of the excesses of generative systems, as they go mainstream, like the fact that any executable code can run on your PC over the internet, and you can infect a bunch of them in a heartbeat and completely control the machines, people will flee and we'll end up with an ecosystem that is primarily sterile. And at that point, there's nobody to keep the application appliance makers honest. There's no Skype to retreat to when your VOIP mobile phone starts overcharging you, or not having the features you want.

Question: What are dangers of “walled gardens”?

Jonathan Zittrain: Aside from thinking of a garden with a wall around it, people may have different views as to what a walled garden actually is. I think my working definition is, there is some person who builds and tends the wall, person or a firm, and they decide what goes in and out. There's obvious benefits to that, analogous to the kinds of benefits there are if you live in a gated community. You can maybe breathe easier on the streets, because the riffraff can't get in and pickpocket you. They have to go past the sleeping guard at the front of the gated community. There's also the worry that fewer spontaneous things can happen. Vendors can't show up and sell stuff. The kinds of things that we expect in a New York City park, for better or worse, aren't going to happen as much in the gated community. And when we put the analogy back into the world of technology, it's not as easy for the technology to kill us, so we might want to be less risk averse than where we actually put ourselves as a physical person. And, in a walled garden, it may turn out then that the operator of the garden will have plenty of reason to want to exclude stuff that we would otherwise want. You know, there's Skype, voice over internet protocol, running on your computer. Free internet telephony, and there are reasons why some internet service providers have tried to prevent it from operating on a PC, so that they can sell you their own solution. Just like if you ever rent a room at a hotel, a conference room or something, they're going to charge you $1,000 for the internet connection, because they can, and they're the only vendor. If you had a third party vendor ready to come in and put it through satellite, they wouldn't even allow it. That's the kind of drawbacks to walled gardens that I'd like to avoid.

 

Recorded on: 3/8/08

 

 

 

 

 


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