Humanizing Our Virtual Selves
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 It, as well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).
Question: Are social networking sites here to stay?
Jonathan Zittrain: I think social networking is absolutely here to stay. Now, whether or not the label will Facebook forever, depends in part, I think, on whether Facebook wants to try to be less proprietary, be more central to the operation of defining and stewarding identity online.
Question: Linking the virtual and the physical
Jonathan Zittrain: What’s going to be a person’s anchor point in this new virtual universe and how easily can there be applications that make use of that identity, about our features, that we can control, but how easily can somebody author something new and different for that? And that’s why, to me, at the moment here in 2009, Facebook apps maybe aren’t the biggest thing ever, but that’s where I’d be keeping my eye, to see just how permanent something like Facebook will be. And it’s also why I think something like Twitter has become as, I think for a lot of people, baffling popular as it has, because it is so commoditizable, it’s basically a standard for any one person or non-person, to utter statements to the world in short character bursts. And that’s the kind of thing that can be built into any other number of applications.
So I would look next to see a whole range of applications written that more innately and automatically enhance or describe our identities online as we just go about our daily lives. I mean, right now you see applications like Four Square, Meetro, and Looped, where people can say where they are. You check in at a restaurant and then any of your friends nearby know that you’re at that restaurant and can meet you there. Or you connected up with your social network and now you can find, among the 20 closest friends of your 20 closest friends, here is who else is nearby in this restaurant and you can greet each other and meet without fear of one of you being an axe murderer.
And we’ll see more of those services, I think, and more of these kind of mouse droppings of just as you act in the world, right, it’s just one more shift, so you don’t have to actually check in at the restaurant, but set it to auto check in, and so those with whom you have a certain degree of friendship in your profile, automatically know where you are at all times, as you go from one place to the next. And as more and more products have RF ID’s attached to them, it can be effortless to inform the world that you’re having a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal right now because you were just handling the box.
Now, is that a good thing? Who cares who’s eating Lucky Charms, but it always starts with the trivial and the goofy, and then it turns out to have many more powerful applications. When you realize, for example, that one of the biggest barriers to successful healthcare is whether or not people are taking their medicine, because it often turns out that often they’re sick when they’re taking their medicine and not fully of right mind, you start to see how I see, a bowl of Lucky Charms, who cares? But did they take their pills today? Much easier question to answer in the 21st century than it was in the last.
Recorded on August 18, 2009
Jonathan Zittrain discusses the prospect of an "anchor point" in cyberspace.
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