What Keeps Jonathan Zittrain up at Night?

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Jonathan Zittrain:  What keeps me up late at night, in the sense of worry, I guess it’s innovation.  It’s funny to be worried about it, because it’s a fair point that wow, look at the innovation we’ve seen over the past, not just 30 years, but over the past two years.  But I also see ways in which the kind of truly revolutionary applications, like the world wide web, that have come about, kind of unsuspecting to the incumbents, whether government incumbents or corporate incumbents, like big Telcos or something, those get harder and harder to pull off as the devices and services people use are more controllable by a handful of vendors.  It’s hard to try to be a canary in the coal mine here because right now we’re enjoying such innovation.  But at the same time, we are truly in the midst of a sea change in how controllable the technology we use day by day is, and it is getting more and more controllable by a distinct group of entities, who may have our best interests in mind, at least at consumers right now, but they can change their minds or be regulated, forced to change their minds later.

So that keeps me up at night, and when I think of being kept up at night in a positive sense, I actually think about the possibilities behind so-called ad hoc mesh networking, the ability for these ubiquitous computers, little processors we have everywhere, whether a birthday card or a handheld phone, to talk to each other and like a bucket brigade, get bits moving from one place to another with no internet service provider having to be formally involved in many of the steps.  The kinks haven’t been worked out on that yet, but if we had such a thing and could deploy such a thing, because there are enough reprogrammable devices in our hands, that you buy it to be a word processor on day one, but on day five, suddenly it’s got mesh networking, that means that if Hurricane Katrina hits and takes out most networks and power, or if the Chinese government decides to clamp down and try to cut off the internet, neither gets much in the way; because as long as you are near other people, bits are shuffling from one person to the next like hands across America out to drop points and exchange points.  So that’s one of the most interesting pieces of basic research that I think is worth keeping an eye on that can transform this constant battle between cat and mouse and how regulable the internet can be.

Recorded on August 18, 2009

The Professor of Law reflects on the potential wonders and horrors of our techno-driven future.

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