An interview with John Batelle on The Future of the Internet

By Jonathan Zittrain

Posted on August 31, 2011


Share

John Battelle asked me a few Qs about my thinking on the themes in The Future of the Internet in the three years since the book came out (four since it was drafted!).  John’s review is available on his blog, and I’ve reproduce the core of it here:
 

JBAT:

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?

And a follow up. On a scale of one to ten, where one is “actively helping” and ten is “pretty much evil,” how do the following companies rate in terms of the debate you frame in the book?
 

- Google (you can break this down into Android, Search, Apps, etc)
 

- Facebook (which was really not at full scale when you published)
 

- Apple
 

- Twitter
 

- Microsoft (again break it down if you wish)
 

Thanks!
 

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN:

Sorry this took me so long! I got a little carried away in answering –
 

- You wrote the Future of the Internet three years ago. It warned of a lack of awareness with regard to what we’re building, and the consequences of that lack of attention. it also warned of data silos and early lockdown. Three years later, how are we doing? Are things better, worse, the same?


It’s the best of times and the worst of times: the digital world offers us more every day, while we continue to set ourselves up for levels of surveillance and control that will be hard to escape as they gel.
 

That’s because the plus is also the minus: more and more of our activities are mediated by gatekeepers who make life easier, but who also can watch what we do and set boundaries on it — either for their own purposes, or under pressure from government authorities.
 

On the book’s specific predictions, Apple’s ethos remains a terrific bellwether. The iPhone — released in ’07 — has proved not only a runaway success, but the principles of its iOS have infused themselves across the spectrum. There’s less reason than ever to need a traditional PC, and by that I mean one that lets you run whatever code you want. OS X Lion points the way to a much more controlled PC zone, anyway, as it more and more funnels its software through a single company’s app store rather than from anywhere. I’d be surprised if Microsoft weren’t thinking along similar lines for Windows.
 

Google has offered a counterpoint, since the Android platform, while including an app store, allows outside code to be run. In part that’s because Google’s play is through the cloud. Google seeks to make our key apps based somewhere within the google.com archipelago, and to offer infrastructure that outside apps can’t resist, such a easy APIs to geographic mapping or user location. It’s important to realize that a cloud-based setup like Google Docs or APIs, or Facebook’s platform offer control similar to that of a managed device like an iPhone or a Kindle. All represent the movement of technology from product to service. Providers of a product have little to say about it after it changes hands. Providers of services are different: they don’t go away, and a choice of one over another can have lingering implications for months and even years.
 

At the time of the book’s drafting, the alternatives seemed stark: the “sterile” iPhone that ran only Apple’s software on the one hand, and the chaotic PC that ran anything ending in .exe on the other. The iPhone’s openness to outside code beginning in ’08 changed all that. It became what I call “contingently generative” — it runs outside code after approval (and then until it doesn’t). The upside is that the vast creativity of outside coders has led to a software renaissance on mobile devices, including iPhones, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Apple’s gatekeeping has seemed to be with a light touch; apps not allowed in the store pale in comparison to the torrents of stuff let through. But that masks entire categories of applications that aren’t allowed — namely anything disruptive to Apple’s business model or that of its partners or regulators. No p2p, no alternate email clients, browsers with limited functionality.
 

More important, the ability to limit code is what makes for the ability to control content. More and more we see content, whether a book, or a magazine subscription, represented in and through an app. It’s sheer genius for a platform maker to demand a cut of in-app purchases. Can you imagine if, back in the day, the only browser allowed on Windows was IE, and further, all commerce conducted through that browser — say, buying a book through Amazon — constituted an “in-app purchase” for which Microsoft was due 30%?
 

A natural question is why competition isn’t the answer here — or at least reason to not worry about the question. If people thought the iPhone made for a bad deal, why would they want one? The reason they want one is the same thing that made the Mac so appealing when it first came on the scene: it was elegant and intuitive and it just worked. No blue screen of death. Consistency across apps. And, as viruses and worms naturally were designed for the most common platform, Windows, those 5% with Macs weren’t worth the trouble of corrupting.
 

We’ve seen a new generation of Mac malware as its numbers grow, and in the meantime a first defense is that of curation: the app store provides a rough filter for bad code, and accountability against its makers if something goes wrong even after it’s been approved. So that’s why the market likes these architectures. I’ll bet few Android users actually go “off-roading” with apps not obtained through the official Android app channels. But the fact that they can provides a key safety valve: if Google were to try the same deal as Apple with content providers for in-app content, the content providers could always offer their wares directly to Android users. I’m worried that a piece of malware could emerge on Android that would cause the safety valve of outside code to be changed, either formally by Google, or in practice as people become unwilling to drive outside the lanes.
 

So how about competition between platforms? Doesn’t that keep each competitor honest, even if all the platforms are curated? I suppose: the way that Prodigy and CompuServe and AOL competed with one another to offer different services as each chased subscribers. (Remember the day when AOL members couldn’t email CompuServe users and vice versa?) That was competition of a sort, but the Internet and the Web put them all to shame — even as the Internet arose from no business plan at all.
 

Here’s another way to think about it. Suppose you were going buy a new house. There are lots of choices. It’s just that each house is “curated” by its seller. Once you move in, that seller will get to say what furnishings can go in, and collects 30% of the purchase price of whatever you buy for the house. That seller has every reason to want to have a reputation for being generous about what goes in — but it still doesn’t feel very free when, two years after you’re living in the house, a particular coffee table or paint color is denied. There is competition in this situation — just not the full freedom that we rightly associate with inhabiting our dwellings. A small percentage of people might elect to join gated communities with strict rules about what can go inside and outside each house — but most people don’t want to have to consult their condo association by-laws before making choices that affect only themselves.
 

Read more: http://battellemedia.com/archives/2011/08/the_future_of_the_internet_and_how_to_stop_it_-_a_dialog_with_jonathan_zittrain_updating_his_2008_book#ixzz1UqekZMs1 
 

The preceding is re-published on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Jonathan Zittrain. “An interview with John Batelle on The Future of the Internet” was originally published 8/15/11 on The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It.



Share