Jonathan Zittrain Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange

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December 9, 2006

December 9, 2006

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  • 1. Site Search Jonathan Zittrain Interview moderated by Paul DiPerna Paul DiPerna: Jonathan.. You earned your bachelors degree in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence from Yale. home What spurred your interests in this field? introduction Jonathan Zittrain: themes interviews index I was interested in how close machines were getting to being able to think -- to have a decent conversation with people.  The  subscribe to email updates answer turned out to be "very far, but they can play a mean game of chess." At the time Cog. Sci was at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and computer RSS for interviews Zittrain's Bio science, and much of the scholarship was tentative and uncertain. It was in the crossfire of (and contributing to) turf and methodology wars among Paul's bio and projects more established disciplines that claimed its questions as theirs, or Paul's email thought its questions dumb or irrelevant.  My exposure to academia  was in a liminal field -- one whose very existence was questioned, and that in turn sought to point out the limitations within single disciplines.   comments policy Cyberlaw is in much the same position. privacy policy Paul DiPerna: Was there a particular person or event that served as a catalyst? Jonathan Zittrain: I was lucky to have a mentor who ran the AI lab at Yale.  He was a  fascinating, difficult man who knew he was about to leave for another university, so let me take the AI graduate courses my sophomore year before they all evaporated. Paul DiPerna: How does your Harvard Law School experience influence the way you conduct your work today? Jonathan Zittrain: HLS was a fabulous environment, and law school in general has a range of disciplines and approaches under its umbrella, which encourages thinking across boundaries. Legal writing at its best -- an effective brief -- can convey subtle and complicated points to a lay audience, and courtroom-derived skills that emphasize lucidity, asking good questions, and utter thoroughness in the making of an argument (including giving the other side its real due) can be helpful in nearly any field of study. Paul DiPerna: How did you get interested in digital property rights? Jonathan Zittrain: I'm interested in how communities govern themselves, especially in the informal practices and norms that keep them running smoothly, rather than the formal processes of law that are only rarely invoked.   The Internet was built by people who had a sense of joy and wonder at the movement of bits, and who feared little any abuses that could come of it.  When that force met the wall of established interests -- many of them legally enforced through intellectual property -- the results are as interesting as what comes out of a particle collider.  
  • 2. We're still collecting data from the collision, and trying to figure out a path forward. Paul DiPerna: Can you point to a case that has had or will have wide-reaching implications (socially, politically, or economically) Jonathan Zittrain: If I may, I'll quote from the e-mail interview I just did with the Register [Click here] about Eldred v. Ashcroft in the US. Paul DiPerna: Can you describe a little bit of the history and mission of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society? Jonathan Zittrain: The Berkman Center was founded to explore the Internet in 1996, a time when many still thought the Internet was a fringe or transitory phenomenon. One of the amazing features of the Internet is that it invites anyone to build on it; set up shop and anyone can reach you and vice versa. Not every network is built that way; the proprietary networks of the 80's and 90's, like CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy, mediated every exchange, and controlled all the software in the middle. There would have been no way to develop an eBay or Wikipedia or IM on those networks without those networks' assent and cooperation. Part of the Berkman Center's method has been to explore the Internet by building on it -- tools like H2O, cyberseminars, and new forms of interaction.  Today that mission is reflected by starting with theoretical building blocks -- like Terry Fisher's book Promises to Keep, proposing a way through the Internet/copyright problem, and Noank, a system designed to test the theory. I'm now at the Oxford Internet Institute, where the Internet is studied by social scientists.  It's been fascinating to see the differences  between cultures at OII and Berkman, and the ways in which each can benefit from the other. Paul DiPerna: Are there effective intermediary mechanisms to bridge the structural and institutional divides between legal scholars and social scientists? Jonathan Zittrain: Not that I've found.  Some legal scholars do a lot of empirical work,  and they may most easily relate to the work of social scientists -- rigorously describing a state of the world and the people in it, or even predicting various futures. But many legal scholars also do "normative" work, saying how the world should be. The social scientists I've worked with -- and I don't mean to say that's a representative sample! -- are chary of words like "ought" and "should."  They don't even much like phrases like "X doesn't matter" or  "Y is an issue we shouldn't care about," so long as people in the world do care about it. As an example, I've advanced the view that the subfield of Internet Governance is bizarrely fixated on domain names and ICANN, and would do well to refocus.  Some of my colleagues can't easily parse  the sentence -- if people show up at ICANN meetings and take them seriously, they say they ipso facto matter. Paul DiPerna: These days it seems like academics and researchers are
  • 3. organizing more along networks rather than by institutional departments and programs. Do you see a day when universities will need to fundamentally and structurally reorganize in order to facilitate these networks, rather than "brick and mortar" departments?   Could the existing industrial organization of higher ed institutions hinder research and academic progress? Jonathan Zittrain: "I think I think academia in general is a academia bit adrift.  It's not only unclear how  in general to organize work within the is a bit adrift." academy -- yes, more and more is being done by networks across university lines -- but also how to divide between commercially-driven and -funded work and academic work.  Perhaps bridges there are good, but the upstream question is  whether .edu has a different purpose and ethos from .com.  What do  we want our students to learn?  What should we be spending our  money on?  What does "library" mean today?  What responsibility do  we have to make our scholarship available, searchable, reusable -- including any underlying data? Paul DiPerna: What governments are most oppressive when it comes to Internet censorship? Jonathan Zittrain: North Korea, China, perhaps Iran. Paul DiPerna: A news story just broke that Iran has effectively blocked their country's citizens from logging on to YouTube, Amazon and other popular information-rich websites.  Do you think these sites could  actually serve a similar function as, say, Voice of America during during World War II and the Cold War? Jonathan Zittrain: Yes, I think that instead of centralized production of propaganda from one state to another, the Internet can offer examples of classic liberalism in action that can serve as arguments for that liberalism to closed societies.  The task for those on the "free" side of the liberal  curtain is to create examples not just of unconstrained speech, but of speech relating to other speech, of arguments that go back and forth and at times reach resolution on the basis of rigorous argument.  In  that sense Wikipedia is one of the bellwether sites to watch in filtering. Paul DiPerna: Why is it important to understand the "generativity" concept? Jonathan Zittrain: I am worried about the "appliancization" of the Internet. I see a possibility that the physical devices that mainstream Internet users commonly use to access the network will be much more limited in the outside code that they can run, and more directive to users about what to do or where to go online. In other words, the Internet will become as boring as television, and as limited in the audiences who can contribute to it. The more that mainstream users access the network using information appliances, the fewer opportunities there will be to easily deploy innovative new applications, especially those whose value increases as more people use them (e.g. Internet telephony or filesharing networks). I see reasons why regulators might want to push information appliances, since they are more regulable than open PCs (consider the way that TiVo can set up its box so that commercials can't be automatically skipped, or certain flagged shows can last only a short period of time). Generativity is a system's capacity to produce unanticipated
  • 4. change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences. I wanted a label to capture the idea of a general-purpose platform in someone's hands that can be easily repurposed by that person, using code written by others. I chose the word generative, since it gets at the idea of something that's able to produce new things. To me, both the Internet and the PCs traditionally hooked up to it are that way, in particular because they allow people to build and distribute new code (and have that code itself use the network) with no major barriers. There are lots of academics in the cyberlaw space worried about keeping the Internet open, and I'm in that camp. But no one has focused on whether the PC itself will stay open. Without an open PC, the ability of the Internet to generate new things is severely limited. I know that some people think that so long as any device has a browser and can get to anywhere on the Web, there's little need to reprogram the device, but I think that's short-sighted. The browser is just one way to use the Internet. Paul DiPerna: How else can we use the Internet?  (which is often confused to  being the same thing as the World Wide Web) Jonathan Zittrain: We've only just gotten started in seeing the use and versatility of peer-to-peer technologies, and sadly but perhaps predictably we've been exposed to some of the bad applications before the good ones.   I'd like for people to be able to devote their cycles and bandwidth to causes they care about, for example to help faraway others get to content that their governments ban, or to help collectively diagnose the health of the PCs attached to the network. Paul DiPerna: You are currently writing a book about this appliancization of PCs and the Net... If I understand this correctly, your theory of generativity adheres to a law of unintended consequences. Can you give us an example of how this has played out previously in history, with respect to a particular innovation.. maybe that you use in your writing? Jonathan Zittrain: Interestingly, electricity was thought of as a novelty -- wiring houses to light little baubles.  There wasn't initially the generic plug that made it  easy for others to design appliances of all sorts.  Only once that plug  was there did we see a profusion of appliances.  Imagine if the electric  company was the only one to try to imagine the demand for various uses of electricity and fill it. Paul DiPerna: At what point could you see consumers say "I'm tired of this!" and retreat from the overly generative PCs (that has given rise to viruses, spamming, pop-ups) and towards more stable, but less networked "information appliances"? For example, in my view, electronic mail (in whatever form) is still the proven "killer app" for the Net, and I would guess there is a very high threshold for a massive consumer revolt. Jonathan Zittrain: I don't think people will abandon electronic mail so much as abandon general purpose PCs in order to do their emailing.  They may 
  • 5. instead just use blackberries or things with little web browsers.  I can  see either a watershed event -- a truly destructive worm -- that causes people to recoil from the generative environment, or something more gradual but no less implacable. Paul DiPerna: Do you see the possibility for a balkanization of the Internet.. partitioned in some way that we as consumers have to choose from among scores of closed network INTRAnets? Jonathan Zittrain: Yes - I think it could happen along geographic lines, at least for casual internet users.  We see this even, say, between the US and the  UK: the New York Times recently declined to serve up an article about a UK trial to UK Internet users (even though everyone else could see it) for fear of running afoul of UK law, and often streaming TV programs will be restricted to their country of origin.  Even Google  video lets video submitters check boxes to say what countries in which they'd like to make their video unavailable! We may also see more use of all those friend networks that people build in myspace, friendster, orkut, linkedin, facebook, etc., to share photos or swap copyrighted files but only one click out. Paul DiPerna: What are your main projects for the next couple of years? Jonathan Zittrain: I'll be finishing a book on generativity and the future of the Internet in 2007, and continuing work on projects related to the book's argument: The OpenNet Initiative; Stopbadware.org; studies like that of stock tout spamming; and the continued development of tools for use in teaching and in group deliberation, like H20. December 8, 2006 home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008 site design by gralmy