Jonathan Zittrain Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Jonathan Zittrain Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Jonathan.. You earned your bachelors degree in Cognitive Science
and Artificial Intelligence from Yale.
home What spurred your interests in this field?
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.
Was there a particular person or event that served as a catalyst?
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.
How does your Harvard Law School experience influence the way
you conduct your work today?
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.
How did you get interested in digital property rights?
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.
We're still collecting data from the collision, and trying to figure out a
Can you point to a case that has had or will have wide-reaching
implications (socially, politically, or economically)
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.
Can you describe a little bit of the history and mission of the
Berkman Center for Internet & Society?
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
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.
Are there effective intermediary mechanisms to bridge the
structural and institutional divides between legal scholars and social
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.
These days it seems like academics and researchers are
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?
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?
What governments are most oppressive when it comes to Internet
North Korea, China, perhaps Iran.
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?
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.
Why is it important to understand the "generativity" concept?
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
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.
How else can we use the Internet? (which is often confused to
being the same thing as the World Wide Web)
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
I don't think people will abandon electronic mail so much as
abandon general purpose PCs in order to do their emailing. They may
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.
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?
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.
What are your main projects for the next couple of years?
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
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