A Generative Presentation

Very interesting presentation being given by Jonathan Zittrain – complete with occasional breaks where he talks about the ability to engage an audience and explaining presentation style (He says: You need to draw people in: “Enough with the email, you might hear something interesting” by the end of the first part.) The readings for this session are a chapter from his forthcoming book, The Future Of The Internet, and his recent essay in the Harvard Business Review, Saving The Internet. And the topic is generativity, Zittrain’s current research focus (well summarised at the Harvard link above, if you’re interested; more detail in the (already famous) article of 2006, The Generative Internet (SSRN Link). It’s indeed a very engaging presentation, and a fun (relevant) diversion on the number of Windows PCs v Apples in the room (it’s 50/50, or thereabouts…as opposed to the normal 95/5!).

More to come.

Picture by Daisy Pignetti of Jonathan Zittrain's slide on the Internet and 'hourglass architecture'; click for the full version on FlickrZittrain talked about two ‘generative victories’, being the personal computer and the Internet. The computer took elements of the tabulating machine and the word processor and ended up as a machine that could support different applications (and indeed, different hardware) with commonality through the operating system. Similarly, the Internet won out over the walled gardens (Compuserve etc) – “hourglass architecture” (with IP at the centre) was the representation (which proved controversial; a few people disagreed with the metaphor. I can see how in particular if you are looking for ‘pinch points’, bottlenecks or weaknesses seeing an hourglass is not a good thing – but I see how Zittrain was trying to gloss the more traditional ‘layers’ discussion, which was a theme running through the presentation). Picture taken by Daisy, used with permission.

Generativity is possible, he argues, across all the layers – from social to physical. However, there are threats – not least that for each new system or technology, it’s not long before it is popular enough “to catch the notice of the jerks”. Comment spam was the example given (amen). In that context, I was most amused by the way that spammers are apparently hitting captchas by integrating them into supposed ‘free porn’ pages (the pornseeker has to fill out the form, i.e. they’re providing the answer to an off-site, real captcha for the benefit of the proposed spammer!); my off-mike “that’s very generative” was heard (and agreed with)!

A particular striking discussion was that of the tethered iPhone (and Steve Jobs’ controversial remarks, reproduced in the HBR article and elsewhere, from the New York Times back in January): e.g. “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.” Eep.

The question and answer was fun, but we were tight on time. I wondered about the tension between ‘analysing a problem’ and ‘lobbying to persuade people (and policy-makers) to do something about it’ – Zittrain’s response was, interestingly, to distinguish between the ‘pure’ advocacy of groups like Reporters Without Borders and the view of ONI and academics who are happy – thrilled, in fact – to find contrary data/results from time to time. It was a lengthy and useful answer, but I still struggle with a similar tension (albeit at a much less influential scale), and being a little more ‘persuasive’ from time to time is one of the reasons for this blog 🙂

The wonderful and diligent Ismael has more, including information on some of the other questions.

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