The Future Of The Internet And How To Stop It

Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It, is published this May in the UK. I received a review copy and read it over the course of a weekend, and then got distracted and didn’t write up the scrawl that was the review. (Pictured is my copy, complete with all the fun of the colour tabs; also in shot is my own little tethered, ungenerative device, and my supergenerative pencil). zittrain.png

Zittrain has been writing about technology and law for some time, and has spent his academic career at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School (while also picking up a professorship at Oxford, among other things). He is also associated with the OpenNet Initiative (and is one of the editors of the wonderful book that resulted from its work, Access Denied). To many, though, he is associated with the idea of ‘generativity’, discussed at length in his article, The Generative Internet, published in the 2006 Harvard Law Review. This book builds both on this article and on his other work, and takes account of developments after the law review article, including the commentary it provoked.

I read the book in two ways. One was for purely selfish purposes – searching for arguments, citations, examples, views that would contribute to my thesis. On that score, I was particularly happy with the depth of footnoting . It avoids the irrelevance that characterises so much US law review writing (page-long footnotes produced by putting a search term into Lexis and including the result), but the notes still occupy 70 or so pages of useful text, including a lot of unusual and overlooked news reports, blog posts, etc that are unique to this book.

The second way of reading was with a view to this blog post, and in particular trying to answer the questions : how would someone use this book? What does it add to the cyberlaw literature?

I actually think that The Future Of The Internet is a book that would (or should) appeal to policy-makers. Zittrain’s approach is balanced both in terms of ideology and indeed the relationship between law and technology (the discussion on net neutrality is a particular – and greatly welcome – example of this). While its core argument about the benefits and threats of generative systems and devices is perhaps a little more difficult than the idea that “code is law”, the real-world applications are discussed clearly, including some fascinating analysis of historical artefacts from typewriters to duct tape to CompuServe (are we allowed call CompuServe an artefact yet?), which reappear in the present-day environment in surprising ways.

Some of the chapters function well as standalone pieces, too. For example, the discussion of Wikipedia in chapter 6 (a restrained but mildly enthusiastic verdict) can be used by teachers as part of a discussion on Wikipedia or peer production or similar, but also relates well to the rest of the book. It will be important to keep things up to date, though; for example, some of the relatively hypothetical discussions on social networks and Web 2.0 platforms have indeed been verified in part by recent events (which the author has commented on on his blog, fair dues to him); will The Future of The Internet 1.1 be on the way? That, I suppose, is the danger of a book drawing on a mix of prediction and current facts – things move on very quickly.

Now, I did enjoy this book, and have seen bits of it in earlier presentations and classes (the author taught on the Summer Doctoral Programme I participated in last year; a summary of a class covering much of the material in the book is here), so it’s hard to offer direct criticism (especially when others have offered such useful comments, for example here). One thing I would say is that I would have appreciated a bit more by way of an exploration of the links between Zittrain’s analysis of the Internet and broader debates on the ‘post-capitalist’ society, development issues, etc. Perhaps that’s more appropriate for another book that builds upon part of Zittrain’s analysis (in the same way that he added to things written by Lessig and Benkler, in particular), and I’m showing the bias of my own interests, but certainly, that’s the question I was left with : if he is right about the drive towards tethering as a response to the ills of the modern Internet, what does this *mean* for debates on corporate power and the ups and downs of globalisation. Indeed, even after reading this, I find it hard to put the author into a neat political or ideological ‘box’ – make of that what you will.

Overall, two thumbs up for this, and a recommendation for anyone serious about cyberlaw, Internet policy, media regulation or the computer industry to read it, reflect on it, and parse the footnotes 😉 I will post a number of what I hope are useful summaries of the book during the month of May…but you can read it for yourself here. That’s right, actual online text complete with an amazing feedback loop. What’s not to like?

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