Wednesday, April 16, 2008

slipping into the darkness of non creative safety

Is it possible to stay on the high road of creative virtue without constant temptation from the dark side of the force?

If you don't have time to buy and read Johnathan Zittrain's book then read these articles instead:
Protecting the Internet without wrecking it by Johnathan Zittrain
review: The future of the internet (O'Reilly)

This short blog is just a brief introduction to a discussion we have to have.

The development cycle from creative disruptive technology to regulated, safe but non creative gee whiz appliances. Initially, the generative tools, the disruptive technologies like the PC and the internet crushed their non-generative competitors like the stand alone word processor and restricted proprietary on line services

But the generative tools generated a lot of stuff that many people don't like - spam, porn, online paedophiles, bullying etc.

So now many opt for non generative tools that are safe: the iPhone replaces the Apple. Both have been produced under the leadership of the same person (Steve Jobs) but the iPhone is totally locked down whilst the Apple was totally open for exploration

Will we opt for open systems with all their rich potential for both unbridled, creative exploration and dark maleovalence or safe, useful but closed appliances?

The al upton blog closure issue is a tiny but important pimple on the enormous pumpkin about the future of creative humanity.

video presentation about his book by Johnathan Zittrain (entertaining as well as comprehensive - 60 minutes)


Tom Hoffman said...

Yes, I have to finish a last chapter or so and write a post on this as well. It is the most important book I've read in terms of laying out a framework for discussing how IT in schools should work.

Bill Kerr said...

looking forward to your review, tom

watching this video gave me more of a sense of zittrain the person and his concerns, that he is entertaining as a presenter as well as very informative - that despite being called a "moron" a lot recently he will pursue these issues

he has a graph towards the end
vertical axis: top down to bottom up
horizontal axis: hierarchy to heterarchy

In order to preserve the "bottom up" approach he argues that there has to be some movement from heterarchy to hierarchy , in order to combat some of the negative generative effects (I only have my head partially around it still)

Mark Miller said...

I liked the Zittrain presentation. He ignored some technical/corporate factors that could explain many of the successes hackers have had in attacking users' computers, but I think that's okay, because he was talking about the experience most people have had, which for the sake of his discussion is all that mattered.

I liked that he focused on the generative innovations that have come along, and the desire to encourage it in the computing world. The idea of the PC revolution I fear is fading, whether it was to democratize old-fashoned computing, or spread the idea of a new dynamic medium.

What I find most discouraging is that because of missteps that have been made first in computing, and later with networking, there is a cynicism and conservatism setting in among most computer users that's demolishing the former optimism about computing and networking. I think Zittrain is right that people are reaching for something that's safer, and at this point it means closed systems.

I was talking with a fellow developer/blogger a while ago about the state of the web, and he said he hardly uses e-mail at all now, opting instead for IM-ing on his cell phone. He said he got tired of the spam. A few years ago when I first saw phishing take place I knew that if someone didn't come up with a workable solution that it was going to drive people away from e-mail, and possibly the internet, because the identity theft that was going to happen was going to affect people in a very real way that would forever turn them off to using the medium again. Zittrain showed how the same thing happens to people when they visit some web sites. That also will get people to turn away from the web.

I think what the internet has ignored is how to create a safe environment. As Zittrain said it began as a carefree thing. I'd also add that it began among knowledgeable users, people who understood the system. What's gradually been revealed to me is a kind of dirty little secret about the internet's past, that the people who ran it for many years all pretty much knew each other. It was their own little club. Lots of people participated on it, but there were a few "masters of the universe" who set up the networks on it and could bend them to their will, as it were. This has since changed, but the infrastructure that was built was designed to their satisfaction, not the average user's. There's been a friendly facade put on top of it to make things easier to access, but the fundamental structure was based on flimsy security protocols. For example people are still trying to solve the problem of how you establish a robust, unique identity on the internet; that when you say who you are, people can trust it's really you and not someone posing as you. The way it used to work was close to the honor system, and that legacy remains. It used to be harder to forge an identity, but it was possible to do for those who knew how to work the system.

One of the things Alan Kay has talked about is that computing should be safe. We want it to be a welcoming place, not something people will be afraid of. A perennial complaint of his is that so much of computing, particularly with the influence of commercialization, is just a pile of hacks placed one on top of the other, and it's been a mess for years. Unix, which formed the basis of the old internet, I think was OK in his view (not bad, but not great), and Windows was bad. In a speech I heard him give in 1997 he said he didn't like the way the web browser was designed at the technical level at all.

Tron is one of my all-time favorite movies. I loved the comment the director of that movie made on the state of the internet about 6 years ago. He said, "It's got to be something more than a glorified phone system." I think Zittrain is basically saying the same thing, and I'm glad he is.