Berkman@10 Roundup of Day 1

This blog entry summarizes the first day of Harvard’s Berkman@10 conference in Boston. The blog includes talks given by Jonathan Zittrain, John Palfrey, Jimmy Wales and Yochai Benkler.

Jonathan Zittrain kicked off Berkman’s birthday party with an animated presentation of his book, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It. I began reading JZ’s book last week in the hopes of having finished it by today but alas it was not to be. So I will write a review on The Future of Internet in a future blog entry. In any event, JZ’s concern seems to be a re-centralization, or control, of the Internet and associated technologies like the iPhone. He is particularly peeved by Steve Jobs’ comments when he launched the iPhone:

We define everything that is on the phone … 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 make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.

Zittrain worries that companies like Apple and Facebook will increasingly constrain the generative nature of the Internet and thereby undermine the creativity, freedom and innovation that have driven the information revolution to this day. He likens this to dark matter or energy which keeps the universe expanding at an accelerating rate. JZ is genuinely concerned that the IT ecosystem’s dark energy will cease expand the Internet as we know it today; a reversal of the “bit bang” to the “bit crunch“.

As mentioned, I have yet to finish Zittrain’s book but my preliminary thoughts are one of skepticism. My reaction is based on my recent dissertation research. I suspect that we are unlikely to see the kind of tipping point described by JZ, which I refer to as the “bit crunch” theory of the Internet. Zittrain draws on the example of hitchhiking, once a widespread mode of transportation but much less so today given fears over personal safety. At the same time, Zittrain does highlight the fact that websites dedicated to hitchhiking do exist. In my opinion, this points to a game of cyber cat-and-mouse, a dynamic whereby adaptation and evolution are likely to be the Internet’s constants, i.e., factors unlikely to change in the dark energy equation of the Internet regardless of who the players are.

Other tidbits: JZ made interesting references to the IETF, Nanog, and the origins of ITU (to deal with encryption in telegrams).

John Palfrey led a discussion on the impact of the Internet on Democracy, a topic closely related to my dissertation research. In John’s words, “The internet allows more speech from more people than ever… but states are finding more and more ways to restrict online speech and to practice surveillance.” My dissertation question is whether repressive regimes will manage to impose an information blockade on sensitive communications or whether resistance groups will ultimately prevail, and why?

John made references to Global Voices and asked Ethan Zuckerman to comment on the projects impact and continuing challenges. Ethan opined that the biggest challenge was not necessarily government censorship but rather that citizen journalism had yet to influence mainstream media in a concerted and significant way. Later on in John’s moderation of the discussion, the subject of Cuba and in particular the use of flash drives came up. Interestingly, flash drives are the ICT of choice for activists in Cuba who seek to communicate and share information with one another. As one blogger in Havana exclaimed:

Cubans have a new saint. It is a small and is called USB-flash, memory stick….Praise be this new protector and distributor of information that has come into our lives!

Several interesting points were articulated during the question and answers session:

  • There are now more Internet users in China than in the US, and the vast majority of these users actually welcome censorship.
  • The Internet is ultimately about people, not routers. If we want to change the future of the Internet, we need to change people, who will find ways to exert power in new network fashion as they learn about the world of network organizing (Ethan Zuckerman).
  • The impact of the Internet on democracy (small “d” as opposed to big “D”) is an area of study that is as important as the impact on Democracy (Beth Kolko).
  • The Kyrgyz revolution was particularly interesting vis-a-vis the use of information communication technology beyond the Internet. Indeed, mobile phone usage is particularly high, and civil society made use of this technology to protect shops and stores from being looted by marauders. In other words, ICTs were used for protection by civil society where and when the state was unable to do so (Beth Kolko).
  • The impact of computer games should not be overlooked since young people who wish to play inevitably become accosted to technology and find ways to deal with the last mile problem in order to play. This also enables them to access new sources of technology that they were not privy to heretofore (Beth Kolko).

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and Yochai Benkler also spoke at Bekrman@10. Both made very interest points and intriguing references. For example, Jimmy explained why consensus was more important than democratic voting. For example, if 30% of individuals who vote on an issue are then overruled by the majority vote, the tyranny of the majority is unlikely to appease potential spoilers (much like challenges in managing peace processes). So instead, Jimmy emphasizes the importances of process, i.e., continued deliberation and rewriting of Wikipedia entries until consensus is reached, by which time some engaged in the ongoing arguments will have demonstrated behavioral problems and therefore have been discredited. This reminded me of the value of Wikis emphasized by the creaters of Intellipedia, which I blogged about here.

Benkler’s comments were very much in line with his book The Wealth of Networks, so I shan’t repeat them here. Benkler did make a number of interesting references, however. For example, Porkbusters and Kaltura. The question is whether features can be designed to improve or incite more sustained cooperation. While I’m skeptical about the feasibility of such goals, I thought Jimmy made an excellent point, “make it cheaper to do something good and more expensive to do something bad.” In essence, Jimmy’s Wikipedia experiment demonstrates that people tend to cooperate far more often than traditional theories in sociology and political science would allow.

This is the stuff that Jonathan Zittrain’s dark matter is ultimately made of, which explains why I am skeptical about his tipping point thesis regarding the Internet. The human desire to communicate and be heard is innate and unlikely to lay dormant for long should JZ’s future temporarily come to pass.

Patrick Philippe Meier

One response to “Berkman@10 Roundup of Day 1

  1. Pingback: What is the future of the Internet? — Our Latest Discovery

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