May 4, 2009

The Death of General Purpose Computing

by Mary Flanagan · , 5:06 pm

Today Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard Law School and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, spoke at Dartmouth on “Civic Technologies and the Future of the Internet.” Zittrain first defined the term “civic technologies” to mean those technologies that rise and fall and depend on participation.

Zittrain spoke first on Internet history: the development of the Arpanet –> Internet, he noted, was inherently playful and had an exhilarating sense of freedom and respect among users. The financial constraints for the development of the Internet significantly influenced — helpfully so — its design. Courtesy in networks, from access to attitude, as well as the the lack of business plans made this endeavor revolve around free information in the first place. Costs were low in production, and fees were not expected to be recouped through the use of the system (no sales, for example, were planned to support the infrastructure).

Who would have known that the infrastructure would form the basis of international banking, entertainment, and health care? The structure we have built, to Zittrain, is just not tenable in terms of scale and vulnerability. Yet most of the solutions that leap out would cause problems far worse than they might be now. (Zittrain is not the only scholar who notes that the core of the problem of computing in the future is the increasingly “sealed box” approach to computing systems and the restrictions on what is passed, sold, and given on the Internet).

The class of technologies known as civic technologies currently runs into this systemic vulnerability. Wikipedia is another example technology that follows this trajectory – a system that started in a backwater and found the attention of Slashdot and others to become a target site for collaboration. Wikipedians maintain their pages in multiple languages, and at any given time, Zittrain notes, the entire system of Wikipedia is 45 seconds away from chaos without people — volunteers– doing this constant maintenance. Using the Jeffersonian meme “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” the lack of single people or authorities maintaining so much of the infrastructure of valuable civic technologies is interesting — they utterly depend instead on the participation of maker/users.

Zittrain concluded by speaking of North Korea’s radios and how they are modified so that citizens may only listen to one of three stations. But activists in Radio Free Korea are attempting to send open radios over the border. The implications for Internet “appliances” of today with pre-imposed technological limitations are extraordinarily telling given this history.

The talk ended with the hope for new technologies that would no longer be engineered to shape and control experience, and that could be used for a variety of things. The audience was sparked into discussion, and did suggest a variety of institutional mechanisms (law, policy) that could help protect individual rights. Zittrain maintained that the technical as well as cultural components make systems which are not only emerging from policy issues but are matters of public choice.

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