Geert Lovink on Tue, 14 Oct 2008 17:02:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Zittrain’s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet

Zittrain’s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
A Critique of Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet--and How  
to Stop It, Yale University Press, 2008
By Geert Lovink

Jonathan Zittrain’s Future of the Internet is based on a myth.  
Zittrain needs a foundational myth of the Internet in order to praise  
it’s past openness and warn for a future lockdown of PCs and mobile  
phones. From the ancient world of Theory we know why people invent  
foundational myths: to protect those in power (in this case US- 
American IT firms and their academic-military science structures that  
are losing global hegemony). The Zittrain myth says that, compared to  
centralized, content-controlled systems such as AOL, CompuServe and  
Prodigy, the ‘generative’ Internet of the late 1980s was an open  
network. But this was simply not the case, it was closed to the  
general public. This foundational myth is then used to warn the  
freedom-loving guys for the Downfall of Civilization.

The first decades the Internet was a closed world, only accessible to  
(Western) academics and the U.S. military. In order to access the  
Internet one had to be an academic computer scientist or a physicist.  
Until the early nineties it was not possible for ordinary citizens,  
artists, business or activists, in the USA or elsewhere, to obtain an  
email address and make use of the rudimentary UNIX-based applications.  
Remember, this was the period between, roughly speaking, 1987 and  
1993, before the World Wide Web when fancy multimedia CD-ROMs already  
ruled the PC world and the txt-only command line Internet already  
looked geeky and painfully outdated. Back then, the advancement of the  
ugly looking Internet was its interoperability. It was a network of  
networks–but still a closed one. This only changed gradually,  
depending on the country you lived in, in the early-mid nineties.

As an (indirect) response to this closed Net, NGOs, social movements  
and the cyberunderground maintained their own Bulletin Board Systems  
and participated in store-forward initiatives like FIDONET. The  
participants in this public network culture avant la lettre got used  
to high telephone bills. Until the mid nineties academic institutions  
subsidized the high costs for Internet connectivity and bandwidth,  
until Internet providers and telecoms took over and costs were spread  
over the millions of new customers that started to pay a monthly flat  
fee, which they continue to do so till today.

Pre-Internet high-level exchanges made it worth to stay up late and  
wait until you were able to get onto one of the rare dial-up lines.  
The artist network The Thing was a case in point. The same could be  
said of The Well. These systems thrived on their lively forum culture   
and their ability to create new subcultures. The BBS cultures went  
into decay once their were exposed to the much larger Internet.

The difficult Internet access was contested by hackers who were not  
university students. This only changed bit by bit in the early  
nineties, in conjunction with the arrival of the colorful buttons and  
images. In the case of the Netherlands, the Internet became a public  
facility in May 1993, now 15 years ago — an anniversary recently  
celebrated by the hackers ISP Xs4all that played a pivotal role in  
this process of media democratization. In the meanwhile systems like  
CompuServe offered centralized gateways to the Internet email. Many  
might remember the email addresses with numbers such as 
. In fact, these were the very first emails I wrote down in my address  
book, in 1991, without being able to use them as I wasn’t an academic  
and lacked the connections to engineers and technologists at  
university to lend me their password or create a user-ID for me. For a  
period of at least five years BBS-alike systems were superior to the  
nerdy Internet. The BBS forums were as lively as Usenet and until the  
late nineties had no comparable Internet equivalent (some say they  
still don’t).

Apart from a single reference to FIDONET, nothing remains of this  
early cyberculture in Zitttrain’s book. His scheme is simple: Internet  
good, AOL and CompuServe bad, early Apple II good, iPhone bad, and so  
on. The fact that millions of Americans for the first time experienced  
the Internet through services like AOL (and continue to do so) is a  
reality that Zittrain simply overlooks. Concerning the closed nature  
of iPhone (a rather marginal type mobile phone from a worldwide  
perspective), it would be more interesting to ask why hackers have  
ignored these vital communication devices for so long (I know, there  
are exceptions, but they are rare). Twice as many people use mobile  
phones compared to the PC and the potential, in particular in non- 
Western countries is high. Hackers by and large ignored the closed  
architecture of mobile phones and rather focused on the PC, even  
though they frequently use mobile devices (they have to stay in  
contact with their IT bosses who are not using IRC chat, MSN, Twitter  
and so on).

The mobile phone sphere needs to be opened up, literary hacked, un  
très grand projet compared to the Internet with its free software, in  
a state of public neglect. What we need is a broad movement that  
demands (and realizes) Open Access to Cellspace. However, it is the  
question if hackers and geeks, even if they would start a coordinated  
effort, would be able to open up cellspace in the way that they  
achieved to define the rules for cyberspace. Once, at the CCC Hackers  
conference in Berlin, in December 2005, I attended a lecture of a guy  
who attempted to hack the hardware/software of an ordinary Samsung  
mobile phone. I was deeply impressed about his knowledge. But he did  
not get anywhere. The closed, proprietary nature of just about  
anything inside that phone was impressive, as was the temporary nature  
of all components. All these phone types change their hard and soft  
component every few weeks (if not more often). This extreme  
instability is one of the reasons why it is so useless, in a way, to  
open up a model, as in no time there will be another (sub)version of  
that same device on the market with slightly different components. I  
would have expected Jonathan Zittrian to address these issues, and  
somehow transcend the very US obsession with Apple products. Who cares  
about iPhone and whether it can and cannot guarantee full access to  
the Internet? Apple has always had its proprietary strategies and is  
not known for it commitment to freedom in the Richard Stallman style.

 From a conservative techno-libertarian perspective mates of Joanthan  
Zittrain have criticized his proposal to start a ‘Manhattan Project’  
to save the open Internet as being too centralized (see Adam Thierer).  
Like most Berkman scholars, Zittrian misses the ability for self- 
examination and has to operate within the rhetorical limits of  
American professional optimism (required for scholars that speak at  
Google headquarters like Zittrain). Within the code of these techno- 
libertarians is out of the question to criticize US-American  
companies, in particular when they are ‘cool’ (such as Google and all  
Web 2.0 firms). It is of course much easier, and in line with the  
White House, to criticize Iran and China. There is a structural  
unwillingness to take on the corporate world and this partial  
blindness results in Zittrain making somewhat naive propositions (even  
though I share a lot of his concerns). I do not believe in Thierer’s  
‘hybridity’ proposal in which the consumer decides what devices and  
application he or she uses will be open or rather closed. In a way.  
this market-driven techno-realism already exists. Concerning new ideas  
Zittrain offers surprisingly little for a professor in Internet  
Governance. It is in fact amazing that he doesn’t mention ICANN and  
the domain name drama at all. Not that he needed to go into this  
rather large and complex field, but the least he could have done is  
list his own conclusions from the decade-long effort that is precisely  
trying to do what he demands (but then on the domain name level).

It would be worthwhile to deconstruct Zittrain’s good intentions, not  
from an evil-conspiratorial level but from the perspective of the NGO  
critique of organized good intentions and their disastrous  
consequences. The problem of a radical critique of the Berkman Center  
policies is that there is hardly any fundamental other position to  
start from. Even the most subversive, progressive hackers that I know,  
in the end, subscribe to the Berkman ideology, and are part of the  
larger liberal-libertarian current. In the end, everyone is against  
Internet censorship and favors open systems, no? It is hard to break  
this consensus culture, also from a social perspective, if one doesn’t  
go for total isolation and retreat into a hopeless maverick status.

The larger problematic here is the lack of counter-hegemonic projects  
that could function as an alternative to the quasi monopoly of  
Berkman. It’s unlikely to come from Latin-America. Europe or Asia  
then? The EU programs in this direction are all technocratic in nature  
and fail to understand the ideological-discursive importance that  
drives the development of Internet applications. As so often happens  
these days,there is no more (head)space for pure, negative criticism.  
The beginnings of a critique that is formulated here bounces back on  
the author, posing the question what is to be done on this side of the  
Atlantic in the form of concrete alternatives. The lack of a  
comprehensive analysis of techno-libertarianism as the default  
Internet ideology that rules from San Jose to Berlin, Nairobi and  
Bangalore is deeply felt here. The main reason why this research  
project has so far not taken off is the widely felt relunctance  
amongst (humanities) scholars and public intellectuals in general to  
take on the Internet as their project. Funding bodies worldwide,  
categorically refuse to fund fundamental humanities research that,  
like Zittrain, dares to look into the future. What we are left with  
are piles of PhDs that are condemned to remain unread as they merely  
map the impact the Internet on society–projects that are doomed to  
become history writing. How can we raise, and organize a new  
generation of technology-aware research that have the guts, and the  
creativity, to design a comprehensive field of critical concepts that  
can be implemented into code?  We have to stop understanding the  
Internet, and start to shape it. That’s the real Zittrain challange.

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