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The Double-Face of “Generativity”

The Part II of Jonathan Zittrain’s compelling book The Future of the Internet (and How We Can Stop it) centers around the concept of “generativity”—the core to the book’s argument.  It is defined as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” (70)

Generativity, like capitalism, contains the seeds of its own destruction.  It allows people with malicious intentions and their malware to put the average Internet user at constant risk. This potential negative power the Internet generates will possibly lead to a regulatory backlash and a series of “blunt solutions” that will take away  what we love about today’s information ecosystem.  It also might lead to a consumer backlash against general-purpose PCs in favor of “tethered appliances”—TiVos, iPhones, etc.—that grant the user security at the expense of modifiability, which is at the heart of the concept of generativity.

Is that a wake-up call, or an over exaggeration? If we don’t start fixing the problems with the Internet, will it gradually lead to people’s giving up on generative systems and the innovation they can produce?  It is no wonder that many users, under such threats, would prefer a locked-down system in exchange for security. However, “tethered devices” are less generative and more open to outside (government or industry) control.  The threats of the “walled garden” are also true with online apps, which bring considerable convenience to Internet users but poses similar risks as tethered devices. Since the apps are not under user control, the functionality can change or even vanish anytime as upgrade happens.

In this ephemeral online world, it might be useful to rethink the concept of “generativity”—“a system’s capacity.” To Zittrain, is the “system” the technical amalgamation of tools and human effort? Or the automated combination of tools’ property? Or the Internet users or third parties who engage in unmediated participation in the creation of the Internet content? The fuzzy definition of the concept of “generativity” makes it difficult to judge where policies should go in terms of providing clear guidelines for its optimization.

Zittrain admits that generative technologies can be built using non-generative tools or platforms. For instance, Compuserve developed Wiki-like features and invited its subscribers to contribute to something resembling Wikipedia.  Reversely, one finds generative technologies in supposedly non-generative appliances. For instance, many embedded devices with non-trivial capabilities use general-purpose operating systems such as Linux. TiVo, Xbox, and iPhone, which Zittrain categorize as non-generative, are all based on generative technologies.

Bearing in mind Zittrain’s pessimistic outlook on the future of the Internet, we should also think about the famous challenge Tim O’Reilly used to pose to Microsoft: without open platforms, where will its next wave of technology come from?