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The Battle Lines Are Drawn

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It suggests two major philosophies at the core of the internet’s designers: “trust in your neighbor” and “procrastination.” Zittrain’s text explores how these two features have led to an open system or, as Zittrain suggests, a “generative technology” responsible for both positive and negative innovations. Due to the internet’s openness and lack of centralized control we have incredible openness that allows for both amazing innovation and threat.

Such a design feature is unique. Unlike the phone system which was largely closed, the internet and the PC (as Zittrain also explores) are two key pieces of contemporary technology created with an open-ended philosophy at play. This “open” status allows a user to make hardware and software changes as desired. These technologies differ from video game consoles or the IPhone, two hugely popular technological devices that are “closed” or protected from user adjustments. The effect of this distinction is a battle line of computing philosophy.

The school of “open”, whose lineup includes Google, Linux and Wikipedia urge a future composed of systems capable of major user control and a content world where material created by non-professionals is dominant. The school of “closed” includes Apple, major media companies and, it seems the FCC, argue for a more protective system of devices that cannot be changed by a user and protect major media companies whose work has largely been shared online for free. Protection is the driving force of the “closed” school of computing.

As we progress through the battle of “open” versus “closed” its important to remember that many companies waver between the philosophies and current stalwarts in both camps will likely shift between camps. In addition we have companies like Microsoft that products entrenched in different camps: the XBOX is a closed system while Windows allows users to create programs as desired. Exclusivity is not a requirement of this debate.

My interest is in the implication of this debate. As more users begin to utilize technology we will see a society closely connected to the internet and connected devices. Human connections will expand with the help of technology and through the web of connected devices and related utilities the day-to-day existence of human beings will be drastically altered. The final solution in the debate of “open” versus “closed” will  play a major role in perceiving how the future will unfold. The way we interact with technology, the material of popular culture and the function of the consumer in the technology industry will depend largely on the debate.

Never before has society entered a funnel of this sort. Technological development in previous generations has come as a gradual evolution. Unlike today’s system with two powerful players, the developments of the past spawned from monopolized networks that simplified use via monopolization and public limitation. No longer are we distanced from technology or limited by a government and corporate network more interested in establishing a product’s use. We now have a network of relative openness and a society largely saturated by electronic devices. In many senses this debate is coming after major adoption of the associated devices. There will be no creation of policy; instead an adjustment will be forced upon a public largely unaware of the debate taking place.

Text Reflection: The Master Switch by Tim Wu

January 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Tim Wu’s The Master Switch has a lot of ideas running through it. Its a wonderful book, no doubt an important educational one with broad connections to the historical, cultural and government events that delivered us to where we are. At its core, the text traces the evolution of communication technologies through Wu’s contextual “cycle” in which each new technology evolves from discovery to societal use. The text makes clear the battles fought for these lines and traces the common players whose swords are seemingly ever drawn and sharpened for a battle. Herein lies the sad part because, as Wu’s text makes painstakingly clear, with ever development there comes a period of denial and protectionism that disregards social benefit and focuses instead on protectionism for corporate power figures.

Our communication lines are fraught with constant battle. These highways for our brains on which a significant portion of our world view is dependent is less a public good and more a corporate commodity sought out and smudged at the whim of major players.

Wu reminds us of the danger of private control. He doesn’t suggest a complete private turn over of the communication lines to government control; instead, his text works to argue that historical record points to a common form of behavior. We always see the denial of innovation. We’ve always seen a government less interested in competition when a cleaner, more efficient process when expansion is possible. Just like our most efficient corporations, when our government perceives the opportunity to avoid a major cost there is an attraction to a bending of the law. Major tasks like communication line expansion is a tricky task- long and expensive and better left to major corporations who have more to gain and far less to lose in the face of political factors.

The Master Switch urges caution in light of these trends. Wu reminds us that with each communication evolution we grow more dependent on our technology to connect with fellow human beings. With innovation comes comfort and a slow dependence on the conveniences that technology provides. Eventually the effort we used to invest to meet people is divided for some other task and slowly we surround ourselves with less social interaction and grow all the more dependent on our techno toys and goodies. There’s a risk here and Wu reminds us that if history provides any insight into the future we’ll see a monopolization of technology. Major hazards lurk ahead as we reveal more and more about ourselves and further bury ourselves in our gadgets.

Let The Master Switch be a warning: our communication lines are crucial to our social well-being and as we grow more and more dependent on these artificial means of connection we must also strengthen our gaze on those who manage these lines. Dependence on another for these means of communication leave major areas of vulnerability. Trust but verify these figures and let history be our guide: there will be greed and denial of innovation but as long as human genius maintains its constant battle forward we can stay just a few paces ahead of greed and stagnation. If technology is a savior then its better left to the outside world- just as all great innovations come from an outsider the escape from corporate control and hazard will come in the form of the newest great idea that comes beyond the boardroom walls.

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