A Very Belated Reply to The Debate Over Internet Anti-Intellectualism

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society seems a little light on "society."I was hoping that Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It would provide a clear rejoinder to a four-way debate between Larry Sanger, Evengy Morozov, Jeff Jarvis, and Nathan Jurgenson about “The Rise of the Internet Anti-Intellectual”. Sanger is concerned that online communities have a history of hostility toward the experts and intellectuals. Sanger Recalls:

“Originally, we were going to have some method of letting experts approve articles.  But the Slashdot geeks who came to dominate Wikipedia’s early years, supported by Jimmy Wales, nixed this notion repeatedly.  The digerati cheered and said, implausibly, that experts were no longer needed, and that “crowds” were wiser than people who had devoted their lives to knowledge.  This ultimately led to a debate, now old hat, about experts versus amateurs in the mid-2000s.  There were certainly notes of anti-intellectualism in that debate.” 

Morozov, in a review of Jeff Jarvis’s Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, demands critical analysis of social media and other salient socio-technical systems. He sees Jarvis (and most books on the topic) little more than techno-evangilists who blindly cheerlead whatever new social network is trending. Jurgenson puts Sanger and Morozov side-by-side and realizes that what both Sanger and Morozov really want, is some social theory worth talking about. I fully agree with Jurgenson when he says, “I do not care that these fun little books exist, but that they are dominating the public conversation.” But, to that I must ask: Do the intellectuals do a better job than the business gurus?

Zittrain is not one of the self-professed business gurus that Morozov takes issue with. He is an intellectual, with an impressive pedigree in political science, law and computer science. Zittrain is concerned that the information systems that make up the internet are becoming less “generative.” That is to say, systems are becoming less leverageable, less extensible, are harder to master, and any changes to the system are non-transferable to other users. Even if a corporation holds a copyright on a computer’s OS, the user is free to write and install programs that increase functionality, and ability. The computer user generates new content, meaning, and functionality and in so doing, drives innovation. Unfortunately, the same characteristics that make internet-enabled PCs generative, also makes them susceptible to security threats such as phishing, viruses, worms, and other nasty biological metaphors. The industry’s reaction has been to lock down end-user products and limit the generative capacities of computing, to a licensed few. His reoccurring examples are TiVos and iPhones. Two systems that act more like appliances than PCs. Content is professionally made and licensed by TiVo and Apple respectively. Users consume content and data, but are largely unable to build new functionality into these devices, and share that functionality with others.

In order to halt (and eventually reverse) this trend, Zittrain prescribes implementing security features at a network level. By requiring ISPs to deal with security threats, it provides the end-user with a sense of safety that will lessen their demand for locked-down machines and walled gardens. Additionally, services such as Google Maps should maintain “open APIs” which would prevent the parent company (in this case, Google) from pulling the rug out from underneath others that build upon that service. In the same way that we expect Microsoft to not patch Windows such that it stopped running a particular program.

Much of Zittran’s conclusions are underwhelming. This stems from a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the social and the technical. There is an implicit assumption that technology is essentially instrumental, and a direct means to an intended end. It ignores the basic fact that technological innovation and technological artifacts are inherently social processes and artifacts, respectively. His solutions are technical fixes that are, by design,  “piecemeal.” He warns that any attempts to attack walled gardens head-on would be met with an equal but opposite reaction: “Any comprehensive redesign of the Internet at this late stage would draw the attention of regulators and other parties who will push for ways to prevent abuse before it can even happen (P. 245). “ To the extent that technology and society intermingle, it is during regulation or business innovation. We are never allowed to think of technology as a social artifact. We get close to something like a Khunian argument when he talks about disruptive inventions and we get a quasi-social constructionist argument when he covers management theories on disruptive innovation.

Yochai Benkler, who like Zittrain, is from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. While I profess to not having read his newest book, his 2007 offering The Wealth of Networks still gives us a lot to talk about. Benkler’s perspective can be readily summed up in a sentence found on page 31. “Technology  creates feasibility spaces for social practice.” In writing this sentence, Benkler stops just short of technological determinism. Marx, Mumford, Ellul, Winner, Kelty and many others have done a much more nuanced job of explaining technology’s relationship to society. Both Zittran and Benkler eschew academic literature and instead, cite white papers composed by business gurus and utopian futurists.

Jurgenson hopes to see academics raise the bar for public discussion of information technology.  I want that too. But if this is to be the case, then we cannot take the Berkman School’s approach. The academic public intellectual has to couch their argument in theory, not business jargon. The trick is to accomplish this, while also being accessible. I believe Chris Kelty’s Two Bits comes close to this goal. The book is long, but accessible to the interested (and ambitious) reader. His work deals with both the technical and the social. Any young scholar that is eager to shape the IT and society conversation would be wise to follow his example.

 Frankly, I blame STS and the various other trans/inter/cross-disciplinary programs that devote themselves to the intersection of society and technology. While the business community was busy writing books that would lend gravitas to an otherwise self-centered industry, STS was still writing historical accounts of bakelite and wooden airplanes. These case studies yielded valuable data, but in a world where the pages of journals are finite, the information technology was left woefully under-theroized. We are playing catch-up, and there is a lot of ground to cover.