The Future of the Internet and how to stop it by Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain explores the different problems that face the internet and the PC in today’s worlds. He explains his view on how this problems occurred and how they were handled. Zittrain has confusing view toward the beginning of the internet and it changes throughout the book. In the first section of the book there is a perception where Zittrain believes that the generative aspect of the Internet and the PC is harmful and that the continuance of this will harm the future development of them. In the second part this view is different and he argues on the importance of this generative to drive innovation. The last part focus on providing different solution so that the internet and the PC can be preserve with the essence they were created initially.

Throughout the book Zittrain mention various examples to explain his points can cover important issues such as those concerning privacy issues, patent and copyright problems, network neutrality and other issues.

Next is a brief summary and thought on each chapter of the book.


The author claims that the PC and the internet are doom and they cannot be sustainable because the way they were created. Both the PC and the internet were launched to the public in an immature face and developed with the input of other users. Comparing to other products they are not launched in this way and are heavily tested before being launched. Zittrain argues that this will change and set the example of the launch of the Apple II and the iPhone. Both products provided great innovation but in a different way. When the Apple II was launched their creators didn’t know exactly the way that the product was going to be used, and the product grew with the innovation created by others. In the other hand, the launched of the iPhone provided a controlled environment where the iPhone only did what Apple allowed it to do. Zittrain predicts that this tight environment is the way that the internet and the PC will shift to.

Part I: The rise and stall of the generative net

Chapter 1: Battle of the Boxes

The first machine to compute was created in the 1880s and was used for the national survey of 1890. This machine was created to process the data of the survey and reduced the time from 7 years to 2 years. From this the creator launched a business model of renting the machines and he kept complete control of the operation and maintenance of it. This allowed the creator to provide a complete solution to the enterprises the needed it, and secure the correct function of the machine. This was the beginning stage of IBM.

In the 1960’s IBM changed their business model of renting the machines by de-bundling their services and allowing their customer to buy the machine. The customers had the possibility of buying the software from IBM or developing in house. The separation between hardware and software allowed customer to buy a computer for one specific need and then easily modify it for other needs. This separation permitted the computer to be a multifunction machine that could be used for multiple purposes.

The computer became so open that different companies would create different parts of the computer. With this Microsoft came and provided the main software that ran under the computer. They provided a platform so that other could develop programs that would run under they platform helping with the multiple functionality that the platform could offer. The view Microsoft had of the future was of having a computer in every desk and every house that was running Microsoft software. They never meant only Microsoft software because they needed third party software to collaborate with them.

Third party software became so popular that it started being passed as books where the users would have to copy the code into the computer. Then, as other media became more accessible, software was passed in form of tapes, disk or CD. As the technology evolved software can now be passed over the network by providing links to where a copy of the software is stored.

Chapter 2: Battle of the Networks

The evolution of the internet came from the interconnection of various computers with the purpose of connecting research institutes. Before this private network existed that allowed users to connect to a central computer and obtain all the information needed from there. These central computers would be associated with content providers that would supply the information needed by the users. At the same time this was happening a grassroots movement occurred where hobbyist designed a system so that one computer could call another computer and pass information between each other. The system evolved so that once one computer had new information it could automatically pass the information to other computers that were part of the system. Then the internet came and provided connectivity for users with noncommercial purpose.

In 1991 the internet changed its governance policy and the public funds that subsides the backbone stopped. They allowed the connection of users with commercial purposed and decided to privatize the central operation. To prevent a centralize control of the internet by a private company the designers of the internet changed the structured and created protocols that allowed a decentralized governance. The problem that occurred was that during the design stage, the engineers only thought the users of the internet to have the same ideology as they did and didn’t incorporate mechanism to control the misuse of it. Another problem was that maintaining a consistent experience for the users was difficult. With the structure of the internet is difficult to guaranty the speed between two points because of the multiple hop that might take form those two points. The decentralized structure makes it difficult for ISP to guaranty the connection speed between those places.

Chapter 3: Cyber security and the Generative Dilemma

The chapter is based on the threats that exist over the internet. Zittrain starts by explaining the different threats that have existed over the history of the internet and how this has been possible because of the philosophy in which the internet was founded.

Zittrain takes an apocalyptic view on the future of the internet and the PC based on the threats they are under. He believes that having a proprietary structure ruling the network would prevent these threats from happening, the openness and freedom that the PC and the internet offer are the problem for these threats. Even though he is right that one of the most affecting factors when it comes to cyber security is the user, it is also the same problem for all type of security. Even under proprietary structure attacks would happen and we can see how hackers have infiltrated secure systems that have their own proprietary high security systems.

Virus, SPAM and other bad codes have proliferated over time and in most cases it might have been with the consents (consciously or not) of the user, but locking the users to proprietary systems that do not allow them to take decision for themselves is not the solution. Actions have been taken and PC and other connected devices are not as vulnerable as they were before.

Part II: After the Stall

Chapter 4: The generative pattern

The chapter focuses on generative pattern and explains why the internet and the PC are considered a generative technology. Zittrain first explain how the internet and the PC can be divided into layers and the benefits that this division provides to the development of both technologies. Zittrain puts protocol examples in each layer to show the difference between but not all the examples are placed in the correct layer. The author should had review harder the different protocols that are part of each layer. This problem occurs both in the layers for the internet and that for the PC.

Zittrain defines the important factors that define a generative technology, but I must say that how easy is to master a technology shouldn’t be part of what defines a technology to be generative. Even if the technology is difficult to master it can provide a range of functionality and allow certain experts to play with the technology and use it to provide a significant amount of usage.

Zittrain understand how generative technologies allow innovation to happen and how difficult would it be for innovation to drive without generative technology. To explain the different ways that innovation can flourish with the usage of generative technology, Zittrain uses different innovation theories to explain his points. He first utilizes Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation and later uses von Hippel’s theory of user’s innovation. He show how both theories support the idea of generative technology for the development of innovative products. He concludes that generative technology is the parent of invention.

The last part of the chapter shows how some generative technologies have allowed users to participate and how this in fact has help the development of more generative technology. Here he uses work of technology historians to explain his points and show how this participation can help or not the development of society. He then focus on how one layer of generative tools can help a higher layer to become a generative system and here he uses the story of Wikipedia to explain his point.

In the last section of the chapter we can see how Zittrain goes back to his apocalyptic view of how generative technology is doom. At the beginning of the chapter there is a shift from this apocalyptic view, but is brought back just at the end of it.

Chapter 5: Tethered appliances, software as service, and perfect enforcement

The chapter focuses on non-generative technology and their relation with law. This technologies that can be seen as tethered appliances are controlled by the producer and can be changed even after being in the consumer’s hand. The technology can be modified because of multiple reasons and the entire experience is controlled by the producer.

Zittrain explains that this is possible only for non-generative technology and that this technology can provide certain power for surveillance. Even generative technology can be trick to be used in this sense and webcams running in PCs can be activated remotely without the user knowing.

Zittrain tries to explain the advantages and disadvantages of tethered appliances and the difference between them and generative technology. I think the definition of these two types of technology by Zittrain is incorrect and some of the problems he discusses for one type of technology can be applied to both. His definition of generative technology sounds like a platform based product that allows changes or add-on to the original product and the tethered appliance is a non-platform product.

The second half of the chapter focuses on copyright material and the usage of tethered appliance to control this copyright. How this type of technology can be used to assure the correct use of the material and how it can be easily modified to secure that usage. He also focus on the ambiguity of the law and how it can be interpreted in different ways. This is applied in how is responsible to secure the protection of copyright materials.

The last section of the chapter creates the confusion between tethered appliances and generative technology, since he puts the example of the Google Maps API.

Chapter 6: The lessons of Wikipedia

The chapter starts by explaining how a European town has changed its driving laws to provide norms and guidelines. How this has transform the driver to a more humane status. After explaining how having no laws can enhance a society, Zittrain explains the raise Wikipedia had and how it sustained its success.

This chapter provides an example of how a generative technology that works on the content layer has grown and fixed the problem as they come. How there governance maintains the quality of the work and provides access to information. This chapter is completely dedicated to Wikipedia and explains both its success and shortcomings.

Part III: Solutions

Chapter 7: Stopping the future of the Internet: stability on a generative net

Zittrain argue that in the case of the internet and the PC, the technical problems that are affecting its future (regarding security and similar issues) can be fix by adding a solution based on a social context. Just like Wikipedia could fix their spammer and vandalism problem without using the law, the internet & PC can do the same. For this Zittrain uses various example where the collaboration of many users has help other understand the risk of entering a website or running a code.

Generative technologies need the social context to govern their use. With this the technology can use the power of the people to prevent the misused of the system or the technology, instead of using the power of the law. Zittrain argues that the first solution should always be based on consensus from the users and in a later stage law should be implemented to support those that are protecting the generative technologies. If this fails then tethered appliances will proliferate affecting the fast development of innovation in this area.

Chapter 8: Strategies for a generative future

Zittrain explains different issues that threaten the generative future. He fist starts this chapter by exemplifying how users are using websites to store their own personal data and how this website lock-in the users by not letting them change website without loosing their data. He explains how in a generative technology the user owns and controls his data and in a tethered world they don’t. This ownership problem has many implications that are explain in different section of this chapter. Besides the fact that the user can lose its data if the website decides to close or change their software, the government can have access to the data without the users even knowing.

Another issues covered in this chapter is the problem of network neutrality and the implications that might have changing the way the network is governed. Zittrain discusses the view that providers have on demanding the elimination of network neutrality and the implication that this might have over to the users. Zittrain also explains other alternative that providers can take to benefit their own network and the experience of their customers. Zittrain takes the context of network neutrality to application and software. He tries to explain the world of software with the context of neutrality and how the law can affect a platform with antitrust issues just if the platform changes from a neutral position to a tethered one.

Pattern and the misuse of them are another concern covered in this chapter. Zittrain explain the concept of copyright and pattern and proposes different mechanisms (different from the actual ones) to manage this problem. This mechanism protects the creators of the patterns but also prevent the usage of pattern to impediment the development of innovation, and the usage of the patterns just to prevent other from creating new things.

Chapter 9: Meeting the risks of generativity: Privacy 2.0

Privacy is the main focus of this chapter. Zittrain explains the problems that people are having regarding the privacy concern and explore the issue beyond government surveillance or big corporation surveillance. The chapter starts by showing how the concerns on privacy haven’t changed much since 1973, the concerns shown in that period are similar to the ones shown now.

With the propagation of cheap sensor, network and chips the action of every individual can be easily recorded. This easy propagation of peoples action has brought a degradation on the privacy of each individual, but this has both negative and positive implications. The negative implications are well known and Zittrain exemplifies some of them, such as that an intruder can know all the equipment inside a house just with the usage of a RFID reader. He also exemplifies some positive aspects that this have, such as that since people know they are being monitor they tend to act in a more moral way and in case of misbehaving the public can take action on that. He shows how some states have taken advantages of this and have use their citizens to control and report crimes in their cities.

Zittrain propose a different way of keeping privacy and argues on a reputation based system that would allow all of us to behave in a more moral way not only on our online life but also in our offline life. He show different examples and position from different scholar to prove his points.


In the conclusion remarks Zittrain explains the benefits generative technology have and how with a new mindset, taking into account what he argues in his book, can provide a better future where individual embrace the benefits or generative and keep safe as with tethered appliances. He briefly explains the story behind One Laptop Pet Child program and how in a way the incorporate only the positive aspects of generative and tethered.

The book can be found here

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