The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It)
By Jonathan Zittrain
(Yale University Press, 352 pp., $30)
The first time Jonathan Zittrain gave a speech on the future of computing, he greatly surprised his audience. The year was 1985, and Zittrain was a magazine columnist and the "system operator" of an online forum for users of Texas Instruments computers. As a leading figure in the community, Zittrain was invited to speak at a big convention in Chicago. The surprise was that Zittrain had recently turned fifteen. No one had ever met him in person: when he was appointed system operator, sight unseen, he was thirteen.
Now Zittrain is older and more worried, as is evident from the title of his provocative and engaging book. Zittrain tells us that whatever the Internet's glorious adolescence, its middle age will be sharply shaped by the problem of computer security. "Today's viruses and spyware," he writes, "are not merely annoyances to be ignored." Zittrain has a graph showing the number of security incidents over the last decade, and it resembles the Dow Jones average over the 1990s. He predicts a coming crisis, grave measures, and, as "security problems worsen and fear spreads," broad acceptance of "some form of lockdown."
Facing a security meltdown, says Zittrain, we will see a flight to what he calls "information appliances." In his lingo, an information appliance is a device that connects to the Internet, like a computer, but is limited to a set number of functions--say, e-mail, Facebook, and phone calls. The archetype is the Apple iPhone, which from one angle seems like a big and powerful telephone, but looked at differently is just a tiny computer, locked down to prevent any possible security problems.
The idea of reliable Internet appliances may sound nice if you are sick of spam and sputter, but Zittrain does not like the future it embodies. He fears that the shift to appliances will quietly wreck what makes the Internet and even our age special: the Net's "generative" nature. "Generativity" is a central notion in his book, and he means what it says: that the Net has made us all mini-generators--not of electricity, but of information and innovation. Who today is not at least sometimes an online analyst, poet, or publisher, even if just of Facebook updates? But a generative Internet is almost by definition unsafe and insecure, because it needs to give its users freedom to do their thing. That means most efforts to secure the Net kill generativity. Hence the book's subtitle: "How to Stop It."
Zittrain, a moderate and an optimist, pleads for a middle way. He does want a safer and more reliable Internet, but he thinks that this can happen without sacrificing its spirit. While light on specifics, his vision of the future Internet resembles Mick Jagger circa 2008: older, safer, but still more or less rocking. I agree with Zittrain about a lot. Like him, I grew up as a computer and networking hobbyist--"geek" is the term of art--and we both saw and felt the radical genius in the PC and the Net. We worshiped the bearded Internet gurus and genius inventors such as Steve Wozniak. By 1997, when Zittrain and I met in a cyberlaw class, it was obvious that our hobby had gone mainstream, and anything seemed possible. Zittrain's book captures that spirit, most of all in his concept of generativity, which he defines as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unltered contributions from broad and varied audiences."
But I must part company with Zittrain over his main and more somber argument: that security crises will form the driving narrative of the Internet's future. I do not doubt that there will be never-ending security problems and reactions. But the question is not whether cybersecurity will matter, but whether it will matter most. Zittrain's security saga does not look to me like a full account of the future. He is leaving out many of the external forces that will change the Internet. One is the power of government, which, especially overseas, has begun reshaping the network to fit its obsessions. Another is the combined forces of language and culture, which are driving a once-global Internet into something more like a series of national ones: a Japanese Internet, a Spanish Internet, and so on.
But most important, the real story may lie in the power of industry structure and the long trend toward centralized control in the media industries. Over the last decade, the Internet has become interwoven with media and communications industries collectively worth trillions, with economics all of their own. Unlike Zittrain, I think that industry dynamics, more than a demand for safe appliances, will determine the future of this strange and extraordinary medium.
During this decade, the fates of the Internet and the media industries have become as linked as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty during their Swiss hike. The two industries are in the midst of an epic struggle between two competing economic systems that are almost as different as communism and capitalism. The first, old-school scale economics, is behind most of the media empires of the last century, from NBC to Paramount, and it still powers firms such as AT&T and News Corp. It is a model in which bigger is better, products are standardized, and integration is massive. It is the model that ruled American media--and indeed American industry--for most of the twentieth century. Its rival is a model premised on the economics of decentralized innovation and content creation that we associate with the Internet--loosely, the generativity that Zittrain is talking about. These new economics underlie every successful online firm from eBay through YouTube, and are what have provoked the Internet's explosive growth. The collision of these two systems, I think, is where the future of the network will largely be found. It is, on one level, a clash between New York and Silicon Valley; but on a deeper level it is an ideological struggle over how information flows and who gets heard.
Some clues to the Internet's future lie in the past, or more precisely, in the fate of the Net's predecessors--the other new media of the twentieth century. I am referring to radio, film, and the telephone. All were once precocious young media, just as the Internet is now, but each grew into a very different type of industry after a few early decades. Their story can teach us much.
Consider the film industry. Many of us, Zittrain included, like to think of our times as a brave new age for small-scale creativity: consider the millions of amateur videos on YouTube. But this phenomenon is not unprecedented. It is, in fact, a rerun. In 1914, 4,229 films were reviewed by industry press, or more than eleven films a day, which is many more than Hollywood makes today. There was a first age of mass film-making, the early age of silent film, from about 1905 to 1915. In the age of 4,000 films a year, not every film was a masterpiece. Films were simple, silent, and short. Special effects were limited to actors falling down, furniture getting smashed, and guns being fired. There were no CGI graphics--for that matter, there was no dialogue.
But what the pictures of the 1910s lacked in budget, they made up for in diversity and randomness. The early era included films for the working classes and the rich; films made explicitly for Jews, Irishmen, and blacks; and mainstream films advocating socialism (The Jungle), anarchy, or white supremacy (The Birth of a Nation). So great was the demand for film and so short was the supply that, as on YouTube, anything and everything became a subject. As the film historian Lewis Jacobs wrote in The Rise of the American Film, "Half-remembered anecdotes, newspaper headlines, cartoons, jokes, domestic affairs, social issues, economic tribulations--all sorts of everyday American ideas and activities--found their way to the screen."
Broadcasting was another of the early twentieth century's "new" media, and in its infancy it, too, had a structure somewhat akin to today's Internet. Radio stations in the 1920s were cheap and easy to set up, and they were free from direct government regulation. (The FCC had not yet been established.) Radio manufacturers such as RCA and Westinghouse ran many stations to sell sets. But others were run by amateurs, radio clubs, churches, hotels, poultry farms, newspapers, the Navy, and at least one motorcycle company (the Excelsior Motorcycle Co. in Seattle).
While it sounds surprising, there were probably more broadcast radio stations in the 1920s than there are now (excluding satellite). A guide to the nation's stations in 1922 declined to provide listings for New York City, because "a list of all that can be heard with a radio receiver anywhere within three hundred miles of Greater New York would fill a book. At any hour of the day or night, with any type of apparatus, adjusted to receive waves of any length, the listener will hear something of interest." And early radio, like the early Internet, was aggressively non-commercial. At a radio conference held by the Commerce Department in 1922, all agreed that "direct advertising in radio broadcasting service be absolutely prohibited." Herbert Hoover, speaking at that conference, declared that "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter."
The point is that both radio and film were, in their early days, much like the Internet is today: new, unreliable, and full of content that was not ready for prime time. These were easy industries to get into, like dot-coms in the 1990s or Web 2.0 in the 2000s. To get into film in the 1910s required little more than converting a store into a movie theater, which is how William Fox (20th Century Fox), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), and Carl Laemmle (Universal) got their start. They were low-budget entrepreneurs, the Larry Page (Google) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay) of their day.
I do not mean to glorify the age of silent film or local radio. I have watched plenty of silent films, and there is much to be said for sound. I want only to insist that where the Internet is now, we have been before. What Zittrain calls a "generative" media was not invented by the Internet's founders. And that is why understanding what happened next may be our best guide to the Internet's future.
In the film world, Adolph Zukor, sometimes known as "the Killer," created a new and very different future for film. Like most of the Jewish and Irish movie moguls, he started small, converting a butcher shop into a theater, the Crystal Hall, in New York's Union Square in 1903. Slowly but surely he moved into film production, releasing the world's first "feature" film, Queen Elizabeth, in 1912. Sick of paying for distribution, Zukor took over Paramount Pictures in 1916, and moved his operations to Hollywood. In the 1920s, with production and distribution in hand, he began to buy all the theaters he could get his hands on. And when Zukor gained enough control over production and distribution, he began to force theaters to take his films in "blocks"--a whole set of films, or nothing at all. Similar to the method that the DeBeers cartel uses to sell diamonds, it guaranteed Zukor a market for his products.
Zukor, in sum, was building what we would describe as a fully integrated system (we now call it the studio system) for his product: a single company, Paramount, that controlled extensive amounts of production, distribution, and exhibition. And Zukor was not alone. Other men copied his model, creating Universal, Fox, Warner Brothers, and the rest of the big studios. What Zukor and his entrepreneurial colleagues and competitors created was, in a word, Hollywood.
If, in film, vertically integrated studios transformed the medium, in radio this accomplishment was the work of the network. In the early 1920s, AT&T invented the ancestor of what we now know as CBS, Fox, and the rest: BCA, the Broadcasting Corporation of America. AT&T was in a unique position to create a network, because it already had one: it used its telephone lines to link its radio stations in what it called a "broadcasting chain." At the same time, AT&T, breaking radio's early norms, pioneered the use of broadcast advertising--the hallmark of American radio and television ever since. Its first radio advertisement was for a housing development in Queens, urging viewers to leave Manhattan: "Get away from the solid masses of brick, where the meager opening admitting a slant of sunlight is mockingly called a light shaft, and where children grow up starved for a run over a patch of grass and the sight of a tree."
AT&T planned to make broadcasting part of its empire, and to assume monopoly power over radio. In a confidential memorandum written in the 1920s, AT&T managers wrote that "we have been very careful, up to the present time, not to state to the public in any way, through the press or any of our talks, the idea that the Bell system desires to monopolize broadcasting." But "sooner or later, in one form or another, we have got to do the job." Eventually AT&T backed off, beginning to fear the antitrust breakup that would come sixty years later, and sold its radio network to the Radio Corporation of America. BCA was relaunched with new owners but with similar goals: a radio broadcasting monopoly with better quality and more coverage than anything ever seen before. And so NBC was born--as a recasting of AT&T's original monopolistic plan.
Both NBC on radio and Paramount in film took advantage of the same economic principles: massive scale, integration, and centralization. They borrowed the industrial methods of Standard Oil, Ford, and other great corporations of the day, and applied them to the new media. The result was a system stable enough to last from the late 1920s until the 1990s, and in the case of Hollywood, a system that is still roughly in place today.
The rise of NBC and Paramount, of the networks and the studios, fundamentally transformed how Americans got information, and that is why I think industry structure is so important to the future of the Internet. With the power to produce in just a few hands, gone were the thousands of films of the 1910s, replaced by far fewer films of much higher production quality. Gone, too, was the ideological diversity and artistic edginess, replaced by what we now know as the Hollywood ending, enforced by a production code drafted by the Catholic church. Even Betty Boop, a sexy film cartoon from the 1920s, became a more restrained "maiden aunt" with lower hemlines.
During the same period, radio's local amateurs were replaced with prime time and national programming: light entertainment that was much more popular and better produced, such as the soap opera Guiding Light or the situation comedy I Love Lucy. Network radio and television were also, unlike their non-commercial predecessors, fundamentally a vehicle for advertising. Most early shows were written and produced by ad agencies. As Walter Lippmann, a founder of this magazine, observed in 1959, "while television is supposed to be free, it has in fact become the creature, the servant, and indeed the prostitute, of merchandising."
All this suggests that the central question for the Internet in our time is not whether the urge to improve security will go too far. It is, rather, whether the Internet will meet the same fate as film and broadcasting. Is economic integration so irresistible that centralization--and the consequent homogenization of content--inevitable? Or is there something different about the Internet, about its technology and its design, that may be lasting and powerful in its own way?
History does not always repeat itself, to be sure; and it is possible that the Internet is different. Its most fundamental feature, after all, is a radical separation of distribution and content, which is the very opposite of the NBC/Paramount system. Unlike on the TV networks or in Hollywood film, the Internet's users have great power to decide what they want to see or do online. So far neither the owners of content, such as NBC, nor the owners of the wires, such as AT&T and Comcast, have managed to take control of those choices. Moreover, there is no longer the scarcity of the golden age of old media centralization: our problem is that we have too much information, not too little. This plenitude, and the Internet's basic neutrality as between uses and content, has created the generative nature that Zittrain celebrates. The next time you hear the phrase "net neutrality," you should know what it means: it is the principle that makes the Internet different from radio, television, or film.
The Internet's wall between content and distribution also creates considerable power for those who can harness it. It is little appreciated how dependent the Internet's business models are on a neutrality in the infrastructure. The plain fact is that Google, Amazon, YouTube, and eBay have no content of their own. They generate money by connecting people with information that they want--and so they depend on a network that allows anyone to reach anyone, more or less on equal terms. Facebook and MySpace similarly create nothing. They use the Internet's pervasive interconnection to recreate social networks.
None of these firms owns any content, but they are the new media of our day. Their model is almost the exact opposite of the NBC/Paramount system. The media empires of the last century mastered their distribution networks first, and used that power to direct Americans to the content they owned. They sought, as Fred Friendly once remarked, "exclusive custody of the master switch." The old media firms earn revenue in almost exactly the opposite way as the Internet firms: by controlling and directing consumers, rather than trying to make them free.
These new- and old-media models have already collided. In the 2000s, AOL and Time Warner took the biggest and most notorious run at trying to make the Internet more like traditional media. The merger was a bet that unifying content and distribution might yield the kind of power that Paramount and NBC gained in the 1920s. They were not alone: Microsoft in the 1990s thought that, by owning a browser (Explorer), dial-in service (MSN), and some content (Slate), it could emerge as the NBC of the Internet era. Lastly, AT&T, the same firm that built the first radio network, keeps signaling plans to assert more control over "its pipes," or even create its own competitor to the Internet. In 2000, when AT&T first announced its plans to enter the media market, a spokesman said: "We believe it's very important to have control of the underlying network."
Yet so far these would-be Zukors and NBCs have crashed and burned. Unlike radio or film, the structure of the Internet stoutly resists integration. AOL tried, in the 1990s, to keep its users in a "walled garden" of AOL content, but its users wanted the whole Internet, and finally AOL gave in. To make it after the merger, AOL-Time Warner needed to build a new garden with even higher walls--some way for AOL to discriminate in favor of Time Warner content. But AOL had no real power over its users, and pretty soon it did not have many of them left.
Today, unlike in Zukor's day, the Net also has its own industrial guardians--firms such as Google and eBay, which have a vested interest in maintaining the medium's open structure. These firms made billions relying on a system in which they did not have to own content, and they do not want to start now. They are joined by non-profits, and also by government, which, after all, funded the Internet in the first place. The FCC, under its Republican chairman Kevin Martin, has warned companies such as AT&T and Comcast not to try anything funny, and has punished them when they have done so. Finally, the Net's first and last line of defense is its armies of geeks, who regard upholding the network as a kind of home defense. These facts should provide solace for some of Zittrain's anxieties. In 2008, anyone who wants to wreck the Internet needs to get around the FCC, or co-opt Google or kill it, or--worst of all!--face hordes of wrathful geeks. The future of the Internet may not be as bleak as Zittrain imagines.
What is worth worrying about, ironically, may be less the future of the Internet and more the future of the media. The media industry's attacks on the Net can be scary, but they can also be understood as death throes. These industries are famously in decline. But it would not be right just to dance on their graves. At some point the question to be asked is whether there is any way to save what was good about the twentieth-century media empires. Every time I watch a good television show or an interesting piece of reporting, I feel as one might while eating roast panda: it is not exactly a sustainable diet. Again, the twentieth-century models had every pathology of centralized systems--overplanning, immense waste, a certain inhumanity. They are to media as the Soviet system was to widgets. Yet there was one thing that the system did wonderfully: it generated a surplus of cash from which occasionally came great content.
After a decade of asking how we can save what was good about the old media, there is still no clear answer. Whether we will see Zittrain's security crisis I do not know, but from where we are now the odds of a great media crash look pretty good. From such an eventuality, only the worst of the media cockroaches, the base and the vain, would survive. And that may be the future we need to stop.
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, chairman of Free Press, and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
By Tim Wu