History of the 'Generative PC'
Zittrain's book traces the history of the general-purpose PC and how it surpassed mainframe terminals and niche devices such as word processors. The strength of the PC, he says, is that it was designed to run third-party software instead of only software written by the manufacturer.
"The more outside developers there were writing new code, the more valuable a computer would become to more people,'' he wrote.
Zittrain records the same phenomenon with networks, as the open Internet surpassed proprietary networks like the telephone system, AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. For example, it took the break-up of the AT&T monopoly for third parties to create new devices such as answering machines, fax machines and dial-up modems. The Internet, on the other hand, had an open design and a philosophy of sharing and trust that fostered development from outsiders.
Zittrain argues that today's era of generative PCs combined with a generative Internet is coming to an end. By generative, he means systems that can be leveraged to many tasks, are adaptable to a range of uses, easy to master, accessible to many and allow for changes to be easily transferred.
"The status quo is drawing to a close, confronting us -- policymakers, entrepreneurs, technology providers and, most importantly, Internet and PC users -- with choices we can no longer ignore,'' he writes.
What's driving the change in status quo? The appalling state of cybersecurity. In Chapter 3 of his book, Zittrain compiles a succinct history of worms, malware, botnets and other threats that have exploded on the Internet during the last decade. Zittrain argues that one of two things will happen in the future: either a watershed security moment such as a digital Pearl Harbor; or death by a thousand small security breaches. Either scenario will bring an end to the generative PC/Internet combo and will harken an era of controlled appliances.
Security at a Price
Zittrain says society will pay a steep price for securing the 'Net.
"If the PC ceases to be at the center of the information technology ecosystem, the most restrictive aspects of information appliances will come to the fore,'' he predicts.
Zittrain makes a compelling argument for the benefits of the generative PC/Internet combination. He says generative systems foster innovation -- particularly disruptive innovation -- while nongenerative systems such as appliances provide ease of use and security.
Zittrain says tinkerers have created most of the 'Net's key innovations -- free Web-based e-mail, hosting services, instant messaging, social networking and search engines -- which were created by individuals or groups of hobbyists rather than leading IT manufacturers. The same trend is happening with content, as Internet users democratize the creation of political commentary, music and movies that were previously controlled by the publishing, recording and movie industries.
"Generativity at the technical layer can lead to new forms of expression for other layers to which nonprogrammers contribute -- culture, political, social, economic and literary,'' he writes. All of which is at risk if there's a significant lockdown of the Internet's technical infrastructure, he says.