The Scientific Activist

The Future of the Internet

This evening, I was watching The Colbert Report–a show that, along with The Daily Show, I’ve been enjoying much more frequently lately since they began posting full (free and internationally-available) episodes online–and I stumbled across this interview from last night’s show with Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of internet law at Oxford:


Zittrain was on the show to promote his new book, The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. I have to admit that I haven’t actually read the book, but Oxford is admittedly a pretty small world, so I’m at least fairly familiar with what he and his colleagues work on. The interview is not a bad (albeit very brief) introduction to his work, but if you’re intrigued, you can check out his occasionally updated blog (old or new), go to the book’s website to access a variety of other media appearances and mentions, or even access the book for free online. (Alternatively, you could just buy the book.)

From what I understand, the thrust of the book is that the internet is currently at a defining–but dangerous–moment in its history. Specifically, the recent rise of more constrained applications (such as apps for Facebook or the iPhone) threaten to divert the creative resources that have hitherto driven the rapid growth of the internet. Instead, this talent will increasingly be devoted toward designing final products that the individual creator has little control over, applications that will not help drive future innovation, and applications that can be turned against their users in a variety of ways. Instead, we should be championing the continued development of more “generative” internet efforts (like Wikipedia and peer-to-peer technologies). On the flip side, the open and unconstrained nature of the internet has generated a wide range of genuine security threats, and these will need to be addressed proactively in order to protect users and to allow the more generative side of the internet to continue to flourish.

Comments

  1. #1 Matt J
    June 19, 2008

    Nick – I’ve been lurking on this blog for awhile. Keep posting.

    Just thought I’d raise the question – which would you rather have:
    -a world in in which information spreads prolifically, but does not result in action
    -a world in which information dispersion is limited but generates action

    Charities talk of “donor fatigue” which I guess is the concept I’m raising.

    With the Internet, people have access to more information than ever before, but I’d be interested in hearing some discussion as to whether that has translated into making the world a better place. While ignorance is discouraging and the spread of knowledge is undeniably desirable, perhaps sometimes the resulting apathy is even more frustrating?

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 19, 2008

    Sure, information overload is an enormous problem. And, nowhere is it more prevalent than in the life sciences (my field of study). This is from a post I wrote last fall:

    Just to put this into perspective, let’s take a look at the situation facing life scientists today. For example, when I did a PubMed search for the word “cell”, I got a totally overwhelming 3,372,198 hits.

    But, that was Monday. On Tuesday morning, that number was 3,373,026, meaning that almost one thousand new research articles with the word “cell” in them were published in less than 24 hours. Today, it was up to 3,373,442. Along those same lines, search for “protein” and 3,859,439 articles come up. Search for “DNA”, and you’ll get 928,505 hits. Who knows how many will come up tomorrow?

    Certainly, then, the key to progress in biomedical science is not just the generation of new data, but the careful analysis of data–both new and preexisting.

    I don’t know how much this has to do with generative versus constrained internet technologies, but certainly the theme of Web 2.0 has been organizing the information on the web, rather than just creating new information. Web 3.0 promises to do this in a more sophisticated way, so hopefully the future won’t be one where we’re driven into apathy by an information overload.

    The point of the post, though, (and I think the point of Zittrain’s book) is that these wide range of challenges facing the internet (and society in general) are going to require creative and innovative solutions, so it’s better that we focus on cultivating the sort of free thought needed to address these flexibly, rather than letting our creative resources become constrained in more restricted environments.

  3. #3 Martin
    June 20, 2008

    I’m sort of “meh” about a lot of these people. I feel like they get almost obsessed with the details of how one or two websites work, and forget the bigger picture. I just don’t see how some apps are “diverting” intellectual resources when we have blogs, forums, newsgroups and so on. You might as well say television is destroying writing.

  4. #4 Oldfart
    June 22, 2008

    I AM an Oldfart. One of the things I regret is that there was no internet when I was 10 or 11. All I had was my family’s encyclopedia which was a large investment for them at the time. I can’t imagine what the world will be like with millions of bright 10 and 11 year-olds having access to Google and Wiki and ….. one big f**king HUGE ass encyclopedia. THEY are the ones who will learn to handle information overload. Of course, they will learn a whole bunch of nonsense to but the brighter ones will learn how to separate the nonsense from the sense. I was a UFO nut when I was 14 – by the time I was 16 or so, I had figured it out.

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