The Internet thrives on dark energy

Jonathan Zittrain shares his views on the Net's future at the 10th anniversary of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a part of Harvard Law School.

Dan Farber
5 min read

Dark energy powers the Internet, at least according Jonathan Zittrain.

Zittrain is the Jack N. and Lillian Berkman visiting professor for entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard Law School, the chair in Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, and a founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

With all those titles, he was the center of attention at a Berkman Center event on the occasion of its 10th anniversary at the Harvard Law School.

The author of the new book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Zittrain is being recruited to return from Oxford to Harvard as a tenured professor, but Stanford is also making a play for him.

The conference organizers had no problem using the venue to appeal to the audience of scholars and Internet wonks to cajole Zittrain into making Harvard his choice. It was like the Boston Red Sox crowd trying to convince Big Papi not to leave the team. Elena Kagan, dean of the Harvard Law School, and Charles Nesson, the William F. Weld professor of law at Harvard and a Berkman Center founder, stood up and offered a Harvard cheer for Zittrain.

"Jonathan is the Berkman Center, as well as his charisma and brilliance," Kagan said.

After several more preambles by Harvard law professors, Zittrain finally took the microphone to discuss his book. He outlined the beginnings of the Internet as built quietly, modestly, playfully, and whimsically, without the thought of making money, and yet capable of out-competing the existing proprietary networks. This is the dark matter, the secret sauce of that underlies the power of Internet, he said.

"We don't need to measure, we just need to build," he said of the early Internet. With no plan for content, people brought their own content and the Internet ended up with far more than the groomed content from proprietary services. A lack of pretension, formality, and graveness characterizes the people who brought us the Internet, he explained.

Jonathan Zittrain Dan Farber/CNET News.com

The Apple II and the VisiCalc spreadsheet are an example of the dark energy that will carry you if you can tap it, Zittrain said. "Openness" created the off-the-shelf software market--people wanting to share what they made on their Apple II computers. Hook up the generative PC to the generative Internet and creativity is unleashed, in such forms as eBay, Skype, Kazaa, and Wikipedia, Zittrain said. Wikipedia, for example, is like a community-run park--you don't need a company to come in to clean it up or the government to increase the laws against littering, he said.

"The social ideal of incompleteness allows people to take things in different directions," Zittrain said.

Twitter also fits into the social idea of incompleteness...and brevity. "It does not get much more inane that Twitter...I know it's being twittered right now," Zittrain said. He pointed out how someone who was arrested in Egypt sends a Twitter message to 500 followers and eventually is released. He wouldn't have had time to write a blog post, Zittrain said.

"The Internet is a collective hallucination that works as long as we don't stare at it too carefully," Zittrain said. It's like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and not looking down. Somehow, the chaotic and mischievous Internet, as Zittrain described it, manages to keep running.

We are looking at the end of the PC as we know it and a migration away from the Swiss army knife device to more specialized devices like BlackBerry, TiVo, iPod, iPhone, and Kindle, Zittrain said. The idea isn't to harness the dark energy of the Internet via the iPhone app store. Zittrain's thesis is that a locked device controlled by Steve Jobs or others who control the major platforms won't allow for the openness and creativity that led to the disruptive services, like Kazaa, that allowed an iTunes to come into being.

Wikipedia is not just an encyclopedia, Zittrain said. It allows for reversion and for people to have dialogue and to collaborate. He noted the Berkman Center's Stopbadware.org, a collaborative effort to help in the search to enumerate content filtering and identify sites delivering drive-by downloads.

In his book, Zittrain writes:

A lockdown on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field. Stopping this future depends on some wisely developed and implemented locks, along with new technologies and a community ethos that secures the keys to those locks among groups with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, rather than in the hands of a single gatekeeping entity, whether public or private. The iPhone is a product of both fashion and fear. It boasts an undeniably attractive aesthetic, and it bottles some of the best innovations from the PC and Internet in a stable, controlled form. The PC and Internet were the engines of those innovations, and if they can be saved, they will offer more. As time passes, the brand names on each side will change. But the core battle will remain. It will be fought through information appliances and Web 2.0 platforms like today's Facebook apps and Google Maps mash-ups. These are not just products but also services, watched and updated according to the constant dictates of their makers and those who can pressure them.

On the privacy front, Zittrain said, "My hope is that there are ways at the social layer to express social preferences and allow people to make a choice and whether to respect them." If a user wants to have some information kept private or a part of a site not open to Web crawlers, there should be mechanisms to manage online presence and just plain ethics or norms of behavior in cyberspace, he said.

At the beginning of the proceedings, Kagan announced that the Berkman Center will be elevated to become part of Harvard University, not just part of the law school. "It will remain rooted in the law school," she said, "but will reach out more than in the past."