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Interview with Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It
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A conversation with

Jonathan Zittrain

Jonathan Zittrain
Photo by Jason Grow

Q: You have a curious title to your book. Most people think the Internet is a good thing, so why try to stop it?

A: The Internet is a great thing—and it’s largely a historical accident that we have it at all. As late as the early 1990s, people in the know assumed that one of a handful of proprietary networks would be the network of the future. Within those networks, the content to be presented to the people would be carefully groomed. The Internet came out of left field as an entity with no plan for content, no CEO—not even a main menu. PCs are similarly surprisingly successful. Unlike “information appliances” such as smart typewriters and word processors, the programs on a PC can come from anywhere. This has vaulted the PC into the front lines of business environments, not just homes. Unfortunately that’s not how the future is shaping up. Our own choices, made in fear, are causing the most valuable features of our modern technology to slip away.

Q:You warn that the Internet, and the computers that sit on the ends of it, will become more like appliances if we aren’t careful. What do you mean by that?

A: Devices like Apple’s iPhone are incredibly sophisticated—and flexible. But they can be programmed only by their vendors. That’s very, very limiting—and yet consumers will ask for that because it makes for a more consistent experience, and because our generative PC and Internet technologies are less and less useful due to spam, spyware, viruses, and other exploitations of their openness. We need to combat these exploitations in ways that don’t sacrifice fundamental openness.

Q:Is it possible to have it both ways: to have a secure Internet that remains open to the possibilities you describe in your book?

A: Yes, and the book goes into detail about how we might thread this needle. If we fail, we return to the old models of consumer technology that we had already (and rightly) forgotten thanks to the Internet’s success.