The 'Appliancizing' of Technology
Assistant Professor Jonathan Zittrain '95, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, discusses technology, the law and automatic dog washers.
How did your interest in technology and the law develop?
It crystallized when I was 12 or 13. I got a 300-baud modem and logged into CompuServe, which was a proprietary information service--one paid $6 or $12 or $24 an hour depending on the time of day--and loved it. What I loved most about it was the ability to connect with other people whom one normally would not meet at all. As the service grew and the population of users became more heterogeneous, more diverse viewpoints emerged. [Debates about] how to have a dispute over something, the role of those who run the communities in setting up rules for what's in bounds and what's out of bounds, were just innately fascinating. It's a question of how to govern ourselves, and that's a question asked in almost every civil procedure class.
Do you think laws currently do enough to protect our electronic privacy?
People naturally tend to place physical security above all. These days one often hears a paraphrase of Justice Jackson's protest that the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact--that a concern for civil liberties must ultimately yield to national or maybe even individual survival. The terrorist attacks have been a serious and politically uniting spur to make a quantum leap in the use of technology in law enforcement and national security surveillance. It's reminiscent of the space race. We honed 1960s technology to land on the moon, and we haven't revisited it much since. So the state of technology for lunar landings is not even 1980s, much less 21st century. That's been the state of overall government surveillance as well--last booming in the '50s and '60s during the Cold War, then penned in by Watergate-era worries about government abuse of a panopticon. Other than trying to maintain the status quo of government power to surveil in the face of new private technologies to cloak, there hasn't been intensive effort to deploy massively integrated databases to form a comprehensive surveillance regime. That's now changed. As it's happening, I fear we're not properly considering and building in protections so that it can't readily be abused. The point of law is to make sure that it's not just at some government official's indulgence or good grace that we're not being wronged.
Is there any way to stop the proliferation of electronic trading of protected intellectual property?
The publishing industry has by no means given up, and they still hold some strong cards. As we move to an appliance model of computing, something like a TiVo [digital video recorder] can become the place to store one's digital data--rather than a PC, which from a consumer point of view gets sick with viruses all the time, is in an inconvenient location in the house and is constantly going obsolete. As we go to an appliance model, it's much, much easier to control users' behaviors. I think we may look back and see the PC as an anomaly--how strange to run anything ending in ".exe." You don't normally get to write your own software for your coffeemaker or for your refrigerator or your lamp or your television or your VCR. So as we go to an appliance model that gives people more stability and predictability and longevity, I think we're going to lose the anarchic quality currently associated with PCs and the Internet.
And do you think that would be a loss?
Yes. So much of the staggering innovation that's taken place in the past 15 years has been thanks to generic computing platforms that anyone can write software for. The big innovation over the past 15 years has not been that we went from Word 3 to Word 6. It's that Gnutella happened and instant messenger happened and the Web happened. If we close that [innovation] off--either by having more gatekeepers within the network or by appliancizing the PC so that you need to be an accredited software developer to generate code--all that innovation vanishes, and we'll merely be going from Word 6 to Word 9.
How can technology enhance education?
There is so much more still to come in realizing the impact that network technology could have on how we teach. There are lots of experiments still to be done, at least half of which will fail miserably and a handful of which will be "eureka," "wow," "This is amazing!" The prospect exists now to effortlessly incorporate into a classroom some timely, concrete and important perspectives on an issue from people half a world away--people who are looking at the same issue but from a very different framework. The Berkman Center has been developing unobtrusive systems for use in teaching or among communities of scholars and teachers to augment what they're doing by easily connecting them with people who are doing roughly the same thing, but from a very different point of view.
So you're doing that sort of thing in the classroom now?
Yes, we've tried it in different forms, including as components to HLS courses. The idea is not to completely uproot things, but to look at new ways in which we can relate to ideas outside the classroom or even to fellow students. The typical Socratic dialogue is almost always modulated through the instructor, and to be able to get more peer-to-peer networking going on seems to me a worthy experiment.
What is the purpose of your current Web Filtering project?
One of the questions that can be asked about [the Internet is]: "How much filtering is going on?" It's odd that no one has, in any consistent way, tried to track the answer to it when there actually can be an empirical answer that has statistical significance. So trying to shed evidentiary light on that which has only been anecdotal before seems very helpful. I heard someone say once that there are basically two phases to technological change: too early to tell and too late to do anything about it. If we can document a sea change before or as it happens, we can find a middle path between those two things--choosing our future instead of just waiting around to see what it is.
If you could get one piece of new technology, what would it be?
If they could come up with something to automatically wash my dog, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. Especially if it dried the dog, too. What else would I want? You'd think I'd have a ready answer. Oddly, all I've got is the automatic dog bath. And a bigger TiVo.