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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You'd Have to Be Smoking Dope to Believe the Zittrain-Lessig Thesis
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Over the past couple of years here, I have relentlessly hammered Harvard's dynamic duo of digital doom, Jonathan Zittrain (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and Lawrence Lessig (see 1, 2, 3), for their extraordinarily gloomy predictions about the Internet creating a world of "perfect control." In the hyper-pessimistic Lessig-Zittrain view of things, cyberspace is perpetually haunted by the specter of nefarious corporate schemers out to suffocate innovation, screw consumers, and quash dissent. In the 1990s, Lessig's big-bad-bogeyman was AOL. Today, Zittrain casts Apple in the lead role of Cyber-Big Brother. The problem with their thesis? In a word: Reality. As Tim Lee has pointed out before, "Lessig's specific predictions in Code turned out to be... spectacularly wrong":

Lessig was absolutely convinced that a system of robust user authentication would put an end to the Internet's free-wheeling, decentralized nature. Not only has that not happened, but I suspect that few would seriously defend Lessig's specific prediction will come to pass.

Absolutely correct, and the same is true of the fears and predictions Zittrain tosses around in The Future of the Internet. And yet, as we saw most recently during my debate with Lessig and Zittrain over at Cato Unbound upon the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the publication Code, neither of them have relented one bit. Indeed, they have actually been escalating their morose rhetoric recently.

The fact that Zittrain casts Apple as the central villain in his drama is particularly interesting because millions upon millions of people absolutely love the company and its amazingly innovative products -- even if I'm not one of them. And there is absolutely no way Zittrain can continue to sell us this story of Apple quashing innovation when, in just one year's time, there were 1.5 Billion iPhone Store downloads of over 65,000 free and paid apps by consumers in 77 countries. I mean, seriously, is there any application you cannot get for the iPhone these days?

Apparently not, because over at the Wall Street Journal "Digits" blog, Andrew LaVallee writes of the latest innovative application to pop up in the Apple iPhone Store, iPot -- a tool to help you find dope shops in California!!

Seeing an untapped opportunity in the growing number of legal California dispensaries and limited advertising outlets, app developer NexStudios launched iPot, an application for Apple's iPhone that lists nearby stores. .. The free version of the app provides basic location information for nearby stores, while the $2 upgrade adds reviews and ratings and does away with advertising. The two apps have been downloaded nearly 100,000 times since their July launch, with about 80% opting for the free one.
pot on your phoneHoly smokes, pot on your iPhone! Geo-located in real time! With reviews! Am I living in a "Cheech & Chong" movie?

OK, seriously, let's get back to that Zittrain-Lessig thesis. My point here is that, contrary to their belief that the whole digital world is going to hell in a handbasket because of excessive "control" by corporate actors, in reality, things are getting better all the time. Does Apple exercise some "control" over the iPhone store? Yes. Do they use that control to bock innovation at every juncture, restrict choice, and screw consumers? Show me the evidence.

And when I say I want to see evidence, it has to be something more than a random anecdote like this "gem" I have heard Zittrain use many times:

Recently Apple got rid of the "I Am Rich" app, which cost the maximum $999.99, and simply featured a glowing red gem on buyers' screens. Eight people apparently bought it, with several receiving refunds. ("Category: Lifestyle." Heh.) The app's author doesn't yet know whether he'll get the money from the rest, minus Apple's 30% vig.

Come on, seriously? Is that the best you got? Moreover, Jonathan is willing to acknowledge that at least a certain amount of "gatekeeping might help keep malicious or poor quality apps away." Indeed, that's about all the gatekeeping Apple does. For God's sake they are apparently not even trying to keep out the potheads anymore! And finally, it goes without saying that Apple can't even keep people from jailbreaking their phones in a matter of hours after release when users want to do even more with them.

How all this adds up to the specter of "perfect control" is beyond me.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:07 PM | Commons , Net Neutrality , Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism

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I enjoyed your post analyzing some of the Lessig and Zittrain rhetoric. I definitely agree that they over exaggerate many of their claims.

On a personal side I can't decide whether it is better that they are out there fighting for the public's rights and interests or they do us a disservice by making ridiculous claims.

As a side note there are some legit claims of apple controling the app store for things other than malicious or quality control (tethering app, google voice, NIN, tweetie (originally), etc.) Your argument would have been a lot stronger if you (like Lessig and Zittrain) had not over exagerated your claim.

Posted by: GregSJ at September 17, 2009 3:53 PM

I am happy to have found your site. Although I read "Code" when it was fairly new, I don't recall all the dire alarms to which you refer. I am sure they are there, but I'm equally sure I took them with a pinch (or more) of salt.

I find myself torn. You are correct that innovation on Apple's platform is robust. I don't know, however, that this fact vitiates claims that innovation per se is stifled by the extant IP milieu.

I look forward to following along with your conversations here.

Posted by: Robert Link at September 17, 2009 7:56 PM

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