For a project about the future of the interwebs that I recently completed, I read The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain. Beyond the internet topic itself, I was struck by his thoughts regarding "generative technologies", i.e. systems that are flexible enough to create even more ideas, methods or processes. Or, according to the author, generativity on the internet is the ""capacity for unrelated and unaccredited audiences to build and distribute code and content through the Internet to its tens of millions of attached personal computers". Here's how Zittrain frames the evolution of generativity:

  • "An idea originates in a backwater.
  • It is ambitious but incomplete. It is partially implemented and released anyway, embracing the ethos of the procrastination principle [by which he means that most problems confronting a system such as the internet/OS/computers can be solved later by others if they express the need to do so].
  • Contribution is welcome from all corners, resulting in an influx of usage.
  • Success is achieved beyond any expectation, and a higher profile draws even more usage.
  • Success is cut short: "There goes the neighborhood" as newer users are not conversant with the idea of experimentation and contribution, and other users are prepared to exploit the openness of the system to undesirable ends.
  • There is movement toward enclosure to prevent the problems that arise from the system's very popularity."

His point is that there is a "paradox of generativity": an openness to unanticipated needs can lead to a bad or non-generated waters. In the context of his book, Zittrain describes how the Internet can be locked down if certain problems (security, viruses, malware or privacy intrusion) spreads. Therefore:

"The keys to maintaining a generative system are to ensure its internal security, and to find ways to enable enough enforcement against its undesirable uses without requiring a system of perfect enforcement"

Why do I blog this? I was less interested in the part about how security issues of the internet but found interesting this notion of generativity to have a macro-view of technological evolutions in society. It shows the important point that the situation is dynamic and that an innovation cannot be taken for granted as it is; evolution happens and its intrinsic characteristic (e.g. generativity) is not a given as it can lead to opposite consequences. Furthermore, as the project I had was about policies and regulations, it was fruitful to understand this notion.