Dr. Generative

I’m very happy to announce my latest scholarly release. Paul Ohm and I co-wrote a review of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. We salute Zittrain’s theory of generativity, but offer some proposed friendly amendments to help sort through the tricky questions of how to spot and improve generativity in the wild.

Our title, Dr. Generative or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone, plays off of Zittrain’s central example, the iPhone. Zittrain’s book treats the iPhone as the harbinger of a dystopian, appliancized future. We’re not so sure, and our review uses the good—and bad—features of the iPhone to explore the complexities of Zittrain’s argument.

I had a lot of fun writing this. It was my first major collaboration, and I was surprised at how smoothly it went. Paul and I traded drafts frequently (we were at version 0.30 before we entered the Maryland Law Review’s editorial process) and I think our voices blend nicely in the final version. I hope you enjoy it, as well.

The citation is 69 Md. L. Rev. 910 (2010), and here’s the abstract:

In The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Internet has succeeded because it is uniquely “generative”: individuals can use it in ways its creators never imagined. This Book Review uses the Apple II and the iPhone—the hero and the villain of the story as Zittrain tells it—to show both the strengths and the weaknesses of his argument. Descriptively and normatively, Zittrain has nailed it. Generativity elegantly combines prior theories into a succinct explanation of the technical characteristics that make the Internet what it is, and the book offers a strong argument that preserving generativity is vital for the sake of future innovation and creativity.

Unfortunately, while Zittrain calls for compromises to preserve generativity, he doesn’t provide a roadmap for distinguishing good compromises from bad. These tradeoffs, however, are essential. Restricting generativity in one place (for example, by building computers with fixed circuit boards rather than a tangle of reconfigurable wires) can massively enhance generativity overall (by making computers cheap and usable enough that everyone can tinker with their software). We use this observation to offer a series of corollaries to aid policymakers and system designers in optimizing generativity in the real world: Generativity is only one value among many, generativity is never absolute, and generativity is a systemic property, not a local one.

Great read. I share your optimism about competing designs on the post-PC universe. Recent events credit to your claim about generativity emerging across layers and devices rather than within them; a monolithic view would miss how open licensing may liberate smartphone vendors to constrain consumers, or how tethered code may set off unforeseen cultural expressions.

My one reservation surrounds the ‘generative enough’ rationale, part of which says, “System design should be seen as an exercise in thoughtful deprivation: All designers take away from their users the types of generativity that they think their users don’t want, shouldn’t have, or can’t use.” If anything moves you about generativity as a baseline agenda, it should be that system designers’ surmises of generative development are a very, very poor index of its true expected value. The mismatch worsens as their designs contact other pieces of a much more complex network.

It’s plain that unchecked generativity (like liberty) sometimes conflicts with itself. If theorists can find pressure points to bottleneck generativity with the specific aim of increasing its sum, press they should. But closing off potential on a generative-enough hunch is as problematic as looking at the price of a commodity and saying “cheap enough”. Later, one of you hints at a utilitarian Greatest Generativity Principle, which I actually think is a better frame.

You and Paul have come together on a really valuable piece of criticism. The proof is in how it stays in my thoughts a day or so after reading, and keeps making me double back and revise what I think. Which just as well describes the encounter I had with The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

Extra points for sneaking in a Daring Fireball cite! Also, championship sentence: “Don’t complain that a keyboard isn’t generative; connect it to a computer.”

Thanks for this thoughtful response. You’re right that that passage, on its own, is problematic. One of the truly important points about generative systems is that users can innovate around designers’ mispredictions. At the same time, designers have to make choices, and some of those choices will inevitably limit generativity in some ways. We’re trying to call attention to both of those perspectives; your comment brings both of them out well.