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Professor Claims Gadgets Ruin Creativity on the Web

May 8, 2008

Professor Jonathan Zittrain says the rising popularity of marketable gadgets like the iPhone, Blackberry and Xbox could potentially stifle creativity and technological innovation.

The professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University, refers to the devices as “sterile” boxes that turn consumers into passive users of technology, rather than being engaged in the sort of technological tinkering that leads to new discovery.

He fears that over-regulation and Internet security problems could become the downfall of the old system of technology, which still allowed for monumental advances.

“I don’t want to see a two-tier world where only the experts can survive … and the non-experts are stuck between something they don’t understand and something that limits them,” Zittrain said.

In his book, The Future of the Internet””and How to Stop it, Zittrain voices concerns that future generations will “lose a sense of equilibrium between the generative and sterile spheres.”

“This is in part because the amateur nerds that drive innovation here rarely read the fine print,” Zittrain writes on is blog.

“Teenagers will code for the Facebook, iPhone and Google platforms without thinking about the ways in which their advances can be eliminated or proprietized.”

Zittrain contrasts one of the first mass-produced home computers, the Apple II from the 1970s, with Apple’s latest gadget, the iPhone. He says the iPhone is typical of what he calls “tethered appliances”.

“They are appliances in that they are easy to use, while not easy to tinker with,” he writes. “They are tethered because it is easy to for their vendors to change them from afar, long after the devices have left warehouses and showrooms.”

Zittrain said that in order for the Internet to change its downward progression, crucial change must occur in society, rather than technology.

He insists that regulation of the Internet is a step in the wrong direction, and that Internet users should become active participants in the online world rather than passive consumers.

“The community itself exercises a form of self-restraint and policing,” he said. “You see it in Britain when you try to jump a queue, you see it on Wikipedia when a page is vandalized.”

“The challenge to the technologists is to build technologies to let people of good faith help without having to devote their lives to it.”

On the Net:

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It

Jonathan Zittrain