January 31, 2011

The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 2

Saving the Net from its Supporters

This is the second of two essays making “The Case for Internet Optimism.” The two essays appear in the book, The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (2011), edited by Berin Szoka and Adam Marcus of Tech Freedom, a digital policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

In these essays, Thierer identifies two schools of Internet pessimism: (1) “Net Skeptics,” who are pessimistic about the Internet improving the lot of mankind; and (2) “Net Lovers,” who appreciate the benefits the Net brings society but who fear those benefits are disappearing, or that the Net or openness are dying.
In this first essay, Thierer focuses on the first variant of Internet pessimism, which is rooted in general skepticism about the supposed benefits of cyberspace, digital technologies, and information abundance. The proponents of this pessimistic view often wax nostalgic about some supposed “good ‘ol days” when life was much better (although they can’t seem to agree when those were). At a minimum, they want us to slow down and think twice about life in the Information Age and how it’s personally affecting each of us. Occasionally, however, this pessimism borders on neo-Ludditism, with some proponents recommending steps to curtail what they feel is the destructive impact of the Net or digital technologies on culture or the economy. 
Thierer identifies the leading exponents of this view of Internet pessimism and their works. He traces their technological pessimism back to Plato but argues that there pessimism is largely unwarranted. Humans are more resilient than pessimists care to admit and we learn how to adapt to technological change and assimilate new tools into our lives over time. Moreover, Thierer questions whether we were really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty. Generally speaking, despite the challenges it presents society, information abundance is a better dilemma to be facing than information poverty. 
Nonetheless, Thierer argues, we should not underestimate or belittle the disruptive impacts associated with the Information Revolution. He argues, however, that we need to find ways to better cope with turbulent change in a dynamist fashion instead of attempting to roll back the clock on progress or recapture “the good ‘ol days,” which actually weren’t all that good.

In these essays, Thierer identifies two schools of Internet pessimism: (1) “Net Skeptics,” who are pessimistic about the Internet improving the lot of mankind; and (2) “Net Lovers,” who appreciate the benefits the Net brings society but who fear those benefits are disappearing, or that the Net or openness are dying.

In this second essay, Thierer focuses on the rising crop of Internet pessimists who, though they embrace the Net and digital technologies, argue that they are “dying” due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight. In particular, they fear that the “open” Internet and “generative” digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties. Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the Internet that we currently know and love. Leading exponents of this theory include noted cyber law scholars Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, and Tim Wu. 

Thierer argues that these scholars tend to significantly overstate the severity of this problem (the supposed decline of openness or generativity, that is) and seem to have very little faith in the ability of such systems to win out in a free market. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong, Thierer argues, with a hybrid world in which some “closed” devices and platforms remain (or even thrive) alongside “open” ones. Importantly, “openness” is a highly subjective term, and a constantly evolving one. And many “open” systems or devices are as perfectly open as these advocates suggest. 

Finally, Thierer argues, it’s likely that the “openness” advocated by these advocates will devolve into expanded government control of cyberspace and digital systems than that unregulated systems will become subject to “perfect control” by the private sector, as they fear. Indeed, the implicit message in the work of all these hyper-pessimistic critics is that markets must be steered in a more sensible direction by those technocratic philosopher kings (although the details of their blueprint for digital salvation are often scarce). Thierer argues that the dour, depressing “the-Net-is-about-to-die” fear that seems to fuel this worldview is almost completely unfounded and should be rejected before serious damage is done to the evolutionary Internet through misguided government action.