Jonathan Zittrain offers an elegant discussion of the forces he sees threatening the future of the personal computer and the Internet, and makes thoughtful suggestions for countervailing action, calling chiefly for better hygiene. The modesty of Zittrain’s proposals makes it seem churlish to question his reasoning. But Zittrain uses evocative language to describe the dangers of inaction, and this may incite others to urge less modest remedies. So it is worthwhile asking some hard questions about the nature of the threat. My chief objection is that none of his proposals are sufficiently specific to permit an assessment of their costs or benefits. Indeed, it does not seem to have occurred to Zittrain that such an assessment may be in order.
The focus of Zittrain’s concern is the “generative power,” of the personal computer, by which he means, “users [can] write new code [PC software] or install code written by others.” Notice how narrowly this feature is defined. What is threatened is not the creative potential of the personal computer or the Internet per se, but rather that portion of the PC’s potential attributable to its flexibility. Zittrain is concerned with what would be lost if personal computers were less protean—if they came loaded, for example, with the manufacturer’s choice of software, to which users could later add only applications or utilities approved by the manufacturer. What is threatened is not the power of computers or the Internet to provide humans with useful general purpose and specialized tools to compute, to create and to communicate, but rather the extent to which end-users and their communicants may indulge the whim to customize these tools.
Users of computers today have considerable freedom to alter and add to the software on their machines, subject of course to the exacting interface protocols of processors, operating systems, and other hardware; ditto the Internet. The freedom to alter one’s PC is not unlike the freedom to travel—travelers can be lost or victimized. Precautions against error and mischief restrict freedom. Some travelers take package tours, which offer different combinations of flexibility and risk. We weigh the benefits of freedom and the costs of errors, mischief, and precaution, respectively. I merely illustrate a commonplace: we see tradeoffs among incompatible values in action everywhere in economic and political life. Society approaches all this with a combination of public penalties (jail time for malicious hackers and con artists) and private protections such as passwords, spam filters, firewalls, and virus filters. When the benefits and costs are purely internal, users can select a solution according to individual taste and budget. When benefits or costs are external, informal collective or formal state action may be required—Zittrain calls for both.
In general we expect markets, social processes, and government interventions to approximate reasonable tradeoffs between the benefits of freedom or flexibility and the costs imposed by errors and mischief. Indeed, Zittrain’s major point seems to be that the growing threat of such mischief as viruses, worms, and spam is causing us quite rationally to move in the direction of safer computing and communication practices. Safer of course means that PCs become less flexible. However, he apparently believes that the trend is, or may become, an overreaction—too much precaution, too little flexibility; hence his call for mitigation via private, social, and public measures. But what is the basis for predicting overreaction? Zittrain offers none.
Why does Zittrain think that overreaction is likely, and that its costs will be unusually large? Neither prediction is self-evident. Faced with the risk of infection or mishap, many users already restrain their own taste for PC-mediated adventure, or install protective software with similar effect. For the most risk-averse PC users, it may be reasonable to welcome “tethered” PCs whose suppliers compete to offer the most popular combinations of freedom and safety. Such risk-averse users are reacting, in part, to negative externalities from the poor hygiene of other users, but such users in turn create positive externalities by limiting the population of PCs vulnerable to contagion or hijacking. As far as one can tell, this can as easily produce balance or under reaction as overreaction—it is an empirical question. But, as long as flexibility has value to users, suppliers of hardware and interconnection services will have incentives to offer it, in measured ways, or as options.
Is the personal computer or the Internet exceptional? Does the protean character of the past generations of personal computers or today’s “neutral net” so greatly expand the opportunity for innovation and progress that avoiding excessive safety is a matter of great social import? Zittrain provides no evidence or even argument for that position. I have detected a tendency among familiars of the tech world toward an uncritical, sentimental awe at how things are, or, especially, were in the glorious days when one could speak casually of “writing code” and hear the room fall silent in reverence. From such a height all change is threatening.
Doubtless the generative power of a protean PC is a good thing, as far as it goes, but we need to know how much value, if any, would be lost were many users to resort to tethered appliances or other precautions against the errors and mischief that result from users’ current freedom to “write new code or install code written by others.” We need some reason to believe that firms selling hardware, software, and interconnection services will systematically and significantly overestimate the value of safety or underestimate the value of flexibility, from the user’s perspective.
A hue and cry to pursue an objective (even one as grand as preserving the generative capacity of the personal computer) implies the need to redirect resources from other uses to this one. We are beset by such rallying cries, and it is no denial of their merit to ask that those raising the cry identify specific benefits and costs. We are, after all, surrounded by opportunities to improve matters, but lack time and resources to pursue them all. Indeed, pursuing even one of them means applying fewer resources to current activities. Nothing in Zittrain’s story makes the importance of the threat stand out among others, or demonstrates that the measures called for, however modest, are worth their costs.