April 30, 2008

The Future of the Internet Depends on its Past

Category: Ethics,F/OSS,Internet,IP Law,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 8:41 am

A few weeks ago, NYU hosted an interesting event about the future of the Internet, appropriately tittled The Futures of the Internet, the video of which is now available here. One of the panelists was Jonathan Zittrain (who recently wrote an important new book bearing the same name as the event) and during the talk he provided a few ideas about how geeks and developers can help secure the Future of the Internet. While I agree with a lot—in fact most—of his assessments about the state and fate of the Internet as he lays out in his book and his talks, his characterization of geek/hacker/developer politics is not one of them.

Basically, one of Zittrain’s claims is that developers are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet and it is their rampant, Atlas-like libertarianism, which is, in part, to blame (first made 37:20 minutes into the video for those who want to listen to the actual comments). They have little-to-no “political consciousness,” are “too cool” to care about the “fine print” and they don’t care about the broader politics of the the Internet because they assume that they can just hack around any sort of barrier and impediment.

While we can, without a doubt, identify a strain of libertarianism among hackers, it is by no means representative of all of geekdom and in fact, is becoming more and more a worn out 1990s stereotype/cliché as time passes than an accurate representation of what is a far more variegated set of ethics and practices among hackers (and I will soon publish an article on this topic).

It also completely fails to capture the ethical spirit as well as sociological, and political workings of one of the most important strains of hacking—free and open source software—which not only powers most of our (open) Internet but which in fact has provided a pretty hefty ethical backbone by which to conceptualize one of the ways we should think about the fight for the future of the Internet.

Ok, time for a rant now :-)

Geeks not only designed the Internet, an indisputably revolutionary medium, but also implemented, and continue to maintain it, and then in their copious spare time, also engage in fighting back the political, legal and corporate encroachment which threatens to limit the very revolutionary nature of the Internet (as Chris Kelty’s new book on Free Software argues). If these acts by geeks are not enough political action, then maybe the development of not just one, but multiple entirely open and free alternatives to the only two proprietary operating systems that exist today might be a political act that would satisfy? Many would agree that even simply using a free operating system is a political act. It would be better to claim that individuals, lawyers and other political actors are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet, rather than imploring the already overtaxed geeks to set aside everything that they are already doing to do something even more.

(end rant)

It also seems that when it comes to political questions related to the Internet, net neutrality being the hot topic now, or fighting restrictive and problematic laws like the DMCA, one of the only groups of people (outside of lawyers and librarians) to actually understand and dissect the fine print (and geeks actually are pretty attuned to and like to dissect the fine legal print), to protest these unsavory laws, and to support the organizations who are doing something about it (like the EFF), are geeks and hackers. While many geeks are not necessarily keen on conceptualizing their labor in traditional political terms, or aligning their technical projects with a political affiliation, and yes would rather just be writing good code, they do fight for their productive freedom and this productive freedom just happens to relate to most questions and concerns related to an open, accessible, and tweakable Internet, built by the geeks, lest we forget

What was perhaps most surprising was that he also seemed to think that geeks and developers have not turned to “apprenticeship,” nor policies and procedure to coordinate their development projects, unlike Wikipedia, which he considers a shining example that geeks should look towards as a beacon of policy that geeks should consider emulating in their projects (comments made answering my question). He clearly has not been hanging out with any Debian developers in the last 10 years nor has he gone through their New Maintainer Process ;-)

In other words, he seems to think they are allergic to regulation due to their accentuated libertarianism, or are against structure because of their anarchism, neither which is remotely true. I think I found this characterization most ironic and problematic for before Wikipedia was even an entry on a Wiki, projects like Debian (and most other F/OSS projects) were transforming and changing to integrate normative procedures and policies that allowed a group of people to work together, scale, grow and deal with crises’. No, they don’t have the Wikipedia “badge” system, but that system is emblematic of Wikipedia’s own transformation into integrating its own normative procedures and policies for working together, not an example of an idealized policy system that other projects are too primitive to have evolved into yet.

About one hour into the talk when questions opened up, I objected to his characterization, but given his answer back to me, I did not make much of a dent in his thinking. Another lawyer Tim Wu (who also wrote a wonderful book on the Internet) chimed in to give me some props and also made a good point that even if geeks are the only groups of people who would “storm AT&T” and know intimately about the importance of net neutrality, there is a lot of room for thinking about how to strengthen and improve the tactics and politics among geeks and developers so that we can ensure the type of open and “generative” Internet and set of technologies we value.

As part of thinking and rethinking new strategies, it is as key to acknowledge and honor the past. In this regard, free software development has been pivotal both in terms of providing software (and making it is an important political act as is choosing to use free software over propriety software) and a set of important set of ideas that a lot of lawyers like Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig have run with to make some important political claims of their own.

So despite my rant above, which was a rant and thus exaggerates things to some degree, I do think there is much more that geeks and non-geeks can do, such as help translate these uber-geeky issues into less geeky terms (and actually this is already being done by some geeks as the work of Jelena Karanovic has shown, or translate the technical issues into new domains as the uber-geek Karl Fogel is doing with question copyright but first lets give credit where credit it due and recognize that labor is political


  1. I wish I could have been there to see the whole presentation, it sounds really interesting. I’ll have to download the video and watch it.

    I agree with you that its a stereotype that all geeks are not political, I mean look at the whole free software movement!

    I wonder what operating system Zittrain runs?

    Comment by darnel — April 30, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  2. It’s a nitpick I know, but the event was titled ‘Futures of the Internet’ to indicate it represented more than one point of view.

    This contrasted it to Prof. Zittrain’s book talk ‘The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It’ a week before.

    Comment by Joly MacFie — April 30, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  3. Hey Biella — you’re right. The only thing I can say in Jonathan’s defense is that perhaps his “hacker” was an apolitical coder working in the suburbs. You should send him your thesis…

    Thanks for pointing this out. A very merry, almost giddy, set of presentations, wasn’t it?

    See you next week I hope.

    Comment by Greg Lastowka — April 30, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  4. I too was a little surprised at Zittrain’s call for greater political awareness and activity among developers, qnd thought your question and Tim Wu’s comments were right on.

    “Politics” just means any time you’re advocating something that others oppose, forming coalitions to accomplish it, and sometimes making compromises to sustain those coalitions, right?

    By that measure, lots of developers (and *really* a lot of free software / open source developers) are quite politically engaged. It may not be traditional U.S. party politics, but geeks are very organized and active about their political goals. Just because Wikipedia was one of the first “open-source style” projects to break into the general public consciousness doesn’t mean it’s the first project to get organized and do things. In fact, it’s kind of a latecomer in that department. The Debian project is another great example, of course, but so is the GNU project (which does have some internal organization, contrary to popular belief, and certainly has shared and explicitly political goals), and the Apache Software Foundation, and many others.

    It’s not like this stuff started yesterday…

    (Also, of course, whether a group *calls* itself political has nothing to do with whether it actually is, any more than it means something when a Senator says “I’m taking a stand above politics on this one because this is a bipartisan issue”. Painting it that way is just one political tactic; and that’s still true even when the speaker actually believes it. If someone opposes you, and you don’t give up, then you’re engaged in politics, there’s no way around it. You came close to saying that in your question to Zittrain, and Tim Wu made it even more explicit.)

    Comment by Karl Fogel — April 30, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  5. Cyber-lawyers have been making this claim of unengagement in a rather uncritical way since Lessig made it popular.

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — April 30, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  6. As a politicized hacker myself, while I do think that hackers have /always/ been political been implicitly and explicitly, I also do think that we as the hacker community have been a little late to produce a collective formulation or response to tethered applications and the future of the internet as a whole.

    The technical and social landscape of the internet have gone a long way in the past 10 to 15 years. Hackers have intentionally directed utilizing concepts of distribution, node independence, and openness… But as the nature of what gets automted in our society changes, then so does our thinking — 10 years ago we talked about Free Software in terms of standalone applications and openness in terms of network architecture.

    Now, largely, the social situation largely boiling down to questions of openness in databases and data sources, and transparencies in dealing with third party application providers. The GPL, CC, etc have all made great strides, but there are open questions that I don’t think we as a community have made explicit posturing too. Open databases, open APIs, transparency in data collection. In past we have thought of computing as piece of hardware, and application, or a network. Now we are having to reformulate and think of computing and the technological and social design on the semantic and content layers, and I don’t think we’ve given it as much though as we should have as a social movement, and we need to!

    Comment by praveen sinha — April 30, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  7. I wonder what operating system Zittrain runs?
    Windows, mostly, as of two years ago, but he’s got a CS degree and has run various flavors of Linux at points in the past, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s followed the general trend in cyberlaw-dom towards Apple. That said, he is almost certainly the most capable of the high-profile cyberlaw lawyers when discussing technical issues.

    recognize that labor is political
    Of course labor has always been political, and like most labor through history, the majority of computer labor ignores (or doesn’t realize) their political role. There is definitely an activated core group there, which perhaps JZ gave too little credit to, but I don’t think it is unfair of JZ to point out that the vast, vast majority of programmers really wish politics would just go away. (You’d be shocked how often I have to explain to programmers why I went to law school. A huge percentage of them honestly still believe that law doesn’t impact them and vice versa, so clearly if I went to law school, I must either no longer care about code, or I must be one of the Bad Guys.)

    To put it more concretely, Ron Paul was apparently the second-leading candidate in internal polling of Google employees. That is not the choice of an activist group, or at least, that is the choice of a group whose activism believes that the solution is to make political power go away instead of wielding it to solve problems.

    But I strongly agree that this is an interesting conversation that is worth further discussion; I’d obviously like to see more activation here even if I don’t believe it currently exists.

    Comment by Luis — April 30, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  8. When you look at the entirety of technologist(eg. CIOs, MS programmers, support techs, geek squad, etc.), very few would be as active pollitically as FLOSS folks or 2600-types. So maybe JZ has not been to events like HOPE, Debconf, a LUG meeting or similar. NYC has may places to find political geeks, if you know where to look. One of the first things you learn when using FLOSS is ‘why you can not play dvds’ and you get indoctrinated into a culture where politics are in the forefront. Hope NYU plans for a bigger room next time as I spent the time outside the venue with about 10 folks who were turned away.

    Comment by Kevin Mark — May 1, 2008 @ 1:43 am

  9. Excellent response Biella! I’m looking forward to reading Zittrain’s book and I’m happy I got to read your response first.

    Comment by Benjamin Mako Hill — May 1, 2008 @ 5:09 am

  10. I really do think this is about a misunderstanding/confusion about developers vs. hackers. I think Biella is right that the glass is probably more than half-full of political will. JZ’s response was that hackers were libertarians. I JZ read Biella’s thesis (and spent as long as she has in the careful study of hacker culture), he would understand that it isn’t nearly as simple as that.

    Btw, for all those interested in JZ’s book, you can now download it in full here:

    Kudos to Jon for just dropping his brand new book online for download! (Also good evidence that he gets the core idea of FOSS)

    Comment by Greg Lastowka — May 1, 2008 @ 5:33 am

  11. Luis,

    Your points are good and I agree that there is a lot of room for fostering more traditional political action but I still am skeptical that the majority of geeks are not political or don’t have a political consciousness (but I can’t speak to the Microsoft employees of the world ). It just sounds like they are not political in certain ways, which does not exhaust the possibilities of politics.

    During the talk, Zittrain singled out the Slashdotters, for example, as a group of geeks sans politics. And I find this ironic and completely off the mark. If anyone has read any public sphere theory (Jurgen Habermas, Michael Warner), Slashdot is like a Habermasian Wet Dream Times Ten and actually reflects a very very liberal mode of communicative engagement. When they talk to me about the nature of debate, about news, about critique, it is as if they read John Mill and Jurgen Habermas at the same time and are spewing, in slightly modified form, their theories of selfhood, free speech, and communication. We are still living out the Dream of the Enlightenment, it just happens to be with geeks. Is this not politics? And a very liberal one? In other words, geeks know and follow the issues, debates, laws, technology (News For Nerds) that matter to them and as a result they know a tremendous amount about the issues, debates, laws, and technology that matter to their world (which again, is what matters for the Future of the Internet). This is a Political Consciousness Writ Large and if we compare programmers as a vocational group to lets say doctors, it seems to me they know a lot more about the issues that influence their vocation and do a lot more about it too. If only doctors cared about their productive autonomy, maybe our healthcare would not be so screwed up.

    Yes, there is a libertarian bent and your point about Ron Paul is a good one, but at least many of them are rallying around traditional voting (and not just opting out entirely, which A Lot of Americans do) and it is not so clear that supporting this type of candidate is a Bad Thing for the Future of the Internet. I find myself in the Kucinich side of thing (that is way not libertarian or even liberal) yet so long as geeks are following the issues, writing about them, producing free software, I would first recognize this as a form of deep politics that has done a lot to help the Internet and then talk about what more we can do. It is the difference, I think, between a negative vs. positive form of critique and given the sad state of affairs in our traditional political sphere (it is deflating and depressing), we need all the positive reinforcement we can get.

    The geek landscape has also diversified so much too in the last 10 years that you really do have all sorts of geeky political projects that get left out of the discussion. One of the largest non-profit ISPs in the world, for example, is Riseup and that smacks of nothing but politics and is run by a bunch of geeks running with and making their own free software. There is also more traditional type of advocates like Seth Schoen who works for the EFF or Benjamin Mako Hill. There are others, like Eric Corely who have actively engaged in lawsuits to defend free speech and question the DMCA (like what a f*cking pain that is). There are geeks who break the law (PGP, hello? That shit was risky). I see politics everywhere and I want to see even more (and I prefer something even more progressive than even liberal) so the question becomes where to do we want to go and how?

    And all of this would make for a super interesting panel so maybe we can arrange here or at Columbia (maybe talk to Tim Wu as the lawyers have a lot more money than the anthropologists, that is for sure) about this, where we have a panel on this topic. Are you down for helping co-organize it for sometime next year? ?

    Comment by Biella — May 1, 2008 @ 5:40 am

  12. Completely down for co-organizing, especially if I can figure out an excuse to get my journal onboard as a co-sponsor.

    (As you may or may not know, I was a political science/compsci double major as an undergrad, and my senior thesis was supposed to be about the habermasian implications of slashdot. This was in 2000-2001, and with a thesis advisor who only checked his email once a week, so it was a complete debacle, but I’m still very interested in that discussion.)

    Comment by Luis — May 1, 2008 @ 5:49 am

  13. [...] via Biella Coleman I found this fascinating video from an event April 16th (between the above two videos), from a [...]

    Pingback by Open Parenthesis » Preparing for the Future(s) of the Internet — May 3, 2008 @ 9:26 am

  14. Even with the long-tail of time, I’m a bit late to this conversation, but anyway…

    I’m not sure its quite fair to hold up Debian developers as a counter-argument here – theirs is a relatively unique and hardcore strain of FLOSS developers strongly committed and even indoctrinated in their principles.

    While I agree that there are lots of lower-case ‘p’ politics that need to be considered in this conversation, I think its healthy to encourage a greater degree of deliberateness and purposefulness across the hacker community. I mean, arguably, programmers have been tossed the keys to production and distribution, and they really /ought/ to be more mindful and deliberate of how they will wield this power.

    You really don’t need to look further than Linus to hear the refrain of the separation between code and politics. Sure, you can argue that his work is infused with its own politics. But, perhaps it’s the recognition of the implicit politics expressed in the act of coding that needs to be recognized and reinforced.

    There are many FLOSS developers who want to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to recognizing the implications and ramifications of their work. To me, that’s a bit irresponsible, and deserves to be called out and challenged.

    If coding is the symbolic abstraction of execution, its not too much of a leap to regard these acts as inherently political. But, too many developers decouple the fun and joy of problem solving from the self-conscious and reflective consideration of how their work will be used.


    Comment by Jonah — May 14, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  15. [...] Biella of the Interprete blog wants to set the record straight, claiming that hackers are indeed political and have proven to be so multiple times: [...]

    Pingback by P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » How political is hacking? — May 17, 2008 @ 6:26 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags):
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .