Jonathan Zittrain: The Impact of Civic Technologies

Expert Opinion June 24th, 2008

, Former Reporter,

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NEW YORK, June 24, Late-Morning – Jonathan Zittrain, author of “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It,” takes the stage at the Personal Democracy Forum to focus on one of the key topics of his new book, Civic Technologies. The Personal Computer, spreadsheet applications, Wikipedia, even the Internet itself are all examples of Zittrain’s civic technologies, innovations that are generative of further innovations and are as productive as users would like them to be. These are technologies that can not be restrained by gate keepers but Professor Zittrain is concerned that these are a dying breed of technology, soon to be replaced by tethered, gated, un-civic technologies actually resist further innovation by users.

Mr. Zittrain begins his tour through the history of civic technologies with some of the original developers of the Internet’s architecture, who were advantaged by the fact that they did not have to develop a network that would make a profit. As a result, the Internet does not operate like UPS; the Internet does not charge you to deliver a packet; the internet, instead, relies on other users to pass your packets within the network until they finally reach their intended destination. A civic technology that is people powered and relies on their good will.

Wikipedia is one of the most prominent and recent civic technologies where people power is clearly central its design and sustained functionality. “Wikipedia is constantly under threat from spammers and vandals,” Zittrain notes, “but as long as there are as many people combating vandalism as there are participating in it, then the good guys win.”

But Zittrain warns against the rise of un-civic technologies as well, technologies that rely on gate keepers and have the potential to actually restrain people power. He cites the iPhone as a “gorgeous technology” that should not “be mistaken for a civic technology.” The fact that user-created applications in the wireless space must rely on the approval of Apple and/or network providers means that the iPhone does not meet Zittrain’s definition of a civic technology. He encourages vigilance in sustaining the civic nature of certain technologies and people power in rejecting the technologies that restrain civic innovations.

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