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Re: <nettime> Zittrain?s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
Florian Cramer on Wed, 15 Oct 2008 00:52:04 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Zittrain?s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet


On Tuesday, October 14 2008, 14:44 (+0200), Geert Lovink wrote:
 
> Jonathan Zittrain?s Future of the Internet is based on a myth.  
> Zittrain needs a foundational myth of the Internet in order to praise  
> it?s past openness and warn for a future lockdown of PCs and mobile  
> phones. 

The problem is, not surprisingly, the term "openness". It is probably
the biggest red herring of IT industry.  Calling something "Open" is the
most notorious newspeak for it no being open. (Random examples: OpenVMS,
HP OpenCall, Apple OpenFirmware, Novell OpenDOS, SCO OpenServer,
Microsoft Office Open XML, the web site OpenBC [now Xing], OpenID
etc.etc.). 

Aside from that, we need to differentiate "openness" in an engineering
sense of an openly documented technological standard from "openness" in
a social sense, as you do in your own critique. But I think that the
problem goes even deeper than that. It concerns the very equation of the two
types of openness, "open technology = open society". In its core, this
equation is a cybernetic proposition, flatly equating society and
technology. It's a behaviorist and mechanist model which even critical
media studies, at their very core, have yet to get rid of. In our field
of network cultural studies, for example, we operate with the "network"
as precisely such a cybernetic dispositive. While it seemingly proposes
an "alternative" ("non-linear" etc.etc.) model that many European
scholars render in Deleuzian (and thus, by implication, Bergsonian)
terms, it is a cybernetics, and thus a behaviorist coupling
nevertheless. 

Coming back to "openness", I see the cybernetic beliefs attached to it
less rooted in libertarianism than in classical liberalism. The
blueprint of the concept to be found in Karl Popper's "Open Society and
Its Enemies", a book that might well be called an 'implicit cybernetics'
in that it determines a systemic framework for methods of steering
a.k.a. policies. A serious historical, critical discussion of "openness"
would have to start with Popper and try to determine whether his "open
society" is indeed the model which all or most players in the field of
"open technology" and "open media" implicitly subscribe to.

> looked geeky and painfully outdated. Back then, the advancement of the  
> ugly looking Internet was its interoperability. It was a network of  
> networks?but still a closed one. 

>From a classical technological perspective, "interoperability" equals
"openness" - which throws us back to the above issues.

> Apart from a single reference to FIDONET, nothing remains of this  
> early cyberculture in Zitttrain?s book. His scheme is simple: Internet  
> good, AOL and CompuServe bad, early Apple II good, iPhone bad, and so  
> on. The fact that millions of Americans for the first time experienced  
> the Internet through services like AOL (and continue to do so) is a  
> reality that Zittrain simply overlooks. 

But if one adopts, on the other extreme, a purely sociological
perspective, then one could arrive at the not less problematic
conclusion that AOL or Microsoft, through the inclusion of TCP/IP
networking in Windows 95, were really the ones who "opened up the
Internet for all". Without having read Zittrain myself, it could be that
he intends to speak up against this common mainstream belief. And while
that belief, or conclusion, would even make some empirical sense, as you
point out, it is ultimately meaningless if notions of "openness"
tactically blind out particular aspects: social access in the case of
technologists, social control over the design and implementation in the
case of the empiricists.

> Concerning the closed nature  of iPhone (a rather marginal type mobile
> phone from a worldwide  perspective), it would be more interesting to ask
> why hackers have  ignored these vital communication devices for so long
> (I know, there  are exceptions, but they are rare). 

The OpenMoko project is the most prominent and advanced one at this
point: http://www.openmoko.com . However, you give the answer yourself:
GSM/UMTS cell phone technology is - now speaking from the technological
perspective - completely proprietary and locked down in every little
detail. It's not merely a question of the chips in the phones, but more
importantly of the networking protocols and routing technology that,
unlike TCP/IP for the Internet, is completely sealed off. It's
practically impossible to set up and operate non-corporate cell phone
networks, at least on the basis of standard cell phone technology, and
hacking it, as you propose, simply might not scale to human resources in
hacker culture. 

So Zittrain doesn't seem to be completely off in juxtaposing Internet to
cell phone technology, and the historical outcome that the former got
"hacked" and the latter didn't, is not a question of Unix geek appeal
versus unsexier populist technology, but of the kind of policies (and
therefore politics) that created these systems. For the Internet,
published and non-patented standards at least allowed the kind of
gradual community adoption and improved accessibility that you describe,
despite social access barriers. With cell phone networks, as with any
proprietary technology, it's the exact opposite: The social entry
barriers were and still are very low because of the core business
interest of selling devices and subscriptions. But beyond that low
access barrier, you hit the brick wall. The technology is strictly
designed and controlled to keep consumers from becoming producers to the
extent of tapping into the infrastructure. [That said, issue 21/2008 of
the German computer magazine c't had an interesting article on cell
phone culture in Africa and anti-corporate usage appropriations of the
technology, such as cost-free calls where the phone does not get picked
up and the number of rings has a previously agreed-upon meaning.]

> The mobile phone sphere needs to be opened up, literary hacked, un  
> très grand projet compared to the Internet with its free software, in  

This has been desperately tried for years if not decades, as you
describe in your own recollections of the CCC congress. It just might
make more sense to develop inexpensive VOIP mobile phones using WLAN
networking and push them as an alternative.

> I  would have expected Jonathan Zittrian to address these issues, and
> somehow transcend the very US obsession with Apple products. Who cares
> about iPhone and whether it can and cannot guarantee full access to
> the Internet? 

This perhaps has to be seen from the background that cell phone
technology and connectivity in the US stills lags behind many Asian,
European and African regions. As a consequence, the concept of cell
phone Internet access became synonymous with the iPhone while in Korea
and Japan, for example, cell phones have been the most common Internet
access devices for years.  On top of that, Apple has a slightly
different brand image in America than in Europe. It is still much more
seen as a somehow "alternative" or "better" company, cynically speaking:
the Ben & Jerry's of the computer industry, whereas in Europe, it's
more commonly seen as an expensive lifestyle brand for graphic
designers. (And never mind that Ben & Jerry's is a Unilever brand.)

> Apple has always had its proprietary strategies and is  
> not known for it commitment to freedom in the Richard Stallman style.

With two exceptions: the CUPS printing system, standard
both on Linux and Mac OS X, and the WebKit HTML rendering engine, used
by Safari and by a couple of Open Source browsers. Both are developed by
Apple and distributed under the GPL/LGPL. The reasons for that, however,
are rather historical than everything else because both began as
independent free software projects and were later bought up,
respectively forked, by Apple. Because of the copyleft provision and the
contributions of outside developers, they had to remain under their
original GNU licenses.

> White House, to criticize Iran and China. There is a structural  
> unwillingness to take on the corporate world 

For sure. But if a network critique, or network activism, were rigorous in
criticizing and taking on the corporate world, they would, at least for
the time being, have to stop using computer technology altogether. 

When we discuss network openness and software freedom, it's too easy to
forget to talk about hardware, but not in Heideggerian ontological terms
like Kittler, but from an old-fashioned social materialist perspective.

The ugly truth beneath all software and networks is that they wouldn't
be common goods without the slave labor that created their underlying
hardware. Virtually all computer boards, desktop and laptop computers
are produced under under slave labor conditions in Chinese special
economic zones, no matter whether they come with the Apple, HP, Dell or
any other brand name. Speaking of "sweatshops" would even be a euphemism
because laborers are exposed to toxic chemicals and typically have their
health ruined within four or five years. Alex Weltz' documentary video
"Digitale Handarbeit" gives excellent if devastating insight into these
conditions. (I read, but can't find the reference any more, that
computers would cost at least three times more if they were manufactured
under fair conditions.) As my colleague Cal Selkirk pointed out, a
project like "One Laptop per Child", which the Berkman Center featured
in a keynote presentation, is ultimately cynical in meeting its low cost
objective through slave labor of the very people it pretends to serve.

> I do not believe in Thierer?s  ?hybridity? proposal in which the
> consumer decides what devices and  application he or she uses will be
> open or rather closed. 

Especially not with communication technology given that the popularity
of any communication platform ultimately relies on peer pressure:  If
all your friends or, more importantly, your bosses and colleagues use a
particular system, you have no choice but use it as well.
Communication, in the literal Latin sense of "community building", does
not just create, but also define community through social inclusion and
exclusion. It is not a good thing by itself, unlike what liberal "open
society" beliefs and the totalitarian cybernetic dogma that "you cannot not
communicate" suggest. [Their coincidence is no surprise as they're both
built on social-behaviorist entropy models.] 

> The larger problematic here is the lack of counter-hegemonic projects  
> that could function as an alternative to the quasi monopoly of  
> Berkman. 

The question ultimately is, with Thomas Pynchon, whether it's okay to be
a Luddite. Or, differently put: If one still sees whatever value in
computer networks and getting one's hands dirty with them in the one or
other way - as opposed to seeing the whole field a lost cause -, one
can't help but subscribing to some kind of Berkman Center ideology in
one way or the other. Or, to phrase it still differently:

> The beginnings of a critique that is formulated here bounces back on  
> the author, posing the question what is to be done on this side of the  
> Atlantic in the form of concrete alternatives. 

...whether non-Luddite "concrete alternatives" can exist at all, in
the sense of genuine alternatives that are in no complicity to what you
describe as ...

> the default Internet ideology that rules from San Jose to Berlin,
> Nairobi and Bangalore 

Florian

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