Generativity, Emergent Chaos and Adam Thierer

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Oxford, has a new book, “The Future of The Internet.” He’s adapted some of the ideas into a long and worthwhile essay, “Protecting the Internet Without Wrecking It.”

In that essay, he uses the term “generativity” to refer to a system which has what I would call ’emergent chaos.’ A generative system is one which is open enough that people do strange things on it, and new stuff emerges. There’s no need to get permission. In The New School, we talk about the difference between the internet, where anyone can run anything, and the old phone network, where only Ma Bell had any way to innovate. And never did.

In commenting on these ideas, Adam Thierer says some things I want to respond to:

I see no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds–a world full of plenty of tethered appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness. In a follow-up essay, I pointed out how Apple’s products create a particular problem for Zittrain’s thesis because even though they are “sterile and tethered,” there is no doubt that the company’s approach has produced some wonderful results.

And what’s wrong with this? Answer: Nothing! People are getting the choices and configurations they want. Older generations are simply not comfortable with the “general purpose” devices that tinker-happy gadgeteers like Zittrain and me prefer.

(From “another problem for the Zittrain thesis — old people!“)

So I’m all for choice in who gets what. At the same time, I think that
Thierer makes the mistake of thinking that generativity happens in a vacuum. I don’t think it does. I think that the more generative devices you have, the more chaos (both good and bad) emerges. If only a few hundred people have Chumbys, then no one is going to write the alarm clock my buddy Nathan wants.

On the other hand, if there are a million Chumbys then someone might.

I think anyone writing for a blog entitled “The Technology Liberation Front” would get this, but let me lay out it. If I’m thinking of creating a widget to connect an ipod to a stereo, then I have to pay for my R&D out of the sale price of each device. If I’m spend a million bucks on R&D, then if I sell a million units, I can add a buck to the price of each. If I sell 10, then I’m going to lose money.

Entrepreneurs know this. They learn to prefer larger markets. They gravitate to larger markets. And thus the larger markets develop an advantage, which is that people want to participate, there’s a talent pool available, there’s a greater opportunity to partner, more investors willing to invest, etc. It’s a virtuous circle. You can buy a wider variety of parts to customize a Scion or a Mini than you can with a Ferrari. There just aren’t enough Ferarris to support a broad ecosystem of innovation. (There may be a network of engineers who wouldn’t bother touching a lower end car.)

And so each “tethered” device may reduce generativity by reducing the chaotic froth which exists in the generative world. I’m not saying that such devices have no innovation. I have (and enjoy) an iphone. I’d love to be able to SMS people URLs or contacts. And maybe when we get the SDK, and the iPhone becomes generative, I’ll be able to.

Until then, generativity has existed in active conflict tension with the tethering. I think that generative and tethered systems can co-exist. But it’s not the “best of both worlds.”

1 thought on “Generativity, Emergent Chaos and Adam Thierer

  1. I can understand why Ma Bell doesn’t get any love, but it’s a big stretch to say they never innovated. Stuff like fully electronic switching, touch-tone dialing, speed dial, three-way calling, call forwarding, and last number redial all appeared before their monopoly was broken up — it just got cheaper afterwards. And of course the guys at Bell Labs weren’t exactly sitting on their hands, either.

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