Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It

I'm not ready to sign my name to all the the solutions outlined by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but his clear explanations and definitions of the problems we're facing today, in schools' IT as much as anywhere, are more than enough to recommend the book to anyone working in ed-tech.

One key concept Zittrain lays out is "generativity:"

By design, the university workstations of 1988 were generative: their users could write new code for them or install code written by others. This generative design lives on in today’s personal computers. Networked PCs are able to retrieve and install code from each other. We need merely click on an icon or link to install new code from afar, whether to watch a video newscast embedded within a Web page, update our word processing or spreadsheet software, or browse satellite images.

Generative systems are powerful and valuable, not only because they foster the production of useful things like Web browsers, auction sites, and free encyclopedias, but also because they enable extraordinary numbers of people to devise new ways to express themselves in speech, art, or code and to work with other people. These characteristics can make generative systems very successful even though—perhaps especially because—they lack central coordination and control. That success attracts new participants to the generative system.

If you're reading this blog, that probably describes the technological world you want to live in. If you're in ed-tech, it is particularly important that you not read that excerpt as a metaphor for something you're experiencing, but literally describing your situation, or as in these comments, the lack or loss of generativity in your IT systems. It is tempting to see issues of control in school IT as simply extensions of ongoing power struggles in the school writ large. And to be sure, the two overlap. But it is also "about the technology" and its design as well.

Zittrain clearly prefers a generative environment, but much of the books are about the its challenges:

The flexibility and power that make generative systems so attractive are, however, not without risks. Such systems are built on the notion that they are never fully complete, that they have many uses yet to be conceived of, and that the public can be trusted to invent good uses and share them. Multiplying breaches of that trust can threaten the very foundations of the system.

Whether through a sneaky vector like the one Morris used, or through the front door, when a trusting user elects to install something that looks interesting without fully understanding it, opportunities for accidents and mischief abound. A hobbyist computer that crashes might be a curiosity, but when a home or office PC with years’ worth of vital correspondence and papers is compromised, it can be a crisis. And when thousands or millions of individual, business, research, and government computers are subject to attack, we may find ourselves faced with a fundamentally new and harrowing scenario. As the unsustainable nature of the current state of affairs becomes more apparent, we are left with a dilemma that cannot be ignored. How do we preserve the extraordinary benefits of generativity, while addressing the growing vulnerabilities that are innate to it?

"How do we preserve the extraordinary benefits of generativity, while addressing the growing vulnerabilities that are innate to it?" That is the essential question for school IT. It should be central to our conversation. It focuses the basis of my concerns about advocacy for cell phone use in schools at the expense of general purpose computers, for example. Like rms, I'd make the case more strongly than Zittrain does that software freedom and the creations of open source developers are the best tool we've got to deal with the problem.

One other key idea is what Zittrain calls the "'procrastination principle'—sending a technology out first and adjusting it (or letting others adjust it) later." This is an idea that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about technology deployments in schools, and it is something I've advocated for without having a catchy name for it. Sure, it makes sense to have specific goals and metrics around big technology purchases, you don't want to just throw computers at a problem, but, we also have to recognize that we need to foster the innovations that we don't anticipate beforeforehand. It sometimes feels like what people really want is for teachers to innovate with their use of technology before we buy it for them and their students. That's obviously not going to happen.

Anyhow, this book should be required reading for anyone from district CIO to school IT guy to technology integrator.

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