Generativity

A key concept in Zitrain’s book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, is generativity. Zittrain defines generativity as a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences (http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/13). A generative system must possess 5 qualities: (1) ability to leverage, (2) adaptability, (3) ease of mastery, (4) accessibility, and (5) transferability of changes. The greater the degree to which these 5 qualities exist, the more the technology will be used in unanticipated ways.

Every machine is not (and should not be) designed with generativity in mind.

Affordance theory suggests that the object’s designer should anticipate the uses of the object and tailor the appearance and function to those uses.  This  thinking produces appliancized systems instead of generative ones.   Generative systems are not inherently superior to non-generative systems; each must be examined as to its benefits and shortcomings individually.

Generative systems facilitate innovation.

The structure of the PC and the Internet enable them to be generative, compared to that of wireless telephone service providers and wireless phones which are largely appliancized.  Although phones can be programmed, the system lacks some of the 5 qualities required for generativity.  Big companies often exhibit innovative inertia, especially when dealing with disruptive innovation.  Disruption benefits some; corporations often see these disruptions as endangering to their current operational model.  Therefore, the activity of amateurs often leads to results that the corporations would not produce.

Generative systems invite outside contributions.

The Internet has created a polyarchical system which facilitates the development of obscure, but transformative ideas.  New ways of collaborating online have allowed projects too ambitious for single programmers to be undertaken by groups of people.  The linkage of the PC and the Internet has enhanced creativity.  The generative qualities of the PC and the Internet also set the stage for potential digital catastrophe.  One virus can disable millions of machines.  The paradox of generativity is that this invitation of unanticipated change can lead to the imposition of controls which limit future generativity.

A warning.

Reactions to some negative products faciliated by generativity will likely be overreactions that threaten the generative basis of the Internet and could lead to censorship.  Zittrain points to the need to solve generative problems at the technical layer to prevent the future imposition of controls at the content and social layers.  (Refer to description layers of the Internet  http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/13)

Note: Zittrain’s book is available online for commenting and annotation at http://yupnet.org/zittrain/archives/13.

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