The dangers of tethering and Web 2.0

Generative Machine vs. Appliance

We are moving increasingly toward appliancized machines — think TiVo, iPod, Blackberry, iPhone.  With software and applications moving off the PC and onto the Web we can use our PC as a dummy terminal to access online applications.  Continuous internet access creates the situation where our PCs and appliances can be reconfigured by their vendors anytime.  The question is does the popularity of appliancized machines represent a complete paradigm shift away from generativity?

Appliancized machines enable over-regulation.

One example of this over-regulation is illustrated in the court case of TiVo vs. EchoStar.  As a result of a 2004 lawsuit, EchoStar was ordered to terminate DVR functionality in units users had already purchased.  Imagine losing data and functionality after you have purchased a device!  Tethered applicances, such as the TiVo, remain under the control of the manufacturer.  Tethering is a double-edged sword.  With it, we get updates that can add features and functionality… but features and functionality can be taken away!

Tethering enables surveillance.

TiVo monitors our viewing habits.  OnStar-equipped vehicles and mobile phones can be used to eavesdrop, even when the phone is turned off.  PC’s that use automatic update can also be used in this way, with a software update to your operating system.

Web 2.0 and Generativity

Remembering that a lot of innovation stems from amateur tinkering enabled by generativity, limiting generativity will lead to less innovation.  But, doesn’t having a PC mean we still have generativity?  The shift to Web 2.0 applications that are run from the web means a loss of control and generativity for the end user.  It is very convenient to use Google Docs, but that means that the features could change at any time, or just go away.  We willingly give Google control over our data.  Google applications and widgets do allow some generativity, but within the prescribed limits and without guarantee of continuing service.  Google giveth and Google can taketh away…

Note: Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, is available online for commenting and annotation at

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