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Jonathan Zittrain at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 3

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter

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As the second day of TEDGlobal unrolls, the morning’s program begins with the Connected Consequences session. This is a session all about technology, especially the Internet, and how it interacts with our lives. TEDGlobal director Bruno Guissani takes the stage to welcome Jonathan Zittrain who is a lawyer that specializes in technological, and of course, Internet-based law.

As Zittrain begins his talk, he jokes that there is no better way to set low expectations than to tell people they’re going to hear from a lawyer. Today, he says, he wants to give hope. because we all seem to be laboring under the impression that people are less kind. He asks the audience: How many people have hitch hiked? Hands shoot up. Then he asks: And how many within the last 10 years? Very few hands go up. Now he questions: What has changed? He points out that it’s probably not better public transport. We no longer feel that we can rely on the kindness of strangers.

But, here comes the hope. He feels that the Internet is changing that. He remarks that the Internet began without a business plan, without a CEO and without any firm being singly responsible. It began as folks getting together for fun. It made people ask if the Internet could really work? He compares the Internet to the bumblebee, whose ability to fly scientists have had a very hard time explaining.

“What is this bizarre network configuration we call the Internet?” Zittrain asks. He says that it’s a lot less like a package courier and a lot more like a mosh pit. To understand the Internet he asks that we imagine we’re at a concert and get handed a beer at the aisle, and we then know that our neighborly duty is to pass the beer along. We’re not paid, it’s just our neighborly duty.

He gives three examples of kindness on the Internet. The first one happened when the government of Pakistan blocked YouTube and one Internet service provider effected the block in such a way that it blocked YouTube for everyone around the world. But, within two hours YouTube was fixed. This was the work of NANOG or the North American Network Operators Group. He explains that these are random people who operate from nowhere, put out the fire and then leave without expecting payment or praise — like Batman.

The second example Zittrain gives is Wikipedia. He says that Wikipedia may well seem like the dumbest idea ever, but now that there are more people checking for problems than there are problems on the site at any time. At all times, Wikipedia is 45 minutes away from from utter destruction, but it’s something people feel compelled to do because they care. He also mentions blogs and the photographs associated with them. To Zittrain, it is amazing that people will immediately remove another person’s photograph, simply by request. It shows a courtesy and respect we don’t often see.

Example number three, he says, proves that we still hitchhike — we just don’t call it hitchhiking. He points to the Craigslist rideshare board. To take it one step further, he also points out couchsurfing.org. He explains that the couch-surfing site was one guy’s idea to bring together people who would like to sleep on a stranger’s couch for free, with people who would like people to sleep on their couch for free. This is a bee that flies, and there are not yet any known fatalities.

Zittrain ends with a short, simple call to arms: The Internet is not a noun.It’s a verb. That information is saying something to you. It’s saying, “Let’s march.”

Photo: Jonathan Zittrain at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 3: “Connected consequences,” July 22, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson