The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

Really, I wasn't trying to be posh for the book party Arianna Huffington threw Saturday for Oxford scholar Jonathan Zittrain and his new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It." I pulled up to Larry Ellison's Pacific Heights manse in a black Town Car because that's the only vehicle I was able to flag down in North Beach. Huffington, the pundit turned blog mogul, greeted me at the door and extracted a promise of my best behavior before allowing me in. (One wonders what these people think my worst behavior might be, and if they realize how tempting living down to their expectations is.)

Stanlee Gatti, the former San Francisco arts commissioner, produced the event, which drew a crowd mixed with the Valley elite, San Francisco politicos, a gaggle of YouTubers, and oddball geek pals of Zittrain. Oh, and some grubby hacks like yours truly. Melanie Ellison, the romance novelist and wife of Oracle CEO Larry, went to high school with Zittrain, it turns out. That's the kind of it's-a-small-world connection the local press corps loves to make a big deal about. But even if Zittrain didn't have this chance connection to the Valley's movers and shakers, I'd think he'd be drawing attention from its inner circle anyway.

Speaking of which, the crowd included Chuck Phillips, the president of Oracle; Accel Partners' Jim Breyer; Google angel investor Ram Shiram; Gavin Newsom; former California governor Jerry Brown; Jessica Guynn of the Los Angeles TimesBarron's; AllThingsD's Kara Swisher; former Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein; MarketWatch's Therese Poletti; Craig Newmark; and renowned San Francisco socialite Denise Hale, who rather liked my tie.

Zittrain's book is about the tradeoffs between freedom and control, security and creativity. New devices like the iPhone provide a safer, smoother experience than the uncontrolled Web — but at the cost of having a gatekeeper, Apple, dictating what can and can't run on the device. That kind of chokepoint, in turn, makes it far easier for government regulators to get involved. The alternative, though, is not particularly attractive: an Internet ruled by spammers and hackers.

Like his counterparts in politics, Zittrain is seeking a third way. I couldn't help but think this impulse is driven by an early experience he related at the party: Getting beaten up in high school. (He thanked the hostess, Melanie, "for not beating up on me.") Having been bullied, Zittrain doesn't want revenge: He just doesn't want anyone to bully, or be bullied. This moderating impulse is seen in a passage where he discusses how neither governments nor citizens ought to be able to wholly circumvent the law through technology:

Perhaps it is best to say that neither the governor nor the governed should be able to monopolize technological tricks. We are better off without flat-out trumps that make the world the way either regulator or target wants it to be without the need for the expenditure of some effort and
cooperation from others to make it so.
If Zittrain seems like the next Lawrence Lessig, that's no coincidence. Zittrain was Lessig's teaching assistant at his first class on cyberlaw at Harvard. Stanford, Lessig's current employer, is mounting a full-court press to hire Zittrain away from Oxford and reunite the two.

And yet Zittrain's career could well exceed Lessig's. That he was able to fill a room — an impeccably furnished, tastefully modern room in one of San Francisco's wealthiest enclaves, at that — speaks to his draw. Liberal San Francisco politicans, self-made entrepreneurs, and the Web's wacky fringe can all find things they agree on in his work.

The danger for Zittrain is that his work might be nothing more than a justification for compromise and tradeoffs. Will he find a third way for the Web — or just point out the middle of the road? His calls for a "generosity of spirit" are reminiscent of the assumptions that turned eBay, a marketplace of strangers, into a very profitable community of traders. Hoping for the best really can pan out, as it happens. But the answers Zittrain will have to find, or inspire, are far more complicated than asking someone to be on their best behavior.

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)

The future of Jonathan Zittrain (and how to stop it)