Steven Johnson makes one of his typically brilliantly insightful points in his recent NY Times op-ed: The iPhone is a locked-down device, but it has been the site of arguably the greatest burst of software generativity in the computing era, much of it by small developers. This has led Steve to re-evaluate his adherence to the “unifying creed” that “Open platforms promote innovation and diversity more effectively than proprietary ones.” When Dan Gillmor challenged this in a tweet, Steve responded with a terrific blog post, further considering the point.
The argument is over the issue framed by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. JZ defines “generativity” as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” (p. 70) Steve suggests that we instead judge generativity by the type of results we see, not by the nature of the software or hardware environment on which they run; a generative platform is “a platform that is constantly being re-invented in surprising new ways by a diverse group of creators, where individuals, hobbyists, small startups, and amateurs compete on a level playing field with large incumbents.” So, while JZ assumes that a system’s capacity to produce generative results depends on the system’s openness, the burgeoning of software for the iPhone shows that closed systems can produce wildly generative results.
I think a few things are going on here.
First, Steve is right about the fecundity of the iPhone as a platform, and about its openness to amateur and small developers. But, he’s right because the iPhone is not purely locked down. Apple could exert any control it wants, to any degree, any time it wants, but so far it’s been pretty open. So, the iPhone and the iPad are generative because in practice they generally meet JZ’s criteria. They are, in JZ’s taxonomy, hybrid animals.
But, the fact that there are over 150,000 apps for the iPhone is not the only measure of generativity. Apple has announced it will exclude unruly guests from its party (and Apple gets to define “unruly”), so the unruly don’t even bother to ask for admittance. The AppStore is a ruly environment. Now, there are obviously advantages to the user (as well as to Apple, but we’ll leave that aside for now) in having a device that cannot be disrupted. (“Disruptive” figures large in JZ’s book, but not in Steve’s definition.) For one thing, a ruly device is less likely to melt into a puddle of palm-sized uselessness. But, that’s to say that the iPhone’s limits on generativity are desirable. Steve’s argument is different. He’s saying that the iPhone is generative.
In any case, I think Steve is wrong in his causality. The iPhone has generated 150,000 apps because it’s a cool piece of hardware with a preternaturally appealing UI, useful software affordances built in, and an appealing SDK. Not to mention, it’s got a gazillion users. And the App Store is well-designed for marketing small programs. The iPhone is not wildly generative (in Steve’s sense) because it’s a walled garden; the iPhone could allow other marketplaces for apps to exist without losing its generativity (as Steve notes in an aside).
But, the most important issue is not whether the iPhone is generative. The question is whether Steve is right to renounce the “unifying creed” that generativity depends on open platforms. The argument should not be over whether a particular hybrid device is generative — although it’s helpful to have the case raised — but over the future of the Internet. That’s why JZ raises the issue of generativity in the first place.
…the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacityâ€”and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two. If the problems associated with the Internet and PC are not addressed, a set of blunt solutions will likely be applied to solve the problems at the expense of much of what we love about today’s information ecosystem. (p. 8)
The danger is that as cellphones become mobile Internet devices, and as iPods become mobile computing platforms, our new generation of computing devices will be appliances open only at the forbearance of their creators. Those creators may be relatively benevolent, but the question isn’t whether this device or that creator is open. It’s what the future of the Internet and of computers will look like. If appliances become the dominant way of interacting with the Net (and thus how we interact with one another), then no matter how loosely the device creators hold the reins, we are accepting the bit in our mouths. If appliances become the default, then the market for challenging, risky, disruptive, subversive app development is in danger of drying up.
From that point of view, the generativity of the iPhone and the iPad is — to use JZ’s word — seductive. Steve Johnson is right that they have unleashed a torrent of creativity. But it is creativity within bounds. The very success of these devices, driven by the generativity that Steve Jobs allows us and to which Steve Johnson astutely points us, can lead us to the future that JZ fears.