Grimmelmann and Ohm’s “Dr. Generative Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone”

James Grimmelmann and Paul Ohm have published “Dr. Generative Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone,” a spot-on review of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet that fills in some practical blanks left by the original.

The concept of “generativity,” defined and popularized by The Future of the Internet, has been crucial in advancing understanding of free culture and free software issues. It’s synthesized many of the preceding metaphors in a way that is clearer to understand and defend; where arguments for “net neutrality” to preserve an “end-to-end network” consistent with the “layered model” of the internet can be a bit overwhelming and unconvincing, explanations of generativity and how these ideas would preserve the generativity of the network are easier to grasp and rally behind.

As successful and important as Zittrain’s book was, it does tend to assume the generativity of any device, service, network, or protocol is a trivially knowable constant. In practice, the picture is a more complicated set of compromises on many different levels.

Grimmelmann and Ohm’s paper acknowledges the power and significance of Zittrain’s ideas, and then offers some clarification on how to better understand and gauge generativity. In their own words, Zittrain’s work:

on generativity is a milestone in Internet law scholarship. It’s the best descriptive and normative theory to date on what makes the Internet special. Zittrain’s analysis becomes muddled only when he tries to extract a prescriptive policy agenda from it.

By getting down to the brass tacks of what generativity means, Grimmelmann and Ohm do a service to the idea and make it more robust and complete. It’s also worth noting that, like the original book, their review is very funny, smart and thought-provoking reading. It jumps from placing generativity as a “Benthamite value, not a Kantian one,” to dropping the Strangelove references promised by the title.

The paper is positioned as a series of amendments to Zittrain’s original, which evoked an idea of it serving as the Bill of Rights to Zittrain’s Constitution. I still like the idea of including these ideas in future editions of the book, but after thinking on it for a few hours, I realize it’s more of a Constitution to Zittrain’s Declaration of Independence. They’ve taken the excellent theoretical work of Zittrain and created a set of practical steps to work towards it. Definitely worth a read!