We had a talk yesterday from Jonathan Zittrain (of the Oxford Internet Institute and Harvard Law) on the procession of "generative" technologies over time, and in particular the generative successes of the PC and the Internet. The idea of technological generativity is that a system provides the independent ability to create within it -- e.g., the structure of the Internet which allows people wholly unrelated to its creation and operation to produce things like Flickr, or Movable Type, or, etc. The generativity of both the Internet and the PC (in that case, in terms of application development) can be modeled as an hourglass, where production is funneled through IP (the Internet Protocol) or the operating system to use on the other side.

One of the interesting things about his talk -- apart from the mode of the presentation itself, which was occasionally very meta but in a compelling way -- was his interest in the normative concern of maintaining high levels of generativity in new systems, such as the iPhone. But the thing that especially caught my ear was one of the last things he said before the end of the session, which was that geeks can extract generativity from most any system (witness, e.g., iPod Linux, which fully modifies a nominally closed system), but that the more pressing concern is that typical users can get some generativity out of digital communication systems. I agree with this basic concern, that new media lose a lot of their appeal if regular people can't use them to express themselves in a wide range of ways, but it seems like overreaching to claim that those regular people have such generative abilities as it is. People can and do produce all kinds of things thanks to the combination of, say, iMovie* and YouTube, which respectively take advantage of the generativity of the PC and the Internet. But more importantly, regular users rely on the ability of geeks to exploit the generativity of the PC and the Internet in order to produce iMovie and YouTube in the first place. Given this reliance of user generativity on geek generativity to exist in the first place, are we simply worrying about a sliding scale of difficulty or usability? What's the difference between iPod Linux, XBox modding, BitTorrent and Napster? They all require different levels of skill to implement and use, and they all required geek generativity to be created. Unless and until the tools are generated, they can't be used to generate content and experience.

* iMovie is probably not the best example, since it is produced by the same organization as the OS on which it runs, but I couldn't think of a consumer-level video program not produced by Apple or Microsoft.

Posted by Aaron S. Veenstra ::: 2007:07:17:07:15

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