Metaphors in orbit: revolution, logical malleability, generativity and the future of the internet

David Horner

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNConference contribution with ISSN or ISBNpeer-review


The argument of this paper is that we in the Computer Ethics community have been perhaps held captive for too long by the rhetoric of revolutionary technological change. It may be worthwhile re-examining this canonical assumption that ethical concerns are necessarily about radical novelty especially given that the theme of this conference is ‘the backwards, forwards and sideways changes of ICT’. The revolutionary view is, of course, metaphorical and metaphors are notorious for their properties of bewitchment. Hannah Arendt reminds us that the original meaning of the metaphor of revolution was ‘return’, a backward revolving motion, suggesting the lawfulness of rotating, cyclic movement of astronomical bodies. The new metaphor denoting novelty, beginning and violence can be dated to the time of the French Revolution (Arendt, 1963, p.41). The danger of revolutionary rhetoric is that it suggests a kind of irresistibility, a quasi-Marxist view, in which the force of computing transforms society so we have variously ‘the cybernetic’, ‘the computer’, ‘the information’, ‘the virtual’ ‘the digital’, and so on, revolution. These revolutions are then meant to usher in their corresponding societies: the cybernetic, the computer, the information, the virtual, the digital etc. (Winner, 1986; Graham; 1999). In Jim Moor’s now widely accepted standard account of Computer Ethics, as an independent field of theoretical and practical endeavours, the stress is precisely on the need to address the policy vacuums and conceptual muddles thrown up by the radical novelty of revolutionary advances in computing. Moor summarises the argument in this way: “The revolutionary feature of computers is their logical malleability. Logical malleability assures the enormous application of computer technology. This will (sic) bring about the computer revolution. During the Computer Revolution many of our human activities and social institutions will be transformed. These transformations will leave us with policy and conceptual vacuums about how to use computer technology. Such policy and conceptual vacuums are the marks of basic problems within computer ethics. Therefore computer ethics is a field of substantial practical importance." (Moor, 1985 p.272) A further part of this standard account is that we must not only fill the policy vacuums retrospectively but attempt to anticipate the future direction of technological travel in order to produce a prospective ethical assessment of likely policy vacuums. I wish to differentiate this revolutionary or ‘innovation-centric’ picture from, what seems to me, a broader and cogent picture, a ‘technology-in-use’ view. David Edgerton in The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, (2006) argues that this innovation-centric picture generally tends to ignore those technologies which are mature and currently in use – their histories and continuing significance. Why should we assume these no longer present ethical problems? Social values change; what once seemed uncontentious may now be contentious and vice versa: “Time was always jumbled up, in the pre-modern era, the post-modern era and the modern era. We worked with old and new things, with hammers and electric drills. In use-centred history technologies do not only appear, they also reappear, and mix and match across the centuries. Since the late 1960s many more bicycles were produced globally each year than cars. The guillotine made a gruesome return in the 1940s. Cable TV declined in the 1950s to reappear in the 1980s’ (Edgerton, 2006, xii). In its picture of revolutionary irresistibility, innovation-centric view tends to ignore the innovations that failed; it tends to ignore the technology that developed only slowly and not exponentially; it ignores the counterfactuals that is how, for example, the different ways in which information and communication technologies might have developed given different policies, regulatory regimes and social values. Old technologies re-emerge whilst we find emergent limits to new technologies. I will aim in the paper to illustrate this argument by an analysis of Jonathan Zittrain’s recent account of the growth and possible future of the Internet, The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It (2009). Zittrain’s approach has much in common with that of Jim Moor. He refers, for example, to ‘the modern information revolution’ and considers both the PC and the Internet as revolutionary. If for Jim Moor the revolutionary attribute of computing is ‘logical malleability’ then for Jonathan Zittrain the concept of ‘generativity’ is the revolutionary attribute of PCs and the Internet. Zittrain writes that: “Today the same qualities that led to their successes are causing the Internet and the PC to falter. As ubiquitous as Internet technologies are today, 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 fosters innovation and disruption, to an applanicized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity – and for better or worse, heightening its regulability.” (Zittrain, 2009, p 8) What I will argue is that Zittrain’s account demonstrates that the innovation-centric approach with its emphasis on irresistibility and novelty misplaces the dynamic from the social to the technological. There was nothing pre-destined about the way the Internet emerged and continues to develop. It was the way in which certain developers and designers chose to instantiate logical malleability to produce generativity which is the key to its current characteristics. The analysis of the history of both the PC and the Internet with the emergence of generativity stems ultimately from the nature of social groups primarily involved in their development (academic researchers, hobbyists, etc.), the values they held and the choices that they made. What I propose is that Zittrain’s history shows that trust and openness were as important, if not more important, than any particular technical attributes. There is a clear link between design choices and the ethos of the Internet and this puts ideas of ‘the good’ at the centre of the discussion. At the same time the possibility of an applanicized network represents the re-emergence, if not of old technology, then of new technologies embedded in old business models and old methods of control.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthicomp 2010: Proceedings of the Eleventh ETHICOMP International Conference on the Social and Ethical Impacts of Information and Communication Technology
Publication statusPublished - 14 Apr 2010
EventEthicomp 2010: Proceedings of the Eleventh ETHICOMP International Conference on the Social and Ethical Impacts of Information and Communication Technology - Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain
Duration: 14 Apr 2010 → …


ConferenceEthicomp 2010: Proceedings of the Eleventh ETHICOMP International Conference on the Social and Ethical Impacts of Information and Communication Technology
Period14/04/10 → …


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