Can Tech be Governed? With Jonathan Zittrain and Kendra Albert


So my name is Kendra Albert. I’m a clinical instructor
here at the Cyberlaw Clinic, and a lecturer at law here
at the law– lecture on law here at the law school–
at law, on law– you know. And I have the honor
today of getting to host a conversation
with Jonathan, who’s been a friend and a
mentor for a long time on, can tech be governed? Which is a easy
question that I think we’ll be able to dispose
of within this hour span. So I’m going to first
introduce Jonathan, and then we’re going to talk
for a little bit about– especially given his history in
the space and the long history of work that he’s produced–
how he thinks about this problem now in this current– at the year of our Lord,
2019, the current trash fire. What I’m going to then ask
you to do– so I’m giving you some warning so you can
prepare for it– is I’m going to ask you to talk
with your neighbors. I know that’s not traditional to
these Berkman luncheon format, but there’s so much knowledge
and wisdom in this room, and I’m excited to tap
into it before we go back into a full group conversation. I should note, in case
you are unfamiliar with the rote announcement, or
missed the very prominent sign outside, this talk
is being recorded, and I believe it is
being livestreamed. No? I think it’s not
being livestreamed, but will find its way online. All right. So even if you’re not
held accountable for what you said immediately, you may be
held accountable for it later. And I guess that goes for
Jonathan and I, as well, so here we go. But just to start
off with your bio, since you have so
many fancy titles, that it’d be truly
sad to not share them. Jonathan Zittrain is the
George Bemis Professor of International Law
of Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy
School of Government, Professor of Computer
Science at the Harvard School of Engineering
and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard
Law School Library, and Faculty Director of the
Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He also serves as the Vice Dean
for Library and Information Resources. I’m sure I missed some. I’m working on something at
the dental school, but it’s– Sounds great. –not come through yet. So his research interests
are ethics and governance of artificial
intelligence, battles for control of digital
property, and a whole bunch of other stuff– which
that I actually won’t list, because it’ll take too long. We chatted beforehand,
and I’m not going to do the
thing where I force him to read from his own book
that he wrote in 2008– you know, would you
read into the record your previous
statements on the topic? But I am going to
read it to y’all. So in 2008, you wrote
this book called The Future of the Internet–
and How to Stop It. Spoiler– I’m not
sure we stopped it. I’m working on a sequel right
now called Well, We Tried. Yeah. And in it– I’m going to paraphrase
your theory– you talk about the power of
generativity and general technology as [INAUDIBLE]
platforms, ones where users can build their own ways,
to their own paths through building
their own things. And at the end of the book,
from the conclusion, you wrote, “The point at which a
generative project”– that’s my insertion– “is
worth the effort of bad people to game it is a
milestone of success. It is the token of movement
from the primordial soup”– nice– “that begins
the generative pattern to the mainstream
impact that attracts the next round of problems.” Well, the internet has
succeeded, I think. It is worth the effort
of bad people to game it. So here we are
meeting the problems. I wonder how your thinking on
the value of generative systems has changed, since you
wrote that in 2008. Great question. I think the paean I wrote
in 2008 to generativity– a great word that I think
might have been suggested in a workshop, as I was
otherwise arm-wavingly talking about how excited I and
others were about the future of the internet,
by Julie Cohen– the generativity
is about the idea that anybody could
contribute to a technology. Now, of course, anybody– do you really mean anybody? But gosh, compared
to the status quo– and as you know, the book
took some pains to talk about typical consumer-facing
technologies, and the way in which they
were appliance-sized– that is kind of like,
congratulations, here’s your technology. Enjoy, but only enjoy in the
ways that we allow you to. And that, as technology
gets more sophisticated, the theory went,
that could either mean that the appliancization
and the control by the vendor, or whoever can
influence the vendor, that control can become that
much more comprehensive. It’s one thing that’s
like, darn it, why can’t I set my refrigerator
to go below negative 10? I have some specimens I
really want to keep cold. I feel my freedom impinged upon. That lack of affordance
is magnified, when the refrigerator
can spy on you or it can be hacked from afar. And that resulted, for me, in
a lot of thinking, and even some scholarship post-2008,
about the Internet of Things, and what it would mean. So hold on. Yes? I’m going to do the part where
I interrupt you for your time– Please. –so we get used to it. Yeah, yeah. So what’s the
security harm of not being able to set
it below 10 degrees? Is it just that your milk is– some bad attacker can’t
deep freeze your milk? So I thought, at first, you
were saying, what’s the– how unfree do you
feel to be unfrozen? And it is not that unfree. And we even have come
to such expectations, initially just
grounded in physics, and later grounded in
what vendors of products might have for us, around– We’re still grounded in physics. Still grounded in physics,
somewhat, about what the products can and won’t do. And so I guess the worry
now is, kind of when you think of a general purpose
PC and a general purpose internet, the PC
can be reconfigured to do anything at any time. The internet can communicate
between any person and any other person at
any time, so much so– I remember being amazed
at this because it was in such plain sight,
but I didn’t quite appreciate it at first– there’s no main menu
on the internet. Talk about what valuable
real estate that would be, if there were a main
menu to the internet. And there isn’t. The internet is like, yeah,
you’re on the internet. Don’t look at me. Look at whoever you
want to look at. I’ve connected you to whoever
you want to be connected to. It’s that level of genericity– generic-ness–
about what you can do that I was so excited
about, and that we didn’t ask for from our appliances. It’s like, a fridge is a fridge,
and if you want something a lot colder, by a freezer. If you want some even
colder than that, I assume there’s some industrial
deep freezer you can get. But as things–
this is why, again, Internet of Things is so
relevant, and remains so– as any given thing is
able to be reconfigured into any other thing
or set of functions, that is a lot of
power up for grabs. And my question looked after
to the generative lens, and it’s a somewhat
simplistic one, in hindsight– was, where will that power go? Will it redound to the benefit
of the vendor, who’s just going to be able
to, I don’t know, start tracking your
fridge door opening, start selling it to insurance– Mine cryptocurrency on
your fridge processor. That has happened– I know. –with my fridge. Wait, with your fridge? This is a problem. With your literal fridge,
or your model of fridge? I fear I’ve said too much. Jonathan’s [INAUDIBLE]
attack service just went up, as a thousand
hackers listened to this video and found out what
kind of fridge he had. Yes. Redefines what a cold call
is in law school terms. Too soon, too soon. But even jumping a
level of abstraction higher right now,
so much, to me, of the current
story of technology is that it is taking away
from a basket of miscellany that we might call
fortuity or randomness. Everybody always talks
about the weather, but nobody ever does
anything about it– sort of a clarion call about
climate change right now, but an old Mark Twain quote. Taking out of fortuity– can’t
predict it, can’t control it– gosh. If things go on the internet,
who knows what happens? It’s so organic, and that is
both scary but liberating, next to Walter Cronkite
telling us what to think. But that moved away
from the fortuity, thanks to strength in
technology and its reach. Wherever you turn, there’s
a camera [INAUDIBLE] deposited a
microphone over there moments before things started. And so you never know
when there’s surveillance, or even more important– Sousveillance? Sousveillance? Yeah. Yes, coming back at you. And in fact, how many
of us are enabling it ourselves by the instruments
we’ve festooned ourselves with? Just to quickly
finish that thought, we’re taking, as humanity,
stuff out of the random bucket and putting it into the
it’s now possible to learn, to predict, and even to
control this buckets. And then we ask, how
shall we govern it? And the thing is we
haven’t figure out how to govern the stuff
that we could govern before. And now, it’s like, well
now, there’s that much more, and that’s why, to me– and
I’ll probably stop talking– the question, put
dryly, and in law school terms, of intermediary
liability, which is to say some aggregated
platform, or vendor, or entity is in a position now,
thanks to these new tools and technologies, to learn
about us and to affect us. What are their
responsibilities, if we act out? That is now a question that,
after a 20-year interregnum of not visiting it,
we are visiting, wow, really intensely. Sorry. You don’t need to apologize. I was interrupting you. I feel like I’m being
all over the place here. No, so I wonder– you labeled the box
randomness or fortuity– Yes. –and I think that’s
actually stems nicely into my next question,
because I don’t know if I would label it that way. I would label it the systemic
distributional effects of the system before
the technology. You’re going to need
a bigger Sharpie. Yeah. It’s a lot of– It is a lot of–
we can abbreviate systemic distribution–
anyway, so know my question there is, you have–
you highlighted that we have the opportunity
to start over, in some ways. But certainly, in many contexts,
the stuff that was in the box before has translated
onto the new technology. Mm-hmm. I think that your point about
this not reconsidering for 20 years is, in some ways, true. But you may know what I’m
about to say next, which is there are plenty of people
who’ve been suggesting that it is, in fact, this very systemic
distributional effects that come before that force us
to reconsider how we hold accountable these
digital platforms that have generative effects. Yes. So first, on what
to label the box– the box of fortuitous, which in
Monopoly, we would call chance. People still play Monopoly? OK. Is anybody playing
Monopoly right now? It’s not a very good
game, and it was secretly about socialism [INAUDIBLE]. Oh no, until Parker
Brothers seized it. Yeah. Yep. Yes, it was the Landlord’s Game. But we digress. This is actually a– fortuitously or
not– good example. Yes. The chance deck, if
you’re playing the game, it’s like, I don’t know
what I’m going to get. If it’s chance, it’s
usually not great. Bank error not in your favor. But somebody made
the deck, so it’s not like the game appeared
out of nowhere. Mm-hmm. I think those two
concepts exist at once, that stuff that any given
person or entity might think of as previously being in
this thing we call fortuity, is really– I guess what I mean by it
is it felt more immutable. It’s not something I can affect. It’s just something under which
I exist, or labor, or suffer. And part of the optimism,
among some quarters early on, was, cool, now we
can rewrite the game. That was so much of the thought
of the distributed generative internet, including
on content too. Anybody can blog. That was global voices. That was, indeed, often
the spirit of our center, I think, was, let’s not
accept things as they are. Let’s build and change. But of course,
who’s at the table building is a huge question. And the question you
just left us with was, gosh, over
the past 20 years, it’s not like there
hasn’t been anybody waving a flag here and there. If I had to track in
the conventional wisdom, and only in the conventional
wisdom, the trajectory of thinking around
these topics, I loosely have two categories, and maybe
a third around the corner. And I’ll just really
quickly mention that. The first category
I would describe as what I’d call the rights
framework, and that I should– I don’t know if it’s just a
disclosure or a confession, as a board member of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF was among the leaders
of the rights framework. I see at least one EFF
T-shirt in the room right now. The rights framework
said the biggest thing to worry about online– and I’m just paraphrasing– is
that our buzz will be harshed. Who is “our” is
another question. But this is cool. There’s all sorts of
new stuff we can do, and some of the biggest
dangers are governments fearing that stuff they thought
they could control is about to be taken and
placed into the fortuity box. They’re going to
fight against this. That’s the spirit of the
cryptoanarchist manifesto of Barlow’s Declaration of
Independence of Cyberspace. And we should talk about Barlow. And we need to preserve the
freedom of the space by not– by looking at
things from a rights perspective, and an
atomized, for any individual, what can you do? What levers can you pull
online, or as a builder of code, a computer
science person? That was the right’s
framework, and that was the spirit behind
what has become just a handle for a bunch
of these issues now– so-called CDA 230. I don’t know if we want to get
completely into that, but just to say, the idea in the
American legal framework that Congress
would, as basically a footnote, a peripheral
item of a larger law, meant actually to
regulate the internet for the purpose of
keeping material that was harmful to minors– pornography– away from them. Say also, however,
you shouldn’t think that, if you are an
intermediary and you edit stuff, that will
suddenly mean that, by having dared to edit and
come in and take stuff out, suddenly you’re responsible
for all the stuff you’re editing
from other people. That’s roughly what
230 was saying. That has been seen as a
great element of freedom, of allowing stuff to be built
without worrying that you’re going to get sued out
of existence because one commenter did something
awful to somebody else. It’s also become
basically a license to build something,
to see the cloud arise from all of its awful uses,
and be like, not my problem. And that starting,
I’d say, around 2010, has led to a second
framework that uses a completely different
vocabulary around assessing the state of the internet. And instead of thinking
about it in terms of rights, which is still
a powerful language, it’s talking about what
I’d call public health. Is this hurting people? And if it’s hurting people, what
would make it hurt people less? And if that could be
done, who could do it? And if they’re
refusing to do it, ought they to be
encouraged or required to do something to
hurt people less? That’s a totally
different framework from the rights framework. The rights framework
would say, don’t have the intermediaries–
whoever they might be– be the net police. The other would be, don’t
let those who build stuff and start the dominoes
going, and not only– walk away from it
is too simple– profit from it in
an ongoing way, not have to take responsibility
for what they’re doing– especially in an era where,
thanks to, say, good AI, they can. They can’t just protest that
the internet is too damn big. There’s so many
posts on Facebook. We can only hire so many
people around the world to look at them. It’s like, yes, but you
can train an AI model. What could possibly go wrong,
is what the rights people will say. But this is the debate
that’s joined, poorly, because the values
and the vocabulary are not well yet mapped. There’s no API to allow
communication, not only between people, I think, but
within our own heads about it, in the conventional wisdom. I will leave off my third thing. I don’t– I want to hear– We’ll get back to it. Don’t worry. OK. So I wonder about that mapping
of the rights framework onto a harm framework, because
it actually strikes me in– that there’s some pretty big
tie-ins to critical race theory and legal theory related to– and I’m thinking particularly
of Words that Wound, and the work of folks like
Kimberlé Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda on how do we take these
traditional First Amendment [INAUDIBLE] rights frameworks,
and start reframing them to more adequately consider
the harm that is being caused. And so I wonder how you
engage with scholars in other traditions, or
critical race theories directly, around the
places where we’ve already seen this tension erupt. Because I think you’re
right that there is a rights framework and a public
healthy harm framework– although, I’m not sure
the public health people would use public
health in the same way. Well, sometimes literally
public health, when it’s like anti-vax
stuff is going through, and shouldn’t there
be some responsibility not to surface it
on a search for, “should I vaccinate my child?” But this almost gets
to the question– notice I’ve been saying in
the conventional wisdom, in the kind of
canon, and I think that nicely joins the question
of, who defines the canon? And what is the canon? And I should only maybe speak
around cyberlaw as a field. It’s not like there
haven’t been people writing from all different
angles, and methodologies, and viewpoints about
it, but there’s kind of been a cyberlaw canon that
almost boils things down to like e-commerce law,
and what you should know. Notice we’ve been talking
a bit about all this stuff. We have yet to really
mention a case. I’m actually kind of surprised
we mentioned the law. I try. Yeah, right. But in the
conventional framework, I think there is a
tendency– and I surely share it too– to grasp
for the familiar, which is to say what’s near
you and to reinforce it. And that’s why thinking
about a research center and its priorities, it’s not– and gosh, I’m about to– this is where it’s like, just
don’t finish your sentence– but I was going to say– Those are the best sentences. I was going to say,
there’s, of course, a rich debate around
science, and engineering, and objectivity. But I imagine there would
be people among us who would make the case that, if
you’re going to learn physics, there’s carts that go
down hills and all that, and then let’s send you to the
History of Science Department, and you can have a
frank exchange of views. Debate on what a cart
is and what a hill is, and [INAUDIBLE]– All of that kind of stuff. And yet, at the end of the
day, the bridge falls or not. And again, you were even
saying, at some point, physics kicks in, and there’s
such a thing as physics– some would say– or would they? I won’t tell the
historians of science. Right. But in this– I mean, it’s probably
actually STS. In this field, I think, given
that so much of the environment in which we exist,
that is constructed by, mediated by the technology,
is built by people, even though there’s no one
person who’s like, yes, I built that– unless, in our era
of concentrated power and software, it’s like,
well, actually it’s Mark Zuckerberg right? And like four other
people, and here they are. All right, that’s
something to talk about on platform regulation. But the fact that it is built by
people creates such, at least, a clearer and more
obvious, I think, to a larger group of people,
way of saying to them, this stuff doesn’t have
to be the way it is. And in fact, part of when I
found my own excitement rising, even in an era where
there’s less to be– or at least juxtaposed
with the excitement– a lot to be mortified about,
has been to ask not just, here’s a phenomenon– how do we regulate? What parts of it
do we allow or not? And again, who is we here that
could credibly be doing that? But rather, what if it
acted entirely differently? And I got to say, for
me, that has meant maybe a year’s long immersion
in my own bandwidth into thinking about how
you’d construct stuff differently, and in
particular, the differences between centralized
and distributed. Now, centralized and
distributed is still– it’s a network
architectural question. It can apply in lots
of different areas. I don’t know that that’s still
engaging with critical race theorists, but it is possibly
bringing to the table– it’s not just, again, how
do we assess this and do we like it or not, but
what would we build? How would it look different–
both in the technology and institutionally,
the configurations. Because it might be that
the technology could support new institutional
configurations at a time when it’s not just like the
tech is letting us down. It feels like everything is
letting us down right now. And a lot of the questions
of internet governance are reflected larger questions
of governance with a capital G. I think that’s right,
and I think that– you already raised
this question, but I think close our one-on-one
discussion with a, is– who is the us? Because I think one of the
major critiques of the– even my own
characterisation of like, “now is a trash fire”
at the beginning, is that, for many, many people,
it’s always been a trash fire. And I think that,
actually, that’s– I looked back on the history
of cyberlaw, and looked– I remember being
surprised in myself, as someone who entered the
field and roughly 2011, finding that folks have been
writing about race and gender online for literally– since as long as being
online had existed. But that that work doesn’t feel
like it had really penetrated as much of the canon,
as you were saying, of cyberlaw until relatively
recently, with [INAUDIBLE] work and Ruha Benjamin’s work, who’s
going to be coming and speaking in two weeks, which I
encourage everyone to come to. Jerry Kang, 20 years ago, yes. So I wonder if you
can talk about who you think tech is governed for
right now, and what that– how that informs what
you do, going forward. Well, at the risk
of generalizations– I just invited it. Fair enough. Tech is produced for
who can pay for it. And if there’s another
area that somebody wanting to be integrative around
internet and society would be thinking, it’s
actually the microeconomics of the space, the– perhaps even by design– boring and Byzantine ways
in which the act [AUDIO OUT] looking at something triggers– as I put it in, I think, a piece
that has yet to be published– Spoilers. –more computational effort
to do something with that, click than the Apollo
command module had. Again, it’s taken out
of the fortuity basket. It’s like, you didn’t
even want to look at that. And again, by you, I– let’s see. It’s probably some of
these mobile phone. Or maybe I’ve said too much. They’re here. And that microeconomics story is
a really important one because, if we’re talking about– and have yet to resolve,
again, [INAUDIBLE] what we want the space
to look like, it’s really hard to just make it so. There was a time
[INAUDIBLE] what, 2005, or around that era– when it was like
Wikipedia was the point of a spear that was
going to reconfigure how people interact
with each other, how knowledge is generated. And then it became– it turned out it was
just an arrowhead. Where’s the rest of the spear? Wikipedia works in
practice, but not in theory. And then the next
thing was like, and you know what,
maybe Wikipedia doesn’t work so well anyway,
at which point, it’s like, now what do we do? I have not seen myself in
more open and welcoming time for people to contribute
to this field. I have not seen a time of
less certainty about what the canon of the field is. Among my colleagues,
I have not seen them as puzzled as they are now– and I count myself among it– and that is, in its
way, inspirational. It’s a moment– at
least in the academy, but I think also in
the public at large– of some deep-seated ambivalence
about what we’re doing, and to be able to make
something of that moment, and to integrate mastery of
multiple fields, including the microeconomics I
was just talking about, with the critical race theory,
with the network theory, with the people who can
build stuff and say, let’s see if it takes off. Because it’s still possible
to build pretty much anything you want, and put it online,
and see what happens. Let’s see what we
can build together. It’s certainly my highest
hope for a research center like ours. So I need one more thing I
should say on that front, which is a kind of aim that was
general and present, but feels more specific and urgent,
in the wake of the situation going on with MIT– is having a constellation of
centers that are, in the words of David Weinberger, small
pieces loosely joined– something that our center has
been working on– a network of centers around the world– so that you don’t have all
your marbles in one basket. And as much as you
try to integrate under one roof as many
views as possible, there should be multiple roofs– rooves? I don’t know. I think that your point about
the sort of interdisciplinarity of these problems and the way in
which, traditionally, the law– the cyberlaw canon
has not necessarily been super receptive to
that interdisciplinarity is a great point. I think that you’re right
that the many centers feels like a way to mitigate
some of the potential harms of bad actors at any
one particular center. I do think that the– and I’m going to speak
for myself, and not for you, and not for Berkman, or
Harvard Law School, or anybody else, really– I think there was a
sort of reckless– people have use the
term techno-optimism, and I think that’s fair. Actually, when I
went back and read the conclusion of your book,
it, as you may remember, opens with the discussion– I regret the subsection titled
Reckless Techno-Optimism. That was reckless. The thing I quoted from opens
with a section on Nicholas Negroponte, and that the power– generative power, the
One Laptop per Child– Although I think there’s
some skepticism [INAUDIBLE] There is some skepticism. OK. I will give you that. I think that, for me, what I
take away from that is that– those questions of harm,
of the public health model, that just a rights-based
model is never going to be enough, because
you’re always trading off the rights against something. And that, I think, that the– there’s a way in which an early
techno-optimist perspective was, we’re not just
going to like throw– we’re not just going
to change everything. We’re going to
change everything, and there aren’t going to
be any drawbacks, right? Yes. That there weren’t going to be
costs associated, and that’s– Yes. Well, there goes my phone. And that seems like one
of the striking things that we’re dealing with now. Well, I should say,
certainly, in my thinking around generativity, there– one footnote in the book
that I might be proudest of– I know I’m an academic,
when I say that– They’re actually endnotes. [INAUDIBLE] footnote
that really– yes. So the endnote I’m most
proud of is talking about– as I’m extolling the
virtues of generativity, and isn’t it cool that anybody
can do anything and nobody can really stop them– there’s a footnote to, I
think, a New Yorker piece called “The kid who built a
nuclear reactor in his shed” about, I think,
a 12-year-old kid who built a nuclear
reactor in his shed. And it was an endnote
to a paragraph. It was like, is there such a
thing as too much generativity? And that’s even
taking into account, of course, a generative
model, which is it yields catastrophic success. Bad actors show up, for
which my solution was we need a generative defense,
rather than expecting somebody from on high to help us. But separately, before
the bad actors show up, is just, when it’s there
too much generativity? And as the power of
the movement of bits has grown, and has become
so much more integrated with the physical
world, it’s starting to move towards the nuclear. And I want to acknowledge that. The [INAUDIBLE] I maybe
should end on, though, is– You keep trying to
end it, and I keep– True. No, it’s fine. All right, so here’s the
thing I want to say, though, about risk taking, because risk
taking the kind of thing that, on an innovation checklist,
or even a how to make an institution, or polity,
or anything– thrive– checklist, is take risks. And I think it’s– I won’t speak for all scholars– I couldn’t possibly, but
I’ll speak for myself– in a scholarly
mode, taking risks means not just
writing a new piece on your existing
theory that nails down one more piece of it,
or a case study further to my generativity, or–
which we haven’t talked about, but could– information
fiduciaries and loyalty by companies backed up by law. But rather, are you willing
to study, and spend time with, and write in areas
where, honestly, you’re going to be a student again? And when you deploy all of
those fancy titles as the very first star footnote to
an article indicating the authorial
affiliations, and then say stuff that’s going to
be, quite literally, sophomoric, that’s a form of
risk taking that, at once, I can see wanting to encourage,
get out of our comfort zones, and at the same time, is, when
is risk taking recklessness? Especially when that translates
to, let’s do this project, and this project carries
with it some real risks. It’s like something, something,
something, Iran, something, something, something. All right, well, they’re
on an export control list, and there’s all sorts of– but it’s like–
and so [INAUDIBLE] a lot of people it’s mindful
about that [INAUDIBLE] probably [INAUDIBLE]
not only trying to be most in touch
with one’s own compass, but getting radar pings back–
to totally mix my metaphors– from the compasses of others
to do it, and acknowledge when you need to make
a course correction. Thank you. So we’ve covered
a lot of ground, and there’s a lot more to cover. And I’m conscious that
we, I think, have 20– roughly 20 minutes
left together. So now, I’m going to turn to the
audience participation, and not the part where somebody
puts up their hand and asks a four-minute question
that’s actually a comment. Love y’all. I know the community. I’m just saying. Present company
excepted, of course. Me, ask– give
in-depth comments that are supposed to be questions? Everybody’s [INAUDIBLE] company. So what I’m going
to ask you to do is turn to a person or a
couple people next to you, and first, I’m going to ask
you to introduce yourself. And then I’m going
to ask you to– either you can take
up the core question of what was advertised on the
tin of the talk, which I’m not sure we gave, which is,
can tech be governed? Although, I think,
in our own way, we have answered it maybe
with [INAUDIBLE] law, which is to say no. No, I think the answer
is it has to be. It’s that we must assume it
can be, and work towards it, while having the
humility not to think that we are just running
an ant farm here. OK. Well, we can talk about it too. Fair enough. So you can either take up
the question of, can tech be governed, which is a big one,
or any of the smaller questions that we’ve embedded,
which is like, what fields feel like the most
relevant to bring into these discussions going forward, which
of these problems feel as most “tackle-able” from an
interdisciplinary lens, or just raising other
questions that came out. So I’m going to actually give
y’all five minutes to do that, and then I’m going to try to
get us back together for a full group conversation. And in the spirit of Berkman,
Wikipedia, and formerly the bumblebee, although people
now know that how it flies– I’m going to hope that,
despite not knowing whether this is going
to work, that it will, and it will result in
good conversations. And I’ll see you back
here in five minutes. I can tell that there are lots
of amazing conversations going on, but I’m just
going to continue to speak into this
microphone to interrupt you until some of you– John Penny, I’m talking to you– stop speaking. So one of the great
things about the fact that this is the
beginning of the year and this is our kickoff event
is we actually have lots of time to continue these conversations. But first, I’m going
to be nosy and want to know a little bit
about what you’re saying in the conversations. And so I think I preceded some– I won’t say volunteers– I “volun-told” some people
that I thought they were going to have interesting thoughts,
and that I would enjoy hearing them speak. And then I will move to a– maybe a slightly more
actual volunteer model. This is academia, so volun-told
is kind of how we do things. I’m going to go over
here first and ask if there’s a group from– you are not required
to have a question. I just love to hear
what struck you about your conversation, or
any interesting things that came out of it. Hi. Jess Daniels. It was all very interesting,
and we had a good group. A lot of [INAUDIBLE]
governance in our group. And several people
raised the issue about black women being
attacked on Twitter, and as a case study of, how
do you govern, given that, and how do you govern
and put black women at the center of those
who are being harmed? And one of the
other questions was about the imbalance between
the resources that corporations have, that are running
these platforms, and civil society,
who’s trying to do some of the intermediary
work of governance. So that was where we were. I know that one of
the things that you wrote a lot early about,
Jonathan, was IETF, and the rough consensus
running code model. I’m wondering, given the group’s
provocation around the variable resources, if you want to talk
a little bit about how you see that changing, that
very democratic, in a traditional sense– meaning
it was mostly white dudes– process. Well, it kind of gets back to
the distributed and centralized point. If we were still in an era in
which the biggest architectural decisions about the digital
space were being made, say, through the auspices of
something called the Internet Engineering Task Force–
and what I love, by the way, about our community is there’s
going to be people here who are totally still into the
IETF and are part of it– it doesn’t have members, but
it has people who participate– and there are going to be people
who will be, like IET what? And back in the day,
that was the group that helped to work on and came to
consensus– rough consensus on internet protocols,
the basic unknown protocols that anybody
would be entitled to build into their
software and hardware so that the stuff
could interoperate. And of course, what
those protocols permitted would have a huge impact– as we like to say, when you want
to sound highfalutin about it– all the way up the stack
to the applications, and to the content,
and to the users. And a decision down
here about, OK, is there going to be an
identity bit, put bluntly? Well, under a
rights perspective, you can think of
all the problem is I got to carry my internet
license with me, when I’m on the internet. That doesn’t sound great. And then, when you think about
accountability for harms, it’s like, well, I don’t
know, it was bits that did it, does not sound like a satisfying
answer to the problem of abuse. Again, it’s a moving
target because we now, while we still operate through
protocols blessed by the IETF, and adopted by vendors and
others building software, it’s– all right, well, what’s
happening on Twitter? And Twitter is, I’m using an
app, and what I see on Twitter is what Twitter says I’ll see. And I got to say, from the
point of view of a research center, many of whom our
alums are working at Twitter in different departments– we are– Some of my best
friends are at Twitter. Right, absolutely. And how to interact with
that corporate sector, because the era in which– they might be. There have been times
when they’d say, all right, we’re ready
to give you $1 million, and you know some other folks
that could use $1 million coming from Twitter, and
then Twitter can feel better about what it’s doing. I don’t mean specifically
Twitter, of course. I mean the entire
corporate internet sector. They’re willing to do that,
but then it’s like, well, do we want that money? Does that affect our
policy recommendations? We, these days, tend
not to take that money. OK, well, then how do
you interact with them? Ideally, as peers across the
table, and as ones who can, in the true internet spirit
of the way to get online is to find anybody already
online and just share their access– that is literally how all
internet access works, right? There’s not some central
internet switching station that puts us all online. It’s all by getting
online with somebody already online, including ISPs. You can bring people
to the table that way, but are they going to
share data with us? How do we know the
scope of the problem? We could do the
Pew survey approach or the ethnographic approach,
and hear from people harmed, but you’d want to
complement that. Well, what do you see from the– what’s the right– the
air traffic control tower, the prison tower that
is Twitter central looking down on all of the users
with a unique view that only they have. And in this current environment,
getting them to share data is both inappropriately and
appropriately, depending, really hard– nay,
impossible to do. There were tentative
arrangements with some academics
to study this stuff, but again, now we all
put on our privacy hats. You share data what now? Or you put on your GDPR
hat, and you’re like– if you’re Europe, you’re
like you processed what now? That turns out to mean, from
a corporate risk perspective– no, when we say risk taking,
that’s not what we mean. Safer not to work
with the academics– or anybody, for that matter. That’s a real problem. And I don’t have
a solution for it, but I find myself still working
really hard for the benefit of our center and those– the research we could
do, and the students here, and others, who want to
be able to work on real data. How to make that
happen, to me, is one of the big almost
library-style [INAUDIBLE] our time. I thank you for that. And I want to actually come back
to what this group was talking about before, which is– bless you– sorry– the unique
experience, and centering the voices of black women
who are harassed on Twitter. I think that sometimes
there can be a tendency– and I’ve seen this in myself– to look at marginalized groups
as canaries in the coal mine– like, oh, they saw it
first, and then they can predict the outcomes. And I do think there is
a benefit to that, which is that it often does
actually require people to engage substantively
with the experiences of marginalized folks
online, especially of women of color
and black women. But the end of the story about
the canary in the coal mine is not a positive one. I’m pretty sure
that canary dies. I love how the canary has
like a tag on it that says, the future is here, it’s just
not evenly distributed yet. Right. The canary in the coal mine
is the future is here– Yes, right. –not evenly distributed. Particularly apt with tweets
and Twitter, the canary. So what I want to say there
is that I think there– in our desire, as
researchers, and as a center that does do interdisciplinary
work and take disparate pieces and put it together,
it’s so important not to think about that
as, oh, what can we gain from this
person or what can we gain from this experience
to speak to everyone else, but rather to take
seriously the idea that each individual
person’s experience– the canary has as much
right to continue to live– this metaphor is shitty. I’m going to stop using it. I just swore, and I
didn’t ask if that was OK. Oh well. It talks to me about the
importance of synthesizing experience and statistic. Mm-hmm. There’s a real obsession
with big data these days, and what we can learn, thanks
to new tools and thanks to the data sets–
including learn for the sake of understanding
better the parameters– what’s really going on online. But that alone, in the
absence of actual experience and being able to
hear [INAUDIBLE] may not at all
resemble others online, including literally each of
our– we’re using Twitter, we get very different
experiences back from it. That just seems
to be really vital and an important reminder– I’ll just say again– personally
about how to temper the joy of, great a new
data set of harms– this is so cool. It’s like, wait a minute. It is productive and useful,
but gosh, just stop for a minute and think about [INAUDIBLE] Well, speaking of
hearing from folks, the time gets away from
us, as it always does. I’m going to take
one last comment, and then I think we’re
going to wrap up. So I’m going to take it
from this group over here, since I so unkindly called
out John Penny already. Go ahead. Hi. Thanks for the wonderful talk. So we are discuss this question
from a comparative perspective and the global context,
because I come from China, and I’m a visiting scholar here. So I just told Joe and my
friend about my research project is Chinese social credit system. So it’s more like the
Chinese government to use the big
data analytic tools and the algorithmic
technologies to apply in area– and that in that area, they will
collect the information data from the citizens and
give you a scoring record so you will have a credit score. So they ask me, when we talk
about can technology can be governed– so in China, it
can be governed or not– yeah, I think this is very
big and challenging question. I think, because
from China’s context, it’s a little bit different
from the Western part, because that technology
play much, much more a role in China’s
development purpose. So it’s [INAUDIBLE]
have some relationship with the prosperity
with the country. So why do you give more meaning
on technology in this sense, so it will make this governance
issue more complicated and more challenging? So I think, if we talk about why
the technology can be governed, we should first of figuring
out what kind of the barriers for this question. So I think in maybe Asia
context or Chinese context, there are several barriers. The first is the knowledge
gap, and the second is the awareness
of the citizens. Recently, there is
optimistic trending, because of the
social media– also the Western socialist
media’s news. So the Chinese internet users
have much, much more awareness of privacy than before. So now, the agencies
who deal with this issue now issue more
regulations than before, try to protect the
privacy of the citizens– and also, the pacing problem,
because the legislature always chasing from those
challenging issues. So this, basically,
what we discussed. Thank you. And it also seems to
raise the question, if we’re talking about can
tech be governed, how do you– who watches the watcher? If you are using the
technology to govern, then you have a whole
other set of questions associated with that. So I see we’re almost at
time, and so I want to offer– Jonathan, if you have
any concluding points. Well, yeah, it’s both inspired
by the last comment and maybe kind of a nice
statement of a piece of a research agenda, for which
I’d certainly welcome help, which is, as the technology
gets more powerful, do we accept that it’s going
to turn the dial up on control, and then it’s just a
fight of how to govern it, so that the control
is responsible and that the right
outcomes happen, if we can agree on what
the right outcomes are, et cetera, et cetera? Or is it somehow this
kind of Canutian can we just try to push some stuff– Hold on. I have no idea what
Canutian means. King Canute? No? Well, we’re not going
to get into that. OK. There’s no fighting
city hall or the waves. Is it, well, actually,
let’s change the technology to somehow try to put stuff
back into the fortuity bag? No one– gosh, this is now going
to be a terrible reference, but here we go– no one should have the
Ark of the Covenant. It should be put into
a warehouse never to be seen again. That was– That’s Star Wars, right? Kendra was trying to get
me to say “actually.” I actually it was
mostly just doing it for the look on his face,
which was like sheer horror. But right, it’s the
end of the movie. It’s the end of Raiders
of the Lost Ark, of like, this power is too great. It’s the ring. It’s the One Ring. Can we just put some of this
crap back into Mount Doom? I don’t know the
answer, but I think it may be, good luck with that. Once you reveal there
can be a One Ring, and you actually
forged one, someone, something’s going to want it. And so there’s an
institutional design question– how do you distribute
that power, or not have one
ring– have many? Well, that didn’t work either. But versus, is this too much
power for anybody to have, given what we know,
being mindful of history, about how power accretes? And there is a lot of
power in this institution, in this space,
spent well or not– a lot of debate around that. But if you’re in this
room, you are part of it or proximate to it. And I mean that both for
the warning that it sounds like it is, and that I’m
trying to take to heart, and for the opportunity
and responsibility it represents for us
to learn what we can, express what we can. And through our corner of this
university, the Berkman Klein Center, there will
be a science fair upcoming where you can learn
about the ridiculously broad kaleidoscope of projects taking
on so many different pieces of this puzzle, and have
a chance to see where you might want to fit into it. And I really invite
you to do it. This center contains
multitudes, and I hope you’ll be among them. Thank you. Thank you everyone. Do you want to actually
announce here time? Thank you. The open house is
September 24 at 5:00 PM, I think somewhere around here. Hopefully we’ll see you there. Milstein East ABC.

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