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Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 14:29 UK

Experts' warnings of web's future

Click reporter Dan Simmons spoke to two authors who are predicting the death of the internet as we know it.

Jonathan Zittrain believes that viruses and security threats will bring about a closed network where innovation will be restricted. Meanwhile, Lee Siegel worries about the loss of originality and real democracy on the web.

You can watch the two interviews - extended versions of those broadcast on TV - by using the links below.


In his book The Future of The Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain celebrates the freedom the PC and the internet has given people to openly create and share their innovations with us all.

Watch the web extended interview

He points to innovations such as the web, e-mail and the wiki which were all given to society by their creators.

But increasingly with such freedom has come viruses, security threats and malware.

Zittrain describes these as "bad code" and he fears this is starting to drive us towards closed, guarded networks where everything is watched over and approved by a gatekeeper.

"I think more people will be driven into the waiting arms of either sterile information appliances - things like the iPod, iPhone and Sony PlayStation - which don't allow outside code on the machine at all, or without the permission of the platform vendor," he explains.

"Or they will end up migrating towards the web itself and by that I mean they will find someone on the web to deliver services to them which substitute what they do on their PC.

"They'll do their documents in Google Docs, their e-mail in Google Mail, their messaging on Facebook."

Software rights

For people who just want their devices to work this might not be a problem, but for innovators working to closed platforms like Apple, Google or Facebook, it changes the game.

"The natural presence of the platform online means that Facebook gets to control it far more," says Zittrain.

"If you read the Facebook terms of service. It contains things - provided automatically by the lawyers, it's not evidence of some terrible plan by Facebook - but it contains rights that Bill Gates, Mr Proprietary, could never have dreamed of.

"[There are] rights to charge the makers of applications for the privilege of allowing that application to continue to exist on Facebook at any rate Facebook chooses. Rights to terminate any application that they don't like, for any reason."

Product lockdown

If just a few big names had played gatekeeper in the past, would applications like Skype have got off the ground?

With no money in it for operators, Zittrain fears commercial interests would have strangled free international calling over the internet.

If the music industry had easily been able to kill off the file-sharing applications used to illegally swap songs, would the BBC's iPlayer exist, which uses the same technology?

So, if we move to locked-down managed gadgets in a bid to get a more reliable service, do we risk caging innovation itself?

"I think we need, either by law or technology, to make sure that when we move to cloud computing or to tethered devices, that the tether isn't too tight that new stuff can be strangled before it's had a chance to prove its worth," says Zittrain.


Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob was bullied when he wrote about his views online which challenged the beliefs held by many bloggers, YouTube performers, and social networkers. It was, for him, a case of publish and be damned.

Watch the web extended interview

For Siegel, the online world is not so much inhabited by us as by our egos, which are slowly destroying civilization.

Humans are regressing to a "look-at-me" culture.

We are so desperate to be loved - chasing page rank, viewing figures, and "friends" we do not really know - that we are practically begging for others approval.

"It creates a culture of popularity," explains Siegal. "People look to the crowd for approval without getting in touch with their own instincts, without heeding their own conscience."

"People want to be watched, they want to be surveilled. Fame is the new wealth, obscurity is the new poverty. They want all eyes upon them," he adds.

Copycat culture

This dependence on approval is damaging originality.

Imitation is commonplace, a copycat culture where everything starts to look the same. It used to be called plagiarism, now it is celebrated and provides a quick-and-easy fix for our attention-seeking egos.

"I think life changes when a camera is put upon you," says Siegel.

"I don't think that you can have a natural, organic society when people are existing at that level of self-consciousness. They begin to perform for other people.

"They begin to market themselves. Authenticity becomes more and more rare."

Drowning voices

It is not just teenagers making videos. Many of us have carefully-crafted profiles designed to attract others on social networking sites.

Siegel believes our egos are now running riot on the web.

We have started to kick back at anyone who may try to lead us, or try to inform us. We will not be told.

Siegel points to the rise of the blog.

Strong opinions need little research or fact checking, yet the blog has quickly gained influence. He fears this trend will reduce what the truth is to whoever shouts the loudest.

"I think that's very, very dangerous because there are experts. No-one would talk of citizen heart surgeons, for example," he says. "But on the internet they talk of citizen journalists, because it seems that anyone can take up a keyboard and write a story.

"If the only truth is the result of the strongest, most emphatic assertion, what happens to the patient, soft spoken, contemplative people? They'll get drowned out."

Rational review

Lee Siegel knows his book is controversial but only because few people have questioned the net's show-offs and bullies.

"Unlike earlier transformative technologies, like radio and television, the internet has not been subjected to critical examination. It has escaped that.

"I think it's time to look rationally and level headed at this thing and talks about its dark side as well as its virtues," he says.

We asked for your comments, a selection of which are below.

Having spent many years investing in and creating new ways to utilize the benefits of the internet, I find Lee Siegel's observations to be valid. There are some underpinnings of internet culture that definitely take away from society as a whole. Until now no one has questioned the cultural consequences of the actions of those using the internet as a stage for self-centered interests. I hope people in general will hear and heed his observations. I feel Jonathan Zittrain's observations are also valid. Big brother and questions about who really is in control, and what they are in control of, need to be looked at very carefully. If you leave these issues to the average person they will become a train wreck so intervention and careful planning will be required by those in positions to do so. Left un-addressed his concerns will most definitely manifest into a situation that will become more difficult to resolve as time goes on.
Raymond Riddell, Ontario, Canada

Thumbs up or thumbs down? To many, this is all that matters when perpetuating their online delusions of self-importance. YouTube and other websites have become a shouting match with no referee and Lee Seigel accurately points out that the loudest voice will win. Anonymity in the online age is dangerous. Most people are too stupid or ignorant to appropriate their online actions correctly.
John Caldwell, London

Humans are not regressing to a "look-at-me" culture. This perspective is too negative and not realistic. Mr. Seigel needs to turn off his computer and go for a walk outside. He needs to realize that neither he nor anyone else on the internet can define society and culture. What is online is a mere reflection of the greater reality we all live. The real world is what he will find as he walks around and smells the air outside of his office and computer. Hear the dog bark, feel the wind give you chills and see the clouds in the sky. No matter what is said here, online does not encompass all that is real, nor does it even attempt to define it. What is on this computer is a brief and shimmering abstraction of the world outside the front door.
Ike Taylor, New Orleans, USA

It is not just teenagers making videos. Many of us have carefully crafted profiles designed to attract others on social networking sites, not only for a job well done but also as a result of how properly we have presented ourselves on them. The internet is good but it very much depends on how well you use it or just abuse it.
Nana, Ghana

I believe that Lee Siegel has got it all so wrong. He seems to make out that this "look-at-me culture" is an internet-only idea; does he not remember being at school? Almost everyone wants approval from their peers, it's just that the internet gives us a new way of achieving that. I'm not approving what's out there, but in essence it's nothing new. Has he not heard of the saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? People always try to imitate those who they regard highly, otherwise we'd never have a fashion industry or any sort of advertising. Finally his slamming of blogs, stating that "strong opinions need little research or fact checking" sounds more like traditional media to me; most blogs don't position themselves as 'true' news, they are what they are: the writer's own views. People are finding that information checking done by traditional media is just as bad, if not worse than done by bloggers.
Nelson, Oxford, UK

In my own family the agonies of the internet dare not be mentioned, even less discussed, without raising the wrath of my wife - a non computer user. It is not just virus issues. Launching new hardware or software increasingly requires online registration after which the Microsofts, HPs, Epsons, and whoever, bury annoying reminders in the software to check for up-dates and even hold up shutdown loading things one is not informed of. The internet grows less useful by the day following the lead of television. These days my family only seem to laugh about things happening out in space be it in Star Trek, Atlantis, Dr Who, or simply Sky at Night. Alien culture is certainly taking over from any more serious investigation/discussion.
Ray Lloyd, Biddulph

These guys are right. We should have listened more wisely to their ancestors when they warned the world about radio.
Jimmy Jim Jim

What Lee Spiegel touches on is a very serious; the very ease the internet provides in fact leads us to bypass basic inner values. It replaces a corporeal world of effort with a synthetic abstract which seems "rainproof". It beguiles us into believing that it is the system that is important rather than things literally of substance.
Patrick Bullough, London

"[There are] rights to terminate any application that they don't like, for any reason."
"Strong opinions need little research or fact checking, yet the blog has quickly gained influence."
"The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide."

I wholeheartedly agree with what Lee Siegel said in his interview. I think we are in the midst of a "me" culture. A lot of people seem to have lost their "own minds" and, as he pointed out, seem to stuck with mimicking what they think will make them popular. I again think he is correct in saying people should have to give their own names and not use some alias. I see no good reason not to.
John Walters, Barry, Britain

These two interviews with Zittrain and Siegel should be taken very seriously by the public. We never read the small print, we don't know about the rights to the "product", not "the means of production" any more. See Noam Chomsky about this.
Marcos P. Prieto, London

I agree with Lee. I see every day that people simply won't listen to reasoned arguments, nor will they engage in any kind of open dialogue. I'm not even sure about his comment regarding "citizen heart surgeons" - I'm sure that there are many people who would argue they'd do a better job than "any surgeon".
Susan Goldmann, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, USA

IBM, Microsoft, Google, BT and more have all done their fare share of throttling innovation...using fear, uncertainty, and doubt to deter entrepreneurs. Apple isn't intending controlling what applications can be installed on the iPhone. When the iPhone Apps store is up and running the software developer determines the price from free upwards. Apple just takes a cut. Does that really sound like controlling?
Tony Crooks, Eastbourne, UK

The internet seems to have lost its way and has become boring. In a way, it seems to have lost the excitement which - dare I say - in the early part of the decade it was full of. I fear for the internet: ironically we are getting faster speeds, but it all seems to have lost its magic and has become a caricature of itself of the worst possible kind.
Chris Sneesby

Surely Lee Siegel is aware that the "me" generation has been around for at least 20 years? He is not very original! Further, how can he possibly believe the net is stifling creativity - look at all the sites featuring new content (not just copies). For the first time in history, everyone can put out their ideas and thoughts without being filtered by the money machines. It is merely a reflection of humanity that, as always, there are just not enough original people.
John Walton

Lee Siegel's comments hit home, and made me think it doesn't matter how many friends you have on social sites, and it doesn't matter how many people are watching your YouTube video, unless you're in the media profession. He is basically saying: WE ALL NEED GROW UP! and stop becoming addicted to the internet.
Abdul-karim, London

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