Making the case for chaos

The untamed nature of the internet is exactly what makes it so versatile

Noam Chomsky's concept of the "generative grammar" - the groundbreaking theory that has ensured his tenure at MIT for more than 50 years despite his dissident political views - is defined as a finite set of rules that combine to generate all the infinite possible sentences of any given language.

When the cyberlaw expert Jonathan Zittrain published his paper "The Generative Internet" in the Harvard Law Review in 2006, he unknowingly borrowed Chomsky's terminology. Zittrain's "finite set of rules" is the general-purpose, programmable PC connected to a dumb, "neutral" network. Combined, and in concert with the wit and imagination of the world's population, they can generate a system as rich, as flexible and as surprising as any human language.

The destruction and rebirth of the music industry, the total reinvention of the news media, the rapid adoption of free international telephony in the wake of Skype - all this is down to the generative internet. And that is because the general-purpose PC, connected to a neutral net is - like language - a tool that belongs to the masses. The best online innovations have come not from well-funded megacorps, but from the edges of global society, from Iraqi bloggers, American teenagers and Estonian twentysomethings. These people did not need to ask permission to experiment with new ideas - they just wrote code and ran it.

But in his new book, The Future of the Internet: and How to Stop It (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press), Zittrain warns that the generative internet is under threat. Spam, viruses, malware, are all turning people away from the humble PC towards flashier, safer options such as TiVos, iPhones and Xboxes. Much like the "walled garden" of the earlier AOL and Compuserve networks or the old Brother word processor, these systems are the property of one corporation.

Walled-garden networks and what the book calls "tethered appliances", such as the TiVo, are all very well - as Zittrain points out, "you don't get a lot of spam on Facebook unless your friends are jerks". But if the whole world turns its back on generativity, the rapid innovation to which we've become accustomed online will quickly slow to a crawl. And, worse, the very widely distributed points of control that have so far kept at bay the more intrusive aspects of new technology - mass invasion of privacy and censorship at the push of a button - will gradually consolidate.

We could turn our backs on the generative internet if we are sick of spam and viruses. But that would be as ludicrous as restricting our use of language to a stocklist of permissible sentences in order to rid ourselves of nonsense and offence. Even George Orwell's vision of Newspeak didn't go that far. So, by all means, enjoy your iPhone, tape TV shows on your TiVo, and keep updating your Facebook profile. But don't switch off your laptop just yet.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically