Sterile and Generative Systems

The introduction and first chapter of Jonathon Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, deal with questions of the design of the Internet as a sociotechnical system, particularly, as it has transitioned from a largely generative system to a sterile system. For Zittrain, a generative system describes a system which invites contribution, innovation, and involvement from the user, whereas a sterile system limits the role of the user to participate in pre-made processes with limited ability to be meaningfully involved with the process of creating in the application.

In some ways, the generative/sterile dichotomy harkens back to Donald Norman’s complaint about the misuse of the word “affordances” in design communities. In other words, the difference between a sterile system and a generative one has nothing to do with the technical capacities of the machine (i.e. its real affordances), but the perceived affordances, or even the affordances accessible to the user via the interface. Even in these introductory chapters, Zittrain provides a nuanced view of sterile and generative systems which is not entirely biased towards one or the other (although, based on the word choices, sterile and generative, I can guess where he ultimately would prefer to see the Internet go). However, Zittrain does not hesitate to point out that the generative design of the early Internet system, when maintained at nation wide scale, opens up opportunities for “bad code” to spread, identity theft to occur, and the general rise of malicious hacking.

Sterile systems, on the other hand, limit (although not totally stamp out) these pernicious practices. When the user makes less choices with software, they are less likely to engage with a “bad” software. And yet, even within the sterile system in which most of us operate, we are becoming increasingly aware that sterile systems are not utopian playgrounds, entirely safe for data. Zittrain wrote in 2009, so how could he foresee the Cambridge Analytica scandal? And while Facebook’s selling of data may not be entirely connected to its black-boxed sociotechnical practices, the public inability to understand the full implications of such practices certainly is.

In some ways, it seems that the logical end of Zittrain’s argument is a choice. Would you rather engage in a sociotechnical system which is more open for everybody, which simultaneously makes users more susceptible to malware as well as opportunities for innovation? Or, would you rather engage in a system to which innovation is closed off except for specialists, but also provides a different sort of safety against harmful software? It might be nice if even a significant portion of people would be inclined to the former, but I believe most would lean toward the latter.

Works cited:

Donald A. Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.” Interactions 6, no. 3 (May 1999): 38-43.

Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.