Law Review «Previous Next»

Dr. Generative Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPhone

James Grimmelmann, New York Law School
Paul Ohm, University of Colorado at Boulder


In The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain argues that the Internet has succeeded because it is uniquely "generative": individuals can use it in ways its creators never imagined. This Book Review uses the Apple II and the iPhone--the hero and the villain of the story as Zittrain tells it--to show both the strengths and the weaknesses of his argument. Descriptively and normatively, Zittrain has nailed it. Generativity elegantly combines prior theories into a succinct explanation of the technical characteristics that make the Internet what it is, and the book offers a strong argument that preserving generativity is vital for the sake of future innovation and creativity.

Unfortunately, while Zittrain calls for compromises to preserve generativity, he doesn't provide a roadmap for distinguishing good compromises from bad. These tradeoffs, however, are essental. Restricting generativity in one place (for example, by building computers with fixed circuit boards rather than a tangle of reconfigurable wires) can massively enhance generativity overall (by making computers cheap and usable enough that everyone can tinker with their software). We use this observation to offer a series of corollaries to aid policymakers and system designers in optimizing generativity in the real world: Generativity is only one value among many, generativity is never absolute, and generativity is a systemic property, not a local one.

Suggested Citation

69 Maryland Law Review 910 (2010).