Some ideas derived from the Z-theory seminar

I’ve already posted a live blog of the Z-theory lecture given by John Palfrey last week.  In that post, I tried really hard to capture John’s lecture and the comments that came from the floor during the course of it.  The ideas that make up Z-theory are really compelling, indeed to the point of being quite invasive – I have been unable to get it out of my head for the past couple of days and have been trying to figure it out a bit more.  As a result I wanted to post some of my own thoughts.  I should stress that I haven’t had a chance to look at Jonathan Zittrain’s articles on the subject yet (although I do intend to do so when I get the time; probably when the SDP is finished).  This is very much a response based on my interpretation (or misinterpretation) of John’s seminar, and thus might deal with issues that have already been addressed elsewhere.

There are a couple of points I would like to raise.  Firstly, I want to consider whether generativity is an absolute or subjective concept, and whether different forms of generativity stand in opposition to each other.  Secondly, I wanted to think about the issue of conflict between the two prescriptive principles (principles three and four) that make up Z-theory, and how they might be resolved. 

A problem I think a lot of people had with the generativity concept, as John originally expressed it (by linking it with .exe files), was that it seemed to relate to very few computer users.  We did a quick survey around the room, which, let’s face it, is probably as likely as most places on earth to be crammed with members of the digital elite, and less than ten per cent of us had ever written a .exe file.  At the time, this seemed to represent quite a bit of a problem – it seemed like we were talking about a theory that was wholly constructed around a very few computer users. 

We got around this problem by starting to think about different definitions of generativity, and especially “creative generativity” (i.e. blogging) and “information generativity” (wikipedia).  At the time of the discussion, this actually seemed to me to be a fairly satisfactory outcome to the difficulty, not least because it seemed likely that far more people engage in these activities than have in the creation of .exe files (although I concede at what point an elite activity becomes a mainstream activity is wholly subjective – blogging might be a more popular activity than programming, but still isn’t a majority activity). 

However, it has subsequently occurred to me that there might be a huge problem with this broadened definition of generativity.  Actually, I say “subsequently occurred to me”… when I really have to thank a conversation with Tanya for organising this argument. 

Let’s think about two blogging platforms that both seemingly offer creative generativity – the original wordpress tool and hosted wordpress.  The original wordpress tool gives the user tremendous (almost absolute) power to control their blog and its design.  Furthermore, as an OSS piece of software, it gives its user’s control of its source code too.  It is probably pretty fair to say that the user’s skill and imagination offer the only sizable limitations on what they can do.     

Although hosted wordpress offers a load of options to its users when they create their blog, in contrast to its OSS cousin, it is undoubtedly a limiting piece of software – there are only so many presentation options you can cycle through.  OK, there are hundred, maybe thousands of combinations, but it is essentially a locked down system.  Take the example of the master templates.  There are a limited number of them to choose from (I was using it today, and I think there are possibly about twenty-five).  If you don’t like any of the options, you cannot create your own (as you could in OSS WordPress), but instead you have to wait for the webmangers to upload new ones.  This would seem to be a simple question, then.  If, generativity is good, OSS wordpress is good, hosted wordpress is bad. 

However, I think that is too simplistic a statement.  Any assessment of whether something is “generativity good” or “generativity bad” requires a more dynamic calculation of loss and benefit.  If we accept the notion of “creative generativity”, that equitation becomes even more complex, as the potential for greater “creative generativity” may, in certain circumstances, be inversely proportional to the potential for “programmable generativity”.  I envisage this conflict will become even more common as drag and drop-type packages (for example Windows Video Editor) become more ubiquitous, and enable far more people to act in a creative generative way and do things they have never done before, but, simultaneously, limit the options available to them heavily.  

If it seems possible that different versions of generativity can conflict with each other, we are then faced with far more difficult choices when dealing with the third proposition – crucially, the simple statement that generativity is good becomes insufficient.  

I want to move onto the second issue that has being running around my head – the question of primacy amongst the principles which make up Z-theory and in particular how a conflict between the third (generativity) and forth (wisdom of the crowd) principle would be resolved.

There are, as far as I can think of, three possible solutions to a hypothetical conflict between the third and forth principles.  Firstly, it could be claimed that the third and forth principles are intrinsically compatible with each other and that any hypothetical conflict could not become a reality.  Secondly, the principles could be structured in such a way that one of the two principles enjoys lexical primacy over the other – that is, the prime principle must be fulfilled to the absolute maximum degree possible before the secondary principle is even considered.  And thirdly, that any conflict between the two will be resolved through some kind of dialectic mechanism.

In order to consider the first solution, I think we need to track back to one of the original justifications for Z-theory.  It has been argued that the Internet is inherently unpredictable, and that there is no way we can envisage the social and communicative structures it will give rise to in the future.  As evidence of this; could anyone have predicted the development of wikipedia or ebay fifteen years ago?  It thus follows, it is claimed, that those thinking about the regulation and organisation of computing and the Internet, rather than trying to regulate the world we have at the moment (or for that matter, the world we imagine we have in the future), should instead seek to avoid any regulations or lock-downs that hamper any unexpected development.  In this sense, the generativity argument is almost Rawlsian, being conceived behind what we could term a veil of ignorance.  The propositions do not derive their rationality from the world, Internet and applications of computing that currently exist, but rather from the contribution they will make to the creation of a future world; but a future world of which those creating the principles have little or no knowledge.  However, it is the aim of creating that unknown world which makes the generativity principle rational, none the less. 

If we can think of the generativity principle in these terms and agree that it is something that would be agreed by rational actors, then we might arrive at a resolution to any conflict between principles three and four.  As long as we believe, firstly, that generativity is rational (for the reasons outlined above), and, secondly, that the crowd is comprised of rational actors, then it might be argued that there is no possibility of there ever being a clash.  Such an argument is in many ways problematic, not least because it relies on the assumption that human beings are rational actors.  But, if accepted, it also has huge implications – essentially it destroys the distinction between the third and the fourth principles of Z-theory; they become manifestations of the same idea, derived from the same source.

If we accept it is possible that the crowd might act in a matter divergent to the generativity principle, then we have to look for an alternative solution.  One possible method for solving any conflict between the third and fourth principle is the assertion of lexical primacy, which I shall define as a process where one of the principles is satisfied to the absolute maximum degree possible before any attempt it made to satisfy the other principle in the slightest.  Obviously, there would be two ways of structuring such a solution – assigning lexical primacy to principle three or assigning lexical primacy to principle four.

Lets start with the first approach.  Essentially, it requires us to claim that generativity is the most important concept, and if at any point the will of the crowd contravenes it, the crowd’s power will be restrained.  I find this solution deeply problematic.  For starters, as I have already outlined above, I not wholly convinced that “generativity” could be defined as an absolute concept.  As a result, it might not always be abundantly clear whether the crowd’s preferences endorse or confound generativity (or indeed, simultaneously do both).  A second major difficulty with this approach is that it is necessarily elite driven.  As our quick survey around the class showed, very few people programme files, even amongst our group of disproportionately able, computer-aware people.  Yet, by assigning lexical primacy to principle three, we are saying that the absolute maximum level of generativity must always be created, regardless of the wishes of the population as a whole in the crowd (I would add, for the purposes of this scenario, I am assuming the crowd represent the population and is not constituted of an elite; that is another, also problematic, question).  This is a scenario that, certainly on some occasions, has the potential to benefit a very small proportion of the population, whilst restraining the will of many more. 

Giving lexical primacy to the fourth principle over the third is even more problematic.  Indeed, it rather ruins the purpose of the whole theory, because it becomes very hard to see where generativity fits into the crowd’s deliberations at all.  If the word of the people is the word of god, then more complex principles, no matter how compelling or how attractive, are no more than ideas floating around in the ether, which the crowd is at liberty to adopt or ignore if it wishes to.  But that reduces generativity to the level of being just “another argument for something that is good” (unless that is, we hark back to the first argument, and believe that the generativity is not just a good argument, but a uniquely rational solution; but that also takes us back to the problems with that first argument).

When I was in the lecture, I assumed that lexical primacy would be necessary in order to make the theory work.  After some consideration though, I now think quite the reverse.  The notion of lexical primacy seems like a busted flush; whichever way we were to go, we end up creating huge problems for ourselves and an unworkable mechanism.

This leaves us with a third and final solution to a conflict between principle three and four – some kind of dialectic arrangement which balance the principle of generativity with the concerns and wishes of the crowd.  In many ways, I think this fits with some of the things that Ken Cukier said after John’s lecture; that we shouldn’t think of this as being a binary choice between generativity and sealed boxes, but instead a spectrum of arrangements, all of which can co-exist. 

On the face of it, this is probably the most attractive solution we have.  And, if one thinks about (and takes at face value) the lecture given by Zaid Hamzah, which I blogged on here, and in particular his argument that there was a growing détente between Microsoft and the Open Source Community, then maybe we can actually see some of these dialectic processes at work.  However, despite this optimism, there are still a lot of questions.  How might this dialectic arrangement be managed?  Indeed, should it be managed – or does a market offer the best solution?  Would a market mechanism inevitably lead to the neglect of the wishes of some members of the population, whose desires are out of step with the vast majority?  Furthermore, will the legal and political advantages enjoyed by big corporate players constitute an element (and arguably a distorting element) of the dialectic?  Would this necessitate some kind of government intervention to level the playing the field?

Generativity is a compelling and very attractive theory.  As well as giving a compelling answer, I think it’s greatest strength is that it offers a powerful framework for asking many further questions about what exactly we desire in Internet and ICT development.

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19 Responses to “Some ideas derived from the Z-theory seminar”

  1. Jonathan Zittrain Says:

    Wow; thanks for your thoughtful post.

    My own reax:

    On 1/, yes, I think generativity has several “axes” to it, and they are somewhat independent of one another. The WordPress hypo you give is a good example — the hosted version is easier to use, opening WordPress to a larger audience for creative contribution, and the fact that people can also tinker with the code for a non-hosted version means that improvements can be made to the way it works, and perhaps eventually find their way to a hosted configuration.

    On 2/, I’ll have to think more about the Rawlsian connection. Very intriguing!

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