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The Courtship of Jonathan Zittrain

Zittrain_conference Harvard Law School's conference Thursday and Friday was ostensibly about celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Berkman Center for Internet & Society. But as it kicked off Thursday morning, it seemed more like an elaborate Ivy League courtship ritual aimed at luring back its prodigal son Jonathan Zittrain. It wasn't enough that the title of the conference, "The Future of the Internet," also happens to be the title of Zittrain's book, or that he was the lead-off speaker. After the day began with a brief welcome from Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan, IP law Prof. William (Terry) Fisher III took the stage and announced that Harvard had offered Zittrain a tenured position and was hoping to attract him back from Oxford University, where he is chair in Internet governance and regulation. Fisher quickly added that Stanford is also courting Zittrain. "Our task this week," he told the SRO crowd packed into the law school's Ames Courtroom, "is to try to persuade him to stay." With that, Dean Kagan and a bemused-looking Prof. Charles Nesson stood up on stage and urged the audience to join them in chanting, "We want Zittrain! We want Zittrain!"

All this happened just during the welcoming remarks and before anyone even got around to introducing Zittrain's talk. Before that would happen, there would be one more welcome, in which Zittrain would make a cameo appearance. Nesson took to the podium to deliver his welcoming remarks, but as he tried to get his laptop to launch a video on the enormous screen behind him, he was unable to make it work. Still looking bemused as he fumbled with the laptop, he faced the audience and offered a quote he attributed to "my mentor," media great Fred Friendly: "Technology is out to fuck you." Suddenly someone rushed to the podium, laid hands on the laptop, and the video started to play. That someone, it turned out, was Zittrain. The sole purpose of the video, after all that fuss, was to have a Second Life-like avatar named Eon (the name of Nesson's blog) make the introduction of Nesson.

At long last, it was time to introduce Zittrain's talk. Kagan and Fisher appeared to have a brief on-stage exchange about who would make the introduction, with Fisher emerging the victor. He launched into a long and carefully spoken homage that was almost lascivious in its praise for Zittrain. Finally he finished, and as he turned to bring Zittrain on stage, Kagan jumped back up and added a few further words. By this point, I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable, like a third person along on a first date -- one that wasn't necessarily going well. Not that this was a first date. Zittrain co-founded the Berkman Center with Nesson in 1997, was its first executive director and continues as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman visiting professor for entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard.

When Zittrain finally took to the stage, he offered no clue as to whether the arrow of Harvard's tenure offer had pierced his heart. The one certainty about his speech was that he no doubt sold a number of books that day. As a speaker, Zittrain is both thoughtful and entertaining. But by the time he finished his nearly 90-minute presentation, many in the audience were left a bit unsure of just where he saw the future of the Internet heading. At lunch afterward, everyone at my table agreed they would buy the book, if only to help themselves understand his ultimate point. CNET blogger Dan Farber at Outside the Lines has a good synopsis of Zittrain's speech, although even he resorts to quoting the book more than the speech. He did capture this great Zittrain line: "The Internet is a collective hallucination that works as long as we don't stare at it too carefully." Perhaps the same is true of law school courtship rituals.

Further reading: Dave Winer at Scripting News has video of pre-conference schmoozing and of Zittrain's speech.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on May 19, 2008 at 12:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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