Wired for relaxation

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Wth his scruffy beard, geekishly fashionable black-rimmed glasses and rolled-sleeve blazer, Jonathan Zittrain is the embodiment of an academic nerd with a cool streak.

It’s a label that Zittrain – a Harvard professor who teaches at the university’s law and public policy schools, as well as in the computer department of the engineering school – wears well. “They say there are two types in academia: foxes and hedgehogs,” he says. “Hedgehogs stereotypically take one thing and do it really, really well; foxes run from here to there and do a bunch of different stuff. I guess I am more of a fox.”

A busy fox at that. Zittrain is a former clerk on the US Court of Appeals, has taught at Oxford University, and the law schools at NYU and Stanford, and was last year elected to the Internet Society’s Board of Trustees. But he is perhaps best known for his book The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It, a readable treatise about how, with the unsuspecting help of users, the internet is at risk of losing its collaborative quality.

Zittrain believes that new technologies such as iPhones and Xboxes represent the first wave of web-based “tethered appliances”: products that can’t be easily modified except by companies that manufacture them. He worries that, as these products and applications eclipse the personal computer, the generative process that makes the web so great in the first place will be obliterated.

Zittrain, who is 40, admits he’s often eager to escape – even just for a little while – the technological world he is helping to create. He retreats to his 2,000 square foot home in Porter Square, a leafy enclave of Cambridge, not too far from Harvard. The neighbourhood consists of grand family homes, converted condominiums and apartment buildings. Its high street is a blend of practical shops, hipster boutiques and ethnic restaurants.

He bought his house here in 2001. It is an unusual home: the original frame was built in New Hampshire in 1820 as a stout little farmhouse, and then transported to Massachusetts in 1870 (“Don’t ask me how it was moved,” he says, chuckling), and the second part of the house was built by the previous owners in the 1970s. The addition stands at a right angle to the original foundation, and has an open, airy atmosphere.

“What I love is that you don’t have to decide between quaint and open,” Zittrain says. “With this house, you get the best of both. Much of my work is studying the internet and its capacity to surprise: each site or application can be contributed to by someone new or unusual,” he explains. “In a modest way, this house also has surprises. It can suit a number of moods.”

The older part of the homestead is a classic two-up, two-down cottage that has a cosy, William Morris feel. There is a simple galley kitchen, its walls painted a deep heron blue. The house also boasts an elegantly furnished dining room. A study contains a sturdy soft chair and an old fireplace that now runs on gas: with its floral wallpaper and built-in bookshelves jammed with books, it could be the setting for a scene from an Edith Wharton novel. This is what Zittrain calls his “Torts [law] exam-grading room”. It is, he says, “a good place to be on a cold winter day”.

The house appears surprisingly void of gadgetry. Every room is wired to play music from Zittrain’s iPhone but he purposely doesn’t buy into what he calls “in-your-face” technology. “In a way, it’s nice to get away from everything tech on a regular basis,” he says.

Across from the study lies a vast modern living room, painted the colour of butternut squash. Apart from a beige sofa and an obligatory flat-screen television, its furnishings are colourfully eclectic. A six-foot-high wooden statue of a cactus sits in one corner; behind it is stashed a guitar for the video game Guitar Hero. At one end of the room is a Thai “spirit house” that resembles an antique birdcage; at the other, an arching silver lamp that looks like a relic from the set of A Clockwork Orange.

“I do have some geeky tendencies,” Zittrain admits, pointing to a lovely wooden set of drawers that once held architects’ blueprints, but which now stows his Intellevision console and games. (Intellivision was a competitor of Atari, the video game-maker, and had its heyday during the early 1980s.)

What dominates the room, however, is an enormous painting by Rodger Roundy, a friend of Zittrain’s from Yale. The canvas shows bright-green cartoon alligators at a nightclub: suited gators celebrating a birthday, a luscious gator crooning to the audience, a haggard team of kitchen gators cooking a chicken in a brick oven, gators squabbling, gators laughing, gators living the high life.

The scene is at once gaudy and compelling. “I think it has an Escher-like quality,” Zittrain says. “The more you look at it, the more you see. I still find things in it that I had never noticed before.”

In a peculiar way, it reminds him of his childhood in suburban Pittsburgh. Zittrain, who has a sister and brother, grew up the youngest child of two attorneys, in a modest three-bedroom home. “But it was chock-full of stuff,” he recalls. “It had a fractal spirit. The more you looked, the more stuff there was to find: some cabinet to open, some drawer to look through. My mom was a pack-rat, my dad was a neat-nick, so they were the odd couple in that way.”

His house in Porter Square is not Zittrain’s only foray into the world of home ownership but it is his only successful one. Five years ago, when he held the chair in internet governance and regulation at Oxford, he put an offer on a modest bungalow near Oriel College’s playing fields. “Most houses there are row houses, so when I found this charming little cottage off an unlabelled dirt road in the middle of the city that was for sale, I was totally taken with it,” he recalls.

Zittrain offered the full price – somewhere in the vicinity of £300,000 – but bizarrely, was turned down. “The estate agent came back to me and said I was an unsuitable bidder,” he muses. “I didn’t take it personally, and she was as confused as I was. I didn’t know if it was because Iwas American, or because I was affiliated with the university, but it was a rather unusual situation.”

Despite the fact that the Oxford house purchase never came off, Zittrain says he left the UK with a greater understanding of the English approach to home design. “In England there’s this sense that American houses and furniture have a Brobdingnagian quality,” he says, referring to the land of the giants in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. “I learned to live in a space that isn’t too large. I learned to appreciate discrete spaces that are comfortable.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.