On cities and networks

I’m in Boston right now, and bummed that I can’t attend Start-up City: An Entrepreneurial Economy for Middle Class New York, which is happening today at New York Law School today.

I learned about it via Dana Spiegel of NYC Wireless, who will be on a panel titled “Breakout Session III: Infrastructure for the 21st Century—How Fast, Reliable Internet Access Can Boost Business Throughout the Five Boroughs.” In an email Dana wrote, The question for the panel participants is how fast, reliable internet access can boost business throughout NYC.” The mail was to a list. I responded, and since then I’ve been asked if that response might be shared outside the list as well. So I decided to blog it. Here goes:

Fast and reliable infrastructure of any kind is good for business. That it’s debatable for the Internet shows we still don’t understand what the Internet is — or how, compared to what it costs to build and maintain other forms of infrastructure, it’s damned cheap, with economic and social leverage in the extreme.

Here’s a thought exercise for the audience: Imagine no Internet: no data on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Skype.

That’s what we would have if designing the Internet had been left up to phone and cable companies, and not to geeks whose names most people don’t know, and who made something no business or government would ever contemplate: a thing nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve — and for all three reasons supports positive economic externalities beyond calculation.

The only reason we have the carriers in the Net’s picture is that we needed their wires. They got into the Internet service business only because demand for Internet access was huge, and they couldn’t avoid it.

Yet, because we still rely on their wires, and we get billed for their services every month, we think and talk inside their conceptual boxes.

Try this: cities are networks, and networks are cities. Every business, every person, every government agency and employee, every institution, is a node in a network whose value increases as a high multiple of all the opportunities there are for nodes to  connect — and to do anything. This is why the city should care about pure connectivity, and not just about “service” as a grace of phone and cable companies.

Building a network infrastructure as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment should be a top priority for the city. It can’t do that if it’s wearing blinders supplied by Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.

Re-base the questions on the founding protocols of the Net itself, and its city-like possibilities. Not on what we think the carriers can do for us, or what we can do that’s carrier-like.

I came to the realization that networks are cities, and vice versa, via Geoffrey West — first in Jonah Lehrer’s “A Physicist Solves The City,” in the New York Times, and then in West’s TED talk, “The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations.” West is the physicist in Lehrer’s piece. Both are highly recommended.

Bonus link.

7 comments

  1. alan herrell’s avatar

    The Internets impact on almost every facet of the human condition, from expression, entertainment and business,(the notable exception is sleep:)is still being measured.

    Connectivity is becoming a a vital function of society as important as water and sewage, which cities already providing.
    Network equipment is smaller, cheaper, faster, and more reliable and continues to get better.

    Telephone companies are the last folks who should be providing access, as their history has them dragging their feet every step of the way.

    Remember when they proclaimed that the wire would never go faster than 56K? We used to bond two modems together and get 128k. Somebody else demonstrated that you could push 100′s of megabytes across the wire.
    The phone company had to step up. Kicking , Screaming, whining and finally offered ASDL and PPoE, which even today are probably the ugliest transport protocols.

    Those companies that actually have fiber in cities still haven’t lit it up. Here in arizona it has been sitting on the pole in my alley for 6+ years. Both Cable and Phone cos.

    Google’s fiber push, is a great idea, but is just entrenching the telcos like a donkey digging it its heels.

    Internet is a utility. Nothing sexy here, which is the biggest reasons that the telcos/cable folks are against it. Municipalities can handle this, and it is not like they aren’t already getting a fee for every phone line now.
    Seriously, network equipment is plug and play any more.

  2. Jeremy G’s avatar

    “Imagine no Internet: no data plans on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Skype” – It is weird but I think about this alot. The net connects each part of my life, and the amount of communication I do, with friends, family and business contacts through emails, Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype is extreme. A lot of that would not happen without. Great article!

  3. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Doc, I don’t know if the following comment is good from a risk/reward point of view, and I get the sense I’m being geek-stupid in writing it (i..e you know what I’m pointing out, and I’m just showing my naivety), and I also mostly agree with you as a matter of policy – but, that all being said, as somewhat of a follow-up to the previous thread, the argument you make here actually has a deep problem again of putting in some sort of technological abstraction where the economic policy argument (if you don’t like the term “politics”) has to go. It’s right here:

    “Building a network infrastructure as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment should be a top priority for the city. It can’t do that if it’s wearing blinders supplied by Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.

    Re-base the questions on the founding protocols of the Net itself, and its city-like boundless possibilities. Not on what we think the carriers can do for us, or what we can do that’s carrier-like.”

    You’re using “the founding protocols of the Net” as a kind of stand-in for “social values we should favor”, identifying there the technical abstraction with the economic policy (again, I favor that economic policy, and you may know you are doing this so I’m just being tedious in harping on it). The other side has a similar story, how the free market is just like the Internet (Hayek, blah blah blah), so it doesn’t establish anything. Either way, there’s a big centralized organization running a huge choke-point service, which doesn’t strike me as very idealized-Net-like. The argument is over whether that big organization should be government or industry.

    Though I suppose in a world where there’s much flacking of laisse-faire-capitalism-is-like-the-Net, there’s a reason for public-services-are-like-the-Net.

    Anyway, apologies for rambling, I’ve been thinking a lot about Morozov’s book this weekend.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Seth, I’m using “the founding protocols of the Net” not as a stand-in for social values, but in a more literal way. I want those protocols to be recognized for their infrastructural properties, which are easy to ignore, because they are not the kind of hard things we usually think of as infrastructure — and which we have with electricity, gas, water and sewage treatment.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how most or all of us view a market, or a city, or politics, or whatever, astigmatically. Those who see economics through the lens of a Hayek or a Milton Friedman, it’s hard to see through that blur what good there might be in policies that stint the full range of what might come out of policies based on the teachings of those two guys. Likewise, if one looks to policy first in framing up a marketplace, one tends to miss what a market relatively free of regulatory burden might do. Getting a clear view that doesn’t blur in any direction might be impossible, but I do try to get one, and pass it along.

    What I like about the city metaphor is that it respects the generative nature of cities, and all the good and bad (there are both) that come of generativity. Infrastructure at its best is generative; but it is still always political as well. Enlightened policy, I would hope, seeks to maximize benefits for all, over the longest term possible. What we risk, in making policy (which we must), is favoring the well-understood past over the yet-to-be understood future, when the latter might contain far more positive outcomes for people and the institutions they comprise if policy is framed in ways that maximize generativity.

    Today we — the people, their elected representatives, and their regulatory captors — all know know the worlds of the captors, the phone and cable companies, far too well. What I hope with this short piece is to breaks us a little bit free of that old framing.

    By the way, it’s hard to tell “sides” when one of them (the carriers and their captive lawmakers and regulators) talk Hayekian free market jive when in fact they live in a regulatory habitat largely of their own making, and constantly push for new laws that restrict the rights of others to compete with them or to offer superior services. They have done this at the state level so effectively that across about half the country it is now all but illegal for municipalities or nonprofits to create Internet utilities in locations where the monopoly or duopoly “market” has failed.

    Over on the pro-policy side, the problem is a long-standing inability to make the superior economic argument: that a maximally free, open and neutral Internet offers many more economic benefits than what the cablecos and telcos argue for — and push through as policy favoring their incumbent business models, at costs to nearly all others.

  5. Skip Malette’s avatar

    A response to Seth Finkelstein for his sentence, “The argument is over whether that big organization should be government or industry.” Actually there is an unstated possibility that a big organization isn’t necessary and neither the government nor industry need be involved. The founding protocols have a more natural method that requires none of the above. Jim Warren, a former high school math teacher of mine, helped a freshman assembyperson in California in 1993 to pass a bill allowing public access to legislative records across the Internet by inserting a description of the Internet, “the largest nonproprietary, nonprofit cooperative public computer network”, wiping away any objection to the bill. That phrase is pregnant with possibilities.

  6. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Doc, but, when you say “… in a more literal way. I want those protocols to be recognized for their infrastructural properties …”, the problem is that you’re talking about a very simplified and idealized conception. The fact is, there are huge centralized nodes which apply a large amount of traffic-shaping and do extensive caching. This will be true under both public and private implementations (Skip Malette – nobody has figured out a viable way of doing large-scale implementation otherwise – the net-world has scaled-up greatly since 1993).

    Note, I agree with you, the fact that the telecomm side talks Hayek doesn’t mean they walk capitalism as it would be preached. However, my point still stands, they have a story too, about properties of nodes, etc and how this technical protocol means their economic policy is correct.

    Thus, when you say – “the problem is a long-standing inability to make the superior economic argument: that a maximally free …” – right, but what then? If it’s about “framing”, this is where I guess at some level I reach my limit of being able to function in politics.

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