For several years now I’ve been participating with Pew Internet in research on the Internet and its future — mostly by providing my thinking on various matters. The latest round is the Future of the Internet Survey VI, for which I answered many questions. The latest of those to make print is in The Gurus Speak, by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie. Here is what I said:
“John Perry Barlow once said, ‘I didn’t start hearing about “content” until the container business felt threatened.’ I’m with him on that. ‘Content” is the wrong focus here. It’s just business jive for stuff that floats subscription and advertising revenue online. Sharing knowledge matters much more. The most serious threat to sharing knowledge—and doing the rest of what the Internet is good for—is a conceptual one: thinking of the Internet as a service we get from phone and cable companies. Or worse, as a way to move ‘content’ around.
And if we think the Net is just another ‘medium,’ we’re missing its real value as a simple and cost-free way to connect everybody and everything. This is what we meant in The Cluetrain Manifesto when we said ‘markets are conversations.’ Conversations are also not media. They are the main way humans connect with each other and share knowledge. The Internet extends that ability to a degree without precedent in human history. There is no telling how profound a change—hopefully for the better—this will brings to our species and the world we live in.
What steps are necessary to block changes that would limit people’s optimal future capabilities in using the Internet? We need to understand the Internet as what it really is: a way to connect anyone and anything to anyone and anything else, with little if any regard for the means between the ends.
What Paul Baran described as a ‘distributed’ network in 1964, and he and other geeks built out, is a heterarchy, not a hierarchy. It was not designed for billing, or for managing scarcities. Instead it was designed to connect anything to anything, and to put all the smarts in the nodes of the network, rather than in intermediaries. Its design obeys protocols, which are manners among machines and software. Those manners are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them. (Linux and other free and open software code bases are also like that, which is why they provide ideal building material for the Net and what runs on it.)
But intermediaries called ISPs—mostly phone and cable companies—bill us for access to the Net, and those monthly bills define the Net for us in the absence of a more compelling definition. For providing that definition, geeks have done an awful job. So have academics and regulators.
Nobody has yet made clear that the Internet is a rising tide that lifts all boats, producing many trillions of dollars in positive economic externalities—and that it can do so because it has no interest in making money for its owner.
The Net didn’t grow over the dead bodies of phone and cable companies, but over their live ones. Those companies are just lucky that the Net used their pipes. But they have also been very smart about protecting their old businesses while turning their new one—Internet access—into something they can bill in the manner of their old businesses. Hence ‘plans’ for monthly chunks of mobile data for which the first cost is approximately zero. (Operating costs are real. Ones and zeros are way different, and in many—perhaps most—cases have no real first costs.)
In the U.S., cable and phone companies are also lobbying hard at the federal, state and local levels to push through laws that prevent citizens from using local governments and other entities (e.g. local nonprofits and utilities) to offer what carriers can’t or won’t: fully capable Internet service. These laws are sold to legislators as ways to keep government from competing with business, but in fact only protect incumbent monopolies.
What the carriers actually want—badly—is to move television to the Net, and to define the Net in TV terms: as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable. For this they’ll run two-sided markets: on the supply side doing deals with “content providers” such as Hollywood and big publishers, and on the demand side by intermediating the sale of that content.
This by far is the most serious threat to sharing information on the Net, because it undermines and sidelines the Net’s heterogeneous and distributed system for supporting everybody and everything, and biases the whole thing to favor a few vertically-integrated ‘content’ industries.
The good news is that there are a few exceptions to the rule of cable/telephony duopoly, such as Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Wilson, NC, which are attracting businesses and citizens old and new to the shores of the real Internet: the one with virtually unlimited speeds in all directions, and few if any restrictions on what anybody can do with the bandwidth. There we will see the Internet’s tide lift all boats, and not just those of telephony and television.
The end state we will reach is what Bob Frankston calls ‘ambient connectivity.’ We might have to wait until after 2025, but we will get it.”
Elsewhere in the same report, Bob said,
“Today’s online ‘access’ is hobbled by a funding model based on an owner taking a vig and denying us the ability to communicate unless we pay a carrier. We must get rid of the concept of telecommunications and understand that the Internet is a fundamentally different paradigm. See more on my opinion at http://rmf.vc/IEEERefactoringCE.”
What’s especially important about Bob’s work is that he refuses to frame the Internet in terms of the container shipping business that remains the prevailing paradigmatic frame we use today, but instead thinks and works outward from individual agency.
Simply put, we need to think outside the pipes if we can begin to see the Net as anything more than next-gen telephony and television.
- David P. Reed on structural separation — one way to reify the ur-paradigm that Reed himself and others used to embody the Net that seems to have been taken over by the phone and cable companies, and their vertically-integrated “content” sources.
- Jonathan Zittrain‘s The Future of the Internet — and how to stop it.
- Susan Crawford‘s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age
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