Quite a while ago, I promised a second part to my critique of the analogy of Internet with Superhighways. As usual, sloth, and other pressing emergencies made it fade into the background. But with the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) ruling on Net Neutrality still fresh and shiny, this seems like the moment to make good on that promise.
Before Internet of Things – Internet of Ideas
The phenomenon known as Internet of Things – where intelligent, connected objects communicate and take decisions without human intervention – could not exist if we didn’t already have an internet where the majority of communication remains textual (like this blog, for instance). We tend to prefer familiar models, and the model of written communication is one that is deeply embedded in Western cultures.
But the Internet is also a natural transmedia vector, and we already see stories being told by parallel text, video, audio, fixed image, and other kinds of content, on multiple screens. To get the whole story, you have to engage with all the different media that are used to tell it, and none of them has the complete lowdown. We use very different perceptual equipment to understand each of these media, and they happen simultaneously. This is so far away from any kind of superhighway analogy – we are, in fact, in the realm of parallel universes!
The transliteracy skills needed to decode and assimilate a transmedia communication require multi sensory perception, time shifting, and parallel processing.
The content of much of this material is also abstract: literary, philosophical, humorous, narrative, or theoretical, just to name a few examples. It’s the product of human thought.
The Internet, first and foremost, is a network with a culture of freedom of expression, of thought, of ideas. That’s why we don’t want – or need – a license to “drive” on the Internet.
We accept that speed limits are necessary on highways, for safety, but the recent FCC ruling, and similar policies coming in the Europe Digital Agenda are showing that speed limits and the like are not acceptable for communication.
Neutrality – Not Just Speed, Content
In my previous post, I mentioned that there were no speed limits on the Internet beyond total capacity. Proposals by some Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) wanted to change that. If we follow the superhighway analogy, what the ISP’s were saying is, “We’ll pay higher tolls for our trucks, and they will have their own speed limits, much higher than the cars have.” It also meant that a container load of bicycles could travel the same distance on the same highway at a much higher speed than the two or three bicycles mounted on your private automobile.
There are two ways to look at this. The first view is that some companies (Netflix is often mentioned in this context) hog so much bandwidth that they ought to be paying a premium for using it. The second, more realistic view, is that we, the users of the Internet, will have easier access to the content provided by large corporate conglomerates, while content provided by smaller groups and individual users will be available only at reduced speeds.
We do not need a license to connect, to communicate, to think, or to express ourselves. We don’t even need a license to shop 😉
But maybe the ISP’s of the world do need a license to provide the open channels we use. Because, like the limited spectrum of radio frequencies, the infrastructure that we call the Internet is a public good, and needs to be available to all the public – like clean air, potable water, shelter, food, etc. Indeed, Finland has already passed a law making Internet access a right of all citizens!
The recent FCC ruling tells the ISP’s that they are stewards of a common good, and that they are “common carriers.” This is as it should be. We had a similar debate, back in the 80’s, when CompuServe claimed copyright ownership of all the content that was placed on their forums, by customers who PAID for the privilege of creating the added value of those forums!
Facebook attempted the same thing more recently, and was shot down.
It is, of course, ludicrous to claim that anyone can “own” ideas that are freely expressed in a forum which, for all intents and purposes, is public – even if it is owned by a private company. And with the propensity of ideas to spread virally around Internet space, it would be impossible to try.
In the end, Internet is NOTHING like a superhighway (sorry, Al). A highway is essentially point-to-point, more like the original voice telephony system. You might have a lot of different circuits that can be established to create a point-to-point connection, but we get on at one end, and get off at another.
The Internet is a field, a matrix, where connectionless interactions happen in nanoseconds, not point-to-point, but field to field, group to group, one to many, many to one, many to many and any other variation you might be able to think of. It is a meta-playing-field of transmedia actions and exchanges, where routing is the least important aspect of what we do (unless you happen to be a network technician). At its best, it is the plasma of human creativity.