Earlier this week, Nilay Patel at the Verge penned a provocative, and provocatively-titled, pronouncement on the state of the Internet. Never one to mince words, he declared it fucked.
I beg to differ from Mr Patel, not to the degree, as a man once said, that nothing is fucked, but I think that, in the words of the rejoinder, the fucking plane has not quite crashed into the fucking mountain.
Certainly it is beyond any doubt that the FCC, the lobbying process, regulation apparatus, and the depredations of globe-spanning corporations are destructive and counter to progress. On those subjects it is superfluous for me to add my opinion, since Patel explains well and in detail many of the problems with those particular concepts and institutions. (I gather, though, that the paid-peering issue is both more common and more complicated than he suggests.)
Where I don’t agree, however, is in how we think about the necessary aspects of the Internet, and in treating it as a utility.
The Internet is, it seems to me, not in utility territory. Utilities are for resources that are essential to the health and livelihood of human beings. Clean water provides hydration, obviously, and is electricity is the most common and efficient form of heat and light — the latter is nice to have when you want to read in the evening, and indispensable in a functioning city for a number of reasons. The disposal of waste from population centers, as well, is fundamental to the health of organized society.
On the other hand, while certainly the Internet is critical for you and me and everyone else reading this, let’s be honest. We live in quite an intense first-world privilege bubble and even within that there is a huge difference in how much people rely on the Internet, and for what. It’s unquestionably massively helpful to millions of people, and contributes to productivity in a thousand different ways. But for that matter, so do petroleum, chemistry, forests, hospitals, and so on. The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.
That said, I don’t want to just play word games here, although that can be fun. In this case, the objection is not exactly germane. My narrow definition excludes such things as schools and police from the “essential.” But obviously those are tremendously important public services that any effective and modern government has a serious interest in providing, funding, or otherwise promoting. So we can fairly include the Internet in that class — a step below utilities, but above, say, restaurants and hardware stores.
So, working on the assumption that the Internet is to the public good, we still have to consider what the upper and lower bounds of its providance ought to be. After all, we expect a police department, but not a personal bodyguard for every citizen (we may have gotten that in a perverse way anyhow through the NSA). We expect libraries, but not branches on every corner. We expect public housing, but not public mansions. There’s a certain logical level of certain shared goods that we can and should reasonably expect — that which provides the most good to the most people at the lowest cost (this last since reducing the burden of the government on its people is a good likewise). Like most triple points, these are a bit difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless we endeavor. So what is the triple point for Internet, or online communications, or however you want to phrase it?
Well, first, what makes the Internet good? It is the ability to exchange information between two points on the globe regardless of their positions. This obsoletion of the physical dimension of distance is tremendous, the primary advantage, and the good from which every other good on the internet has sprung.
The full power of the Internet was, in a way, on show as early as the telegraph. But in another, less ridiculous way, it arrived when there was basic always-on Internet access in every major population center (this point is by no means authoritative or official, just a convenient one to consider).
That was the point when, with a modem and PC or via a library (kindly provided in many of those population centers), most people on Earth might have conceivably connected instantly with any other for the exchange of data.
Now, I don’t want to imply that dialing your 2400 baud modem into a central hub from which you can Omegle a random Belgian man is a human right, or the “floor” for modern Internet access. On the other hand, I don’t think that the ability to stream “House of Cards” in 4K is, either.
There is nothing in the social contract that compels a government to provide for excess (we find ways to provide ourselves, of course). And make no mistake, we are consuming in excess. We disguise our glut of bandwidth by comparing the price per megabit with Norway’s, as if the two countries are otherwise totally comparable and this price difference is all that divides us. We justify our multiplying demands by citing the corporate greed inarguably but largely irrelevantly leveraged against it by Comcast and Time Warner Cable. They’re evil, and they won’t let us have it — therefore our needs must be measured and just!
What should you be guaranteed? I don’t think it is the government’s business to guarantee the bandwidth for, say, a two-way video stream in HD. I think it’s a great thing for everyone to have, and they should promote it and support it, but it’s really superfluous to the core benefits of Internet access. And if it can’t be provided or the cost is too great, as it may be in many places, that falls outside the optimum, far from the triple point of the best for the most at the lowest — and the guarantee should be the optimum. We should not attempt to set as a basic civic right something that can’t be guaranteed. What can we provide everyone in the world, or failing that — as we usually do — everyone in the developed world for nominal price and with penalties if interrupted, a la power and water?
I would say you’re already getting a hundred times that minimum, ten times what you had a couple years ago, and rising fast. I would say you’re not in danger of not being included in the modern world, and I would say that the Internet, far from being fucked, is a riot of access and democratization. It’s one of the least-fucked things in the world.
If what we wanted was to get the bare minimum faster and more efficiently, as we do with water and electricity, demand for bandwidth would not be skyrocketing. You don’t use a hundred times the water as you did in 1995, and because we acknowledged that people generally don’t drink, flush, and bathe in more than however many gallons per day, the infrastructure and cost can reflect that.
With the Internet, we made a different choice, and I hasten to add a logical and rewarding choice: pay the same, for more. $50 bought you this much Internet in 2001, and it buys you thiiiiiis much Internet today. This is a choice we made! A choice to empower ourselves, because we felt our expenditure was about what we were willing to pay for connectivity. We get more for that money every day for many reasons, though of course largesse on telecoms’ accounts isn’t one of those.
Yes, the telecoms are obstructionist, predatory dinosaurs. And they will go the way obstructionist, predatory dinosaurs always go in the end. And we will have our hand in that. But we also have to admit that we have had a hand in creating our own predicament: crying for more like insatiable chicks, but at the same time feeding the companies that provided for us; unsurprisingly, their power grew right alongside ours.
Let’s say people use twenty gallons of water a day. That is what we must provide for the infrastructure of a healthy society. What is the “twenty gallons a day” for Internet connectivity? That is what we must provide in order to do our duty to our fellow men, who will then have the vast majority of the benefits of the Internet in their hands. Any problem we encounter in obtaining more than that is a case of insufficient luxury.
The problems assailing the Internet are specific to it, but not unique to it. Everywhere you look, government regulation is ruled by lobbies, legislation inked by lawyers, laws eyed sidewise by ignorant old men in smoke-filled rooms on their way to re-election fundraisers. But while this “democracy inaction,” to borrow Jon Stewart’s phrase, is troubling the internet in some ways, it has more dire consequences elsewhere; and the scope of the problems we talk about online should be considered in light of that. As long as we’re talking real talk, it looks like pretty much everything is fucked.
But the Internet is marching forward at a steady pace, largely because the companies that make it go have a financial stake in indulging our ever-increasing demand for bandwidth. I have faith that things will turn out all right in the end, though there will be setbacks. But I think we should keep in mind that we are fighting not for our rights, but for the continued increase of an already towering privilege.