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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Believing in net neutrality is like believing in Christmas

Obama has declared again his belief in an open Internet, which is how he appears to interpret the net neutrality debate.
But what does it mean to 'believe' in net neutrality? To agnostic Englishmen, any political expression of belief is worryingly reminiscent of Tony Blair's deism and discussions of good and evil, which doesn't seem appropriate to a technical/economic policy problem.
However, lets unwrap the Christmas present. I believe in the festival - I don't believe in Father Christmas any more, I certainly don't believe in virgin births and sky-gods, but I do believe in the powerful redemptive power of the story of the saviour-child (have you seen Children of Men? Then you see the point).
I also believe in a festival to bring family together, to sing beautiful old songs, to celebrate with food and wine, to give gifts, to provide some charity, to condemn Scrooge. I do worry that its over-commercialized and can be ruined by bad TV, bad turkey as much as bad company.
Net neutrality has gained some of these associations - its not the Messiah, its over-commercialized on both sides, video may threaten its future even while it redefines the medium, but at centre, net neutrality at a minimum (the 'lite' version) expresses the view that there should be some room for freedom of expression alongside more obvious commercial freedoms to over-eat, over-view and over-charge.
Christmas comes but once a year - and net neutrality may be restricted to helping those who otherwise would be without Internet access, making sure your ISP has some kind of open pipe to the Internet if they sell you 'Internet service' - not that you have to buy it. But lets have something to believe - even if its not 'I wish it could be Christmas every day'. In many countries  (frankly those that don't celebrate Christmas so this analogy falls as short as the BandAid single) and on some mobile services, they simply never see an open Internet. In this allegory, its only crumbs off the table...


Tom Vest said...

Brilliant insight, but I don't think that the analogy is as narrow or specific as you imply. Most if not all institutions (the hard as well as soft kind) that survive for any length of time do so in part because people believe that they mean something -- i.e., either they exert real, objective influence, or that they *should* exert such influence. Such beliefs tend be very widespread, if not universal in scope, and tend to persist in the face of all but the most extreme, ubiquitous, and incontrovertible counter-evidence. Good thing too, since it's unclear to me that things like the rule of law, the use of currency, et al., would endure for long without the additional reinforcement provided by such stubborn beliefs. Granted, there's always a risk that some highly maladaptive belief will be elevated through such mechanisms, but under normal circumstances the naturally occurring uniform rate of naysayers, skeptics, and curmudgeons seems to be sufficient to keep the incidence and impact of "bad beliefs" at manageable levels.

Another point of symmetry may be found in the mechanism/timing and circumstances under which such beliefs percolate up to the level of active (self)consciousness. The idea here is the same captured by the old adage, which I may be mangling, that fish never believe in the existence of water so much as at the moment when they are removed from it. One could make a case that the emergence of "moral philosophy"/economics as a distinct field of inquiry at precisely the moment when the spread of mercantilism was threatening to eliminate the presumptive benefits of (and any empirical foundation for) such inquiries is another example. I'm no expert on Christmas, but what little I've read about the more modern phenomena you cite suggests that the remembrance of good things lost -- some imagined, but undoubtedly some real -- played an important role in determining the timing, geographic origin, and shape of the modern holiday practices.

Maybe at some level the Internet has always benefited from the parallel existence of a sort of "imagined community" of individuals with shared beliefs about the benefits and the material fact of e2e, etc. But recognizing it as "imagined" in this specific sense doesn't make it any less effective, legitimate, beneficial, or "adaptive" as a driver and shaper of future Internet evolution.

chris said...

Politics is an arena o contested beliefs, and given the variability of predictions about edge v. centred innovation, that is rightly as true in this debate as elsewhere. I wonder if you are right, that the Enlightenment forced a new reordering of beliefs, particularly with the end (in most of the civilized world) of Creationism an the rise of Nietzsche's superman? In particular, the Ayn Rand v. Info-communism strands of net-powered philosophy may reflect that dialogue?

Tom Vest said...

I would say rather "an arena of contending believers," but basically we are on the same page.

Re: broader, less tactically-informed views on the correlates of major shifts in intellectual history, I'm certainly no expert -- but I did have the miraculous good fortune of studying under two giants in the field, both of whom offered up very persuasive answers to exactly these sorts of questions (see links below).

Re: deeper roots nurturing the most recent & ongoing net-neut/core v. edge/my pipes v. peer production et al. grudge matches: there's no question (in my mind at least) that the Internet has always inspired a fair amount of "exceptionalist" thinking -- especially in the early days -- and that this effect continues to influence (e.g., through self-selection bias) the distribution of economic-political philosophies among those who have pursued successful (hence lengthy) Internet-related careers. I have smacked my head against such views on multiple occasions, e.g., when pointing out that the earliest signs of the Internet's explosive growth potential seem to be suspiciously correlated in time/place with the moment when new *positive* regulations were introduced in the US, regulations that rescinded AT&T's "liberty" to refuse to sell private line services to third parties on the grounds that they might be used as a component of a different, non-AT&T commercial product or service offering. I have used such historical observations, e.g., in an attempt to suggest why the brilliant, tireless, visionary entrepreneurs in *one particular place/time* managed to achieve so much, whereas the brilliant, tireless, visionary entrepreneurs that we must assume existed in many other places at the same time (as well as before, and after, and today) did not. But even that line of reasoning seems to be regarded as heretical (if not treasonous) among some of my more committed libertarian-spectrum colleagues.

Of course that exceptionalism sometimes runs in the opposite directions too... (see third link for more on that).