The best way to attempt to understand today is to learn about yesterday.
Cycles are true and present in many aspects of our world.
Technology is not immune to the cycle.
The Internet is our official communications pathway.
It is a river connecting two major cities. It is the sky in which thousands of airplanes fly every day. It is the circulatory system of the world. It is the technology version of the air that carries the words from my mouth to your ear. Some say it began with President Eisenhower and a fear-driven response to Russia’s launch of Sputnik, but the creation of ARPANET was initially a challenge to connect four computers all speaking different languages. Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf met the challenge by developing the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that ensures reliable communications through an open system architecture. Much of the early success of the Internet can be attributed to the open nature of the system and the ability to jump onto a platform and play with it.
People could explore, innovate and collaborate.
Net neutrality continues to maintain its position within the cross hairs of public opinion, philosophy, politics, technology, innovation and economics. At its core, it presents a new version of the classic tale between open systems and closed systems and the cyclical nature of information economies. The concept of net neutrality dates back to the 16th century idea of a common carrier, which is a private entity providing a public good. The general idea behind net neutrality is that all content on the Internet should be treated equally.
Quick background on the Internet …
Today’s argument surrounds ISPs, content providers, and us …
Cash (on-hand) is king. When companies like Comcast see Apple with $256 billion dollars of cash-on-hand, they think a little deeper about how their infrastructure investment is building cash coffers for other companies. Now they want to collect money from the companies delivering the content by offering prioritized lanes of traffic for companies that are willing to pay for it. Comcast has already done a version of this by throttling Netflix traffic back in 2014, which was finally resolved by Netflix paying for a peering service.
2. Network Management
The root of every network relies on the principle of the owner’s ability to manage the network as they see fit. The management philosophy can be driven by many targets like quality of service or profit. Either way, the provider has invested in the infrastructure, and, like any other business, will manage their assets in alignment with their business philosophy. These are business decisions that should be accountable to free market economics. However, some ISPs use network management to mask network manipulation.
3. Service Providers
These are the companies that provide Internet service, like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, DirectTV, and Time Warner Cable. These companies invested in the infrastructure to connect their customers to the Internet. Without this access, many of us would have trouble doing our jobs. The service providers are charging for the ability to connect to the Internet, where we can (mostly) freely navigate, conduct research, stay in touch with friends, communicate for our businesses, post content and consume content.
4. Information Providers
These are companies that provide access to information over the Internet, like Apple, Netflix, Amazon and Google. These companies count on a reliable connection to their customers through the service providers. Could service providers exist without information providers? If we had an Internet without information or content, would anyone care?
What does this complicated jargon actually mean?
Consider the following example …
FedEx is the service provider.
Amazon is the information provider.
I am the customer.
I order something from Amazon with FedEx 2-day priority shipping.
A significant portion of FedEx’s business is delivering packages for Amazon, for which FedEx earns a fee paid by me. FedEx sees that Amazon is making a ton of money on the back of FedEx infrastructure and services. FedEx tells Amazon that since their business is a large drain on their infrastructure, unless they pay addition fees, FedEx will slow down deliveries for Amazon. But again, would FedEx be as significant if there wasn’t a need to transport stuff across the country? Does Amazon make FedEx more valuable?
In this example, FedEx would be creating a pay to play scenario with Amazon.
Free market mechanisms could potentially correct this hypothetical situation. While the options are limited, Amazon could consider USPS, DHL and other regional carriers. In a more aggressive play, Amazon could build or buy a logistics company with their $22 BILLION DOLLARS of cash on hand.
In the case of residential Internet access, the availability of multiple providers can be limited in many areas. Without competition, the free market correction would not be possible. If net neutrality goes away, the ISPs become the gatekeeper to information and begin to sell the truth to the highest bidder.
On access to information …
You take your son to the library to get a book, however this library looks a little different. There are guards posted at the doors meticulously directing the flow of curious minds to the limited supply of printed words. As you walk in, you find yourselves politely escorted to a holding cell where you are asked about the purpose of your visit. Your son responds emphatically with his mission to acquire a book on ninjas . Unfortunately, the publisher of all ninja books has decided not to invest in prioritized librarian services.
You have two options. You can upgrade your library card with the ninja books package, or you can fall into the purgatory of uncertain delivery. After an hour, your son gets restless and you decide to pick up another more available book.
In this case, the delivery system is controlling the content you are seeking.
Wired Magazine’s Ryan Singel on losing net neutrality …
If Congress allows Pai’s (FCC Chairman) plan to pass, all that will be left of FCC oversight of broadband providers is a weak disclosure requirement: If Verizon, for example, wants to block content, charge sites to be viewable on its network, or create paid fast lanes, the company will simply have to tell its subscribers in their contract’s fine print. (Broadband providers won’t have to disclose, and the FCC won’t have control over, the sneakier ways they’ve found to mess with the internet.) Wired Magazine – Ryan Singel FCC Wants to Kill Net Neutrality.
There is a larger discussion at hand.
Technology and innovation have fluctuated between open and closed states for more than the last century. Innovation driven by curiosity can rapidly transform into an insatiable desire to control all things in the name of profit.
I recently completed one of the best self-directed studies on technology, innovation and the cyclical nature of information empires. My professor was the guy that actually coined the term net neutrality. I never attended a class. I didn’t have a schedule filled with homework or any giant lists of words to memorize. I was not required to submit to an exam that validated my knowledge with a numerical score.
I bought a book and began a fascinating journey.
“Without exemption, the brave new technologies of the twentieth century – free use of which was originally encouraged, for the sake of further invention and individual expression – eventually evolved into privately controlled industrial behemoths through which the flow and nature of content would be strictly controlled for reasons of commerce. History shows a typical progression of information technologies from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system. – Tim Wu, The Master Switch, page 6
Tim Wu presents interestingly appropriate insight into the net neutrality debate.
1. Who is Kingsbury and what did he commit to?
Theodore Vail, who led the Bell System during the early 1900s, believed that a competitive market was a detriment to the public good, and large companies, closely coordinating with the government, could achieve better results.
Vail presented the idea of a telephone monopoly disguised in the context of universal service. In this case, universal did not mean a service accessible to everyone. It meant a service controlled by a single entity without competition. While these ideas and their subsequent actions gained the attention of the federal government in the form of an anti-trust investigation, its resolution only perpetuated the original idea in slightly modified form.
In 1913, Nathan Kingsbury traded a few small things to solidify AT&T’s monopoly status.
The Kingsbury Commitment of 1913
Condition #1 – Dissolve all interest in Western Union (telegraph)
Condition #2 – Provide long distance service to independent telephone companies
Condition #3 – Ask for permission from the government to acquire independents
Sell off interest in a dying business?
Gain access to more long distance customers without competition?
Run any acquisitions by a straw man government committee?
Gain the ability to control the telephone industry for almost seventy years?
Seemed like a no brainer for AT&T.
In 1921, Congress passed the Graham Act, recognizing AT&T’s monopoly and removing any remaining obstacles to integration. The idea of an open, competitive system had lost out to AT&T’s conception of an enlightened, licensed and regulated monopoly. – Tim Wu, The Master Switch, page 59
2. The (Mis)Trust
(photo credit: Margaret Herrick Library)
Thomas Edison held many of the major patents related to creating and showing moving pictures. He developed some of these on his own, but others were acquired as a result of aggressive litigation with other inventors. Along with the largest film distributor and the largest supplier of raw film stock at the time, Edison created The Motion Pictures Patents Company, which ended up controlling who made movies, who showed movies and even the creative nature of the films made in the United States. While it was eventually broken up, this is a prime case of a single entity controlling the entire platform and dictating the nature of the creative content that was produced.
Using the power of its patents to decide the availability of films to theaters, the Trust was the de facto arbiter of what films would be shown in the United States. In many ways the state of the film art in America was simply the Trust’s vision, under which only the short, the uncontroversial and the uncomplicated were granted the right of production. – Tim Wu, The Master Switch, pages 62-63
3. Who is Samuel J. Tilden?
Samuel Tilden was the former Governor of New York and the Democratic candidate during the 1876 presidential election. While Tilden won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Haynes in this controversial contest, Hayes was eventually elected to office. Many claim there was undue interference during the process from Western Union and the Associated Press. At the time, Western Union had the only nationwide communications network in the country, and they owed some of their success to strong relationships with the Republican Party and a network partially constructed by the Union Army. During the election, Western Union and the AP colored their commentary on the candidates in favor of Hayes, while presenting Tilden in a more negative light. In the final moments of the election, they also directed Republican leaders in the south to manipulate the local election results.
Wait … there’s more.
Hayes might never have been president but for the fact that Western Union provided secret access to the telegrams sent by his rivals. Western Union’s role was a blatant instance of malfeasance: despite its explicit promise that “all messages whatsoever” would be kept “strictly private and confidential”, the company regularly betrayed the public trust by turning over private, and strategically actionable, communications to the Hayes campaign. – Tim Wu, The Master Switch page 24
Inventors and companies who take on risk to innovate and change the world should be compensated, but when does compensation turn into manipulation?
Some general thoughts on open systems …
Throughout history, science has been an open system. An iterative process that builds with a balance of patience, curiosity and collaboration. Discoveries often lead to new sets of tools that uncover other theories, new interpretations and unique perspectives that drive the ground-breaking innovation that powers our world. Great questions generate even better questions that lead to interesting chains of answers. Orthogonal thinking, consilience and transdisciplinary interaction have generated the most amazing discoveries in history.
Consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man …
Centuries before him, Marcus Vitruvius describes this concept in his architectural treatise, De Architectura. The ideal human proportions and ratios were the basis for Vitruvius’ architectural design of temples.
Similarly, in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole. Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man can be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are completely square.
– Marcus Vitruvius, De Architectura, Book III, Chapter 1, p 3
What about quantum mechanics?
1838 – Farraday discovers cathode rays
1877 – Boltzmann suggests energy states could be discrete
1887 – Hertz discovers the photoelectric effect
1900 – Planck presents the quantum hypothesis and Planck’s constant
1905 – Albert Einstein agreed that light is made up of discrete quantum particles
1926 – Gilbert Lewis calls these particles photons
1927 – Heisenberg came up with his uncertainty principle
And so on.
Because of this collaborative chain of events, I have the ability to push lettered keys on a flat metal box to create and share my thoughts, and you have the ability to read this post from your flat metal box.
Imagine a world where information empires have the ability to limit what you see or adjust the ease of seeing something. What if a middle man held Vitruvius’ de Architectura from da Vinci? What if Heisenberg didn’t have access to information from Farraday, Planck and Hertz?
Balance … A common thread in 52Musings.
In this discussion, the fulcrum between compensation for innovation and the desire for control based on greed seems to be in constant motion.
Losing your balance results in bumps and bruises.
CONTROL – If we start letting others limit access to knowledge and information, we will cease to grow, like a dying branch in search of sunlight and water.
TRUTH – He who controls access to information controls the truth.
ART – It could even change the nature of art. Many of the world’s best creators don’t have huge cash reserves to out bid big businesses for prioritized delivery of their content.
CONVENIENCE – We may even let it happen. Most of us are extremely impatient. If we can’t access something quickly and efficiently, we’ll move on. We are so driven by convenience that we may sacrifice control, truth and art for that convenience.
It’s all been done and it’s happening again.
I think I’ll side with Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Tim Wu.
Open systems are better.
Let’s keep our balance.