Why It’s Important That The Internet Created Technopopulism

After finishing ITIF’s new report on technopopulism, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this missing a couple of pages, about, you know, the Internet?

While there is much to like about the report, the missing piece, the missing message, as McLuhan famously quipped, is the medium.

Here is the basic gist of the report. In the old days, tech policy was decided by educated wonks who knew the finer points of policy and could  make reasoned arguments. Better outcomes and more nuanced policy proliferated. In the last few years, the debate has been morphed by good ol’ American populism. The new image of technology policy is one of individuals protesting in favor of network neutrality outside Chairman Wheeler’s house. To Rob Atkinson and his co-authors, the new discourse is long on cliches and short on analysis, much to the detriment of consumers.

Yes. I agree to a certain extent, but there’s more to the story.

It is nearly trite to say that the Internet has dramatically changed and continues to change how an individual relates to others and knowledge. Yet hardly a word is mentioned about this important change in this report.

The gatekeeper function of the media has been democratized with the Internet, creating new, expansive spaces to discuss any number of topics. And if there is one thing to unite people on the Internet interested in policy, it would naturally be Internet policy.

While Rob et al might lament the old days where there was balanced and thoughtful discussion, it was only possible because the high barriers to entry limited the number of people that could have possibly been involved in the conversation. Enforcing norms without formal institutional structures could be achieved when the absolute numbers were smaller due to the these constraints. Moreover, to be part of that group required a job that was dedicated to its study, such as an economist, a lawyer, or an analyst at the think tank. Of course, to get that kind of job required formal education that signaled interest and continued dedication to the topic area, which also helped to enforce a set of norms.

Once the conversation expanded via the Internet, the norms and the institutional requirements dramatically changed, leading to the world that the authors detail. Of course, there is still a core of educated discussants, but that has been supplemented by broader ethical and policy conversations over Twitter, discussion boards, Reddit, comment sections and countless other places. But let’s remember, this doesn’t mean the concerns are being translated onto the political stage. Even network neutrality, with its millions of FCC comments, is still largely unknown. Indeed, even after the President’s speech on the topic last November, 54 percent of those polled, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, said they haven’t heard of the concept.

Indeed, what the report cites as instances of technopopulism is just a small fraction of the entire conversation. What is included are the issues that have, for one reason or another, garnered attention. For the most part, other important issues face far less outsider scrutiny. Take for example, the House Energy & Commerce efforts to update the Communications Act. Arguably, this new Act would be far more important than network neutrality, since it would determine how tech is governed. And yet, even the most commented upon subject, video law, only received 220 responses. Apart from network neutrality, FCC dockets are fairly technical and aren’t often commented upon.

All things considered, I still think we are toiling in relative obscurity. For now.

Some Paradoxes Of Nostalgia

Svetlana Boym has a fascinating article on nostalgia. Here are some choice parts:

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion.

Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time—time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.

Interesting essay throughout.

With Technology, the Past is No Longer a Foreign Country

Novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Ironically, we may no longer live in his world:

This omnipresence of the past has weird effects on contemporary culture. Take any genre of music, from death metal to R&B to chillwave, and the cloud directs you not just to similar artists in the present but to deep wells of influence from the past. Yes, people still like new things. But the past gets as much preference as the present—Mozart, for example, has more than 100,000 followers on Spotify. In a history glut, the idea of fashionability in music erodes, because new songs sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25, and 55 years ago, all of them waiting to be discovered. In this eternal present, everything can be made contemporary.

Perhaps the biggest result of the history glut is that managing all that history becomes the crucial act, both commercially and intellectually. Wikipedia is cataloging history, but to do so it needs to keep up an epic accounting of its own history—the billion-plus edits, each a record of human activity, that have built the encyclopedia over the years. Companies like Spotify and Netflix are mining the past as they host it, looking at their own enormous usage logs and analyzing that data to draw connections between types of people and types of music.

There’s an irony here: All of the data we’re collecting, all of the data points and metadata, is history itself. Much as we marvel at Babylonian clay tablets listing measures of grain, future generations will find just as much meaning in our log files as they will in the media we consume. Sure, Frank Sinatra sang a bunch of songs; sure, Jennifer Lawrence was a big star in 2014. But the log files tell you who listened, and when, and where they were on the planet. It’s these massive digital archives—and the records that show how we used them—that will be the defining historical objects of our era.

Telecommunication’s Regulatory Cat and Mouse Game

My former colleague Jon Henke has reviewed “The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age” for Reason. I haven’t read the book, but his take has placed it on the top of the list. As anyone who has read about the history of telecommunication regulation, policy formation is and has been a cat-and-mouse game between regulators and the regulated. Jon explains:

The history of telecommunications is a long story of progressives and populists demanding “public interest” regulations that produce and protect monopolies, followed by progressive and populist demands for regulations to fix the problems that their earlier regulations created. At each step, activists were coached and coaxed by the political and business interests in question.

What can this history tell us? A lot, actually:

Progressives today are traveling the well-worn policy path of trying to fix old mistakes by making new ones. They demand competition while promoting municipal public utility broadband systems. “Open access creates competition,” they claim, never minding that the unbundling requirements that force providers to lease their systems to competitors only create “competition” by turning an existing provider into a de facto monopoly. The goals of the modern net neutrality movement—which in effect seeks to prevent Internet Service Providers from providing anything but lowest-common-denominator service—might as well adopt the same early slogan of monopoly-era AT&T: “One System, One Policy, Universal Service.”

The urge to make carriers a public utility or regulate them as such remains deeply embedded in telecommunications policy today. After all, if the telephone networks required the guiding hand of regulators, how could the Internet possibly work without regulations to mandate interconnection, to require settlement-free peering, to set prices, or to dictate which services providers are allowed to offer?

And yet the comparative regulatory anarchy of the Internet does work. We all enjoy a global network of independent systems that interconnect almost entirely through contractual agreements. And yet activists seem determined that, in order to prevent gatekeepers from “destroying the Internet,” the Federal Communications Commission must become the gatekeeper of the World Wide Web.

My post on the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) hits on a couple of these key issues for video law. Changing consumer preferences is ultimately undoing the myriad and complex rules put in place by the FCC under the guise of public interest. Like so many other areas of telecommunication law, the laws governing video must be updated to meet the 21st century marketplace.

A Great Paragraph from Henry Jenkins

From this article:

History teaches us that old media never die. And before you say, “What about the eight-track,” let’s distinguish among media, genres and delivery technologies. Recorded sound is a  medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system. A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be part of the media ecosystem. No one medium is going to “win” the battle for our ears and eyeballs.

Notes & Quotes from Daniel Boorstin’s “The Republic of Technology”

  • “An athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it” exclaimed William Dean Howells when he recalled the gigantic 700-ton Corliss steam engine that towered over Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.   A festive crowd cheered as the engine set in motion a wonderful assortment of machines—pumping water, combing wool, spinning cotton, tearing hemp, printing newspapers, lithographing wallpaper, sewing cloth, folding envelopes, sawing logs, shaping wood, making shoes—8,000 machines spread over 13 acres.  Others, especially visitors abroad were troubled by the American spectacle.  Said Thomas Henry Huxley: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur and territory does make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity and terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?” p 1
  • For the most of human history, the norm had been continuity. Change was news.  Daily lives were governed by tradition. The most valued works were the oldest. The great works of architecture were monument that survived coming antique. Furnishings became increasingly valuable by becoming antique.  Great literature never went out of date. “Literature,” Ezra Pound observed, “is news that stays news.” he new enriched the old and was enriced by the old. Shakespeare enriched Chaucer. Shaw enriched Shakespeare. It was a world of the enduring and the durable. p 4
  • The importance of a scientific work, as the German mathemtician David Hilbert once observed, can be measured by the number of previous publications it makes superfluous to read. p 4
  • Each political revolution has its ancien regime and so inevitably looks backward to what must be redressed and revised. Even if the hopes are utopian, the blueprint for utopia is made from the raw materials of the recent past. p 22
    • Like each political revolution, every technological revolution has its ancien regime, an order that must be overthrown for the new.
  • We cannot forecast what will be the ruiles of any particular new world until after that new world has been discovered. It can be full of all sorts of outlandish monsters; it could be ruled by diabolic logic. Who for example coulpd have predicted that the internal-combustion engine and the automobile would spawn a new world of installment buying, credit cards, franchises, and annual models—that it would revise the meaning of cities and tranform morality by instigating new institutions of n-fault reparations? p 24
  • Gamut Fallacy:
    • “Gamut” an English word rooted in the Greek “gamma” for the lowest note in an old musical scale, means the complete range of anything.  When we think, for example, of our future political life and our governmental forms, we can have in mind substantially the whole range of possibilities… But the history of technology, again, is quite another story. We cannot envisage, or even imagine, the range of alternatives from which future technological history will be made. p 31
  • When looked back upon, the series of events between 1776 and 1789 are interesting not so much for the rationalized political ideology, but for the political technology—the application of English ideas to the circumstances of time and place. p 49
  • The Declaration of Independence was not like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the English Bill of Rights, it was a set of grievances. It was a list of practical problems that the Crown had failed to properly consider.
  • The Swiss writer Max Frisch once described technology as “the knack of arranging the world that we don’t have experience it” p 59
  • The Census of 1890 declared that there was no frontier line.  In 1893, Turner published his thesis on the Frontier, connecting American virtue with the openness of the country. Once manifest destiny had ended, the country soon closed itself off to others. In 1917, Congress adopted a comprehensive immigration law which required a literacy test, added new classes of exclusions and established a barred zone in the Southwest Pacific which excluded immigrants not already kept out by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908. p 78-83

Don’t Believe Everything you Hear

It seems intuitive that the rise of the Internet and social networking sites has made us all more lonely. Because we are all constrained with our time and because online connections seem shallow, it logically follows that the more time we spend online in lieu of face-to-face interactions, the more lonely we are. Though, the empirical evidence is not as clear on this as we have been lead to believe.

Fortunate or not, I remember the days when a phone call across the country to family was expensive and short. Now, I regularly have free conversations with friends a couple of continents away.  Advances in cameras and expanding bandwidth speeds have made those experiences more immersive and intimate. Simultaneously, social networking sites now allow us to more easily stay in touch with acquaintances, helping us to build and maintain much larger social networks.

Sociologists and psychologists tend to agree,

His new book, Still Connecteddefinitively refutes the Marche thesis that Americans have grown more detached. Drawing on 40 years of social surveys, Fischer shows that the quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are about the same today as they were before the Internet.

I am not worried…

For all our talk of self-reliance and rugged individualism, Americans are actually far less likely to live alone and enjoy key forms of personal autonomy than people in other countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and Japan. What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are.

Notes & Quotes to Ithiel de Sola Pool’s “Technologies of Freedom”

  • A public network interconnecting computers must be license and, according to present interpretations of the 1934 Communications Act, may be denied a license if the government does not believe that it serves “the public convenience, interest, or necessity” p. 3
  • The Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8, gives the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce, but in the First Amendment, equally explicitly, it excludes one kind of commerce, namely communication, from government authority. Yet here is the FCC trying to figure out how it can avoid regulating the commerce of the computer industry (an authority Congress could have given, but never did) while continuing to regulate communications whenever it considers this necessary. The Constitution has been turned on its head. p 3
  • The phrase “communications policy” rings oddly in a discussion of freedom from goverment. But freedom is also a policy. The question it poses is how to reduce the public control of communications in an electronic era. A policy of freedom aims at pluralism of expression rather than at dissemination of preferred ideas. p 8
  • Communications policy can be mapped on a few central questions
    • Definition of the domain in which the policy operates
    • Availability of resources
    • Organizations of access to resources
    • Establishment and enforcement of norms and controls
    • Problems at the system boundaries p 9
  • The physical printing plant was potentially hostage to state action and so the physical

Notes & Quotes from Thomas P. Hughes “American Genesis”

  • When more histories of technology that take the critical stance of the best histories of politics are written, American will realize that not only their remarkable achievements but many of their deep and persistent problems arise, in the name of order, system, and control, from the mechanization and systematization of life and from the sacrifice of the organic and the spontaneous p 4
  • As historian and social critic Lewis Mumford so eloquently insisted decades ago, technology is both shaper of, and is shaped by, values. It is value laden. p 5
  • When the Soviet Union embarked on a Five-Year Plan that specified mammoth regional system of technology based on hydroelectric power and prodigiousl rich stores of Siberian natural resources, it turned to American consulting engineers and industrial corporations for advice and equipment. The Soviets constructed entire industrial systems modeled on the steel works in Gary, Indiana, and hydroelectric projects on the Mississippi. pp. 8-9
  • Working in their retreats, intellectual and physical, they created a new way, even a new world, to displace the existing one. p 24
  • A fairly large part of the American creation myth has been of creating a new world, from the shining city on a hill to the frontier hypothesis, Menlo Park and the Internet, American history has long been intertwined with creating new spaces of retreat and discovery.

Robert McChesney is Wrong

Talking about the 1400 and 1500s:

One fact must not be lost sight of: the printer and the bookseller worked above all and from the beginning for profit.

That is from Paul Starr’s book The Creation of the Media, stating the obvious: newspaper production has always been about profits. Contrary to Robert McChesney, they aren’t special in any economic sense and we should not treat them as anything other than businesses.