The Internet is dying, says Lawrence Lessig, a law professor with a cult following amongst technophiles.
Lessig is mobilizing against the FCC's relaxation of media controls which will leave most of the United States' professional media outlets in the hands of a tiny number of owners. In FCC chairman Michael Powell's vision, Old Man Potter can own every newspaper, radio station and TV channel in Pottersville.
The move, which has even been criticized by former FOX and Vivendi executive Barry Diller, would return the mass media to a state even turn of the century robber barons couldn't have wished for.
But drawing an important parallel, Lessig argues that the relaxation of media controls for the latter-day robber barons bodes ill for open computer communications.
"The Internet is dying," he writes, launching a torpedo at the heart of techno-utopian mysticism by questioning the belief that all will be for the best in all possible worlds.
Writing an introduction to the centenary edition of Orwell's 1984, Thomas Pynchon describes The Internet as "a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about".
Lessig is more subtle, but points us the same way.
"When the content layer, the logical layer, and the physical layer are all effectively owned by a handful of companies, free of any requirements of neutrality or openness, what will you ask then?"
The vandals stole the handles
The Internet is dying in ways that Lessig doesn't enumerate, too. You only have to step outside tech-savvy circles to see what a massive disappointment the modern tech experience is for most people: many of whom are your friends and relatives.
What does the Internet mean to these folks, now?
It represents a perfect tragedy of the commons. Email is all but unusable because of spam. Even if our Bayesian filters win the arms race against the spammers, in terms of quantity as well as quality of communications, email has been a disaster.
(An architect friend tells me that email has become the biggest productivity drain in his organization: not just the quantity of attachments, but the mindless round-robin communications, requesting comments that get ignored. Email has become a corporate displacement activity.)
Google has its own spam problems: a tiny number of webloggers and list-makers whose mindless hyperlinks degrade the value of its search results, and create the Web equivalent of TV static.
Basic web surfing means navigating through web sites whose inspiration for their baroque overdesign seems to have been Donald Trump's wedding cake, all the while requiring the user to close down dozens of unrequested pop-up advertisements. (Yes, we know the tools to turn off pop-ups, but the vast majority of IE users don't have that luxury, and their patience has already been tested to the limit.)
And most of all, The Internet means sitting at noisy and unreliable machines that would land any self-respecting consumer manufacturer with a class action suit.
What's dying here isn't The Internet - it remains as open as ever to new software and new ideas. Remarkably, the consensus that upholds the technical infrastructure survives, in the form of the IETF, despite self-interested parties trying to overturn it. What's dying is the idea that the Internet would be a tool of universal liberation, and the argument that "freedom" in itself is a justification for this information pollution. It's probably reached a tipping point: the signal to noise ratio is now too low.
Users are not stupid. The 42 per cent of US citizens who Pew Research tells us have no interest in logging on and "blowing their minds" are simply making a sensible choice.
Free to do what?
Lessig seems to have completed half the journey from promising Republican lawyer to mature political economist - but the last part of the journey will be the hardest. It involves unwiring some stubborn philosophical assumptions.
"'Won't unlicensed spectrum guarantee our freedom?'" asks Lessig's interlocutor, appropriately enough, one 'Dr.Pangloss'.
Well, we suppose he means that's "freedom" in the sense of push-button buzzword, where "freedom" is an end in itself.
There's a slight problem with this. Freedom isn't an absolute: it's whatever we decide it to be. Deny absolute freedom to a small number of people to set employment conditions, and you can give the vast majority of people a three day weekend. Result: happiness. (Maybe) And 'freedom' as a justification for deregulation - which gave us the Internet - hardly inspires confidence for the future wireless in the United States.
An exercise for the reader: trace how the same buzzwords that propelled the last irrational bubble - "freedom", "choice" - are the same buzzwords behind the wireless bubble. But such concepts are complex, possibly eternal social mediations and involve more than pushing a few buttons. But hey, no one said it would be easy.
The most popular technology in the world - thanks to its low cost and high communications value - is the cellphone. This is derided by the 'freedom' lobby because it's regulated spectrum (boo!), and not an 'open' network (hiss!), and yet it delivers a tremendous social utility. The latest generation of phones impresses me not because they can run irc or ssh, which they do splendidly, but because I can send a photo to relatives with three clicks on a device costing less than $100. A small parcel of happiness, there.
Now contrast that with the tragedy of the commons we described above.
Back to Lessig, answering 'Pangloss'. Only a small chunk of spectrum will be "freed", notes Lessig, but, "to the same companies, no doubt".
So long as the United States' techno-utopians seem to be obsessed with infrastructure plumbing as the British are obsessed with toilets, with means rather than ends, Lessig faces an uphill battle. Guiding US policy to create an infrastructure that provides utility to the people, rather than a handful of ideologues, is going to be Lessig's greatest challenge. ®
The good professor has amended the wording of his text, as he explains on his blog: "Actually, that?s not quite what I wrote, the quotes not withstanding." Which we think translates as "what I wrote isn't what you think it meant, so I've gone back and changed what I wrote"... Very odd.