Exogenous Technological Change

Here’s a good backgrounder video on where the Internet came from and where it may be going: Humanity Lobotomy. See especially the part by Larry Lessig about how printing presses in the early days cost about $10,000 in 2007 dollars, and lots of people had one and published books and pamphlets.

What did the telephone companies have to do with inventing the Internet?
The browser?
The World Wide Web?
What have they had to do with the Internet from the beginning of time?

–Bob Kahn

What did they invent? X.25, ISDN, X.400, and X.500. Oh yes, and the Princess Phone.

This is why Lessig refers to printing, radio, and the Internet as exogenous technological changes: in each case, the new medium came from outside the established society, and when the powers that were decided it was too threatening, they acted to centralize and control it.

Remember Tom Paine and Common Sense?That pamphlet, which sold the idea of a new country in America separate from the British Empire to many thousands of people, was possible because of those economics. Later, as publishing became mass media driven by advertising, such pamphlets were driven into the shadows of hobbyist fanzines which you had to be a fanatic to publish or read, or to the few letters to the editor or op-eds newspapers deigned to print.

Similarly, radio used to be so cheap and easy people would run up an antenna in their back yard and go on the air. But when advertising came in and the FCC started parcelling out spectrum, it became another centralized content broadcast mass medium, and now we have a country group that just won five Grammies still unable to get airplay on country radio, most of which is controled by only two companies.

If you were in Iran, where speeds are limited by the government, or in Cuba, where the U.S. has squelched international connectivity down to 64Kbps for the entire country, you wouldn’t be watching this video. In both cases, a government is threatened by free speech on the Internet and squelches it by throttling Internet connection speeds. In Iran it’s the Iranian government. In Cuba, it’s both the Cuban government and the U.S. government. So if you think the U.S. government wouldn’t do this, think again: it already has, in Cuba.

If you are in the U.S. two to ten years from now, after all the big telco mergers complete and the 2 year net neutrality time limit in the FCC-AT&T-Bellsouth merger agreement of December 2006 expires, will you still be able to post blogs, surf international news media, and participate in BitTorrent, Halo, Wikipedia, and politics online?

Without either net neutrality legislation or more competition, don’t count on it.

Freedom of connection with any application to any party is the fundamental social basis of the Internet.

–Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web)

A society is its communications; without those communications you don’t have a basis for a culture. The culture of everyone sitting at the radio or TV and listening to a few famous commentators is radically different from the early participatory printing or radio cultures, and especially from the current Internet culture.

The trick used with radio of allocating spectrum won’t work for the Internet. But most people have only one or two choices for connecting to the Internet: telco DSL or cableco cable. And the big telcos are already down to very few nationwide in the U.S. So they can squelch Internet participation at your point of entry, or that of whoever you want to communicate with. Or if some other ISP (even in another country) lets your partner participant on, they can squelch your interconnectivity with them. Bottleneck or bandwagon; they can throttle you either way, because there are so few big ISPs in the U.S. If we let them.

We can choose to be like Iran, or to be like the U.S. of Tom Paine.