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<nettime> The Bandwidth Dilemma
geert lovink on 25 Mar 2001 19:16:38 -0000

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<nettime> The Bandwidth Dilemma

(Thanks to Armin Medosch  {AT}  Telepolis for re-posting this article on nettime.
The German translation can be found at:
The English version: http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/on/7121/1.html

The Bandwidth Dilemma
Internet stagnation after Dotcom.mania
By Geert Lovink

Internet prophets is not a uniquely American phenomena. England has got its
own breed of visionaries and Charles Leadbeater is one them. He is promoter
of "the ignorance economy", 1 author of "Living on Thin Air: The New
Economy",2 advising the Blair government in e-commerce matters and a
consultant at the technology venture fund Atlas Venture. In the New
Statesman of January 15, heralding the "second coming" of the internet, he
states that "the internet is not finished. We are merely seeing the end of
the growth of the first internet."3 What a relief amidst all the NASDAQ doom
and gloom. It's the kind of salvation we expect from a practicing priest of
organized optimism. However, such escapes into bright futurism are the
easy-way-out. The dilemma between functionality of "low bandwidth for all"
text-based systems versus high bandwidth streaming media for the few is real
one. An uneasy choice which telcos and IT-industry may struggle for a while,
with huge implications for content providers.

Against historical commonsense Leadbeater, a former Financial Times
journalist, dates the "first internet" from 1996 to 2000. Forget the
twenty-five years or so year before the world wide web took off. Leadbeater
is well aware of this forgery. He deliberately rewrites history, provoking
the ascii/linux believers by saying that the internet was born out of the
dotcom spirit of e-commerce. What Leadbeater is pushing is what we may call
New Voluntarism. Forget the hackers story of Internet rooted in
military/academic informatics. Internet was born out of the Will to
eBusiness. Shopping and entertainment are the true nature of humankind. They
are the one and only source, engine and destiny of the Net.

Unlike most New Economy prophets Leadbeater lacks sympathy for the geniality
of technology and its code magicians. What he is saying, and what many of
the failed dotcom entrepreneurs would think in secret, is that internet
should shake of the yoke from technology. Applications and protocols which
once pulled off this incredible global computer network were now stagnating
its further development. How this liberation could be achieved is another

According to Leadbeater the "first internet" failed because the
technologists and geeks, in the end, triumphed over the CEOs and their
managers and usability html slaves. Early online business pioneers were of
good will, ready to serve their first customers. But the general audience
got scared off by geekish hocus-pocus. Consumers, terrified by the
complexity and clumsiness of this hyped-up yet incredibly self-referential
environment simply left, way too early, never to come back again. No Super
Bowl-style "offline" advertisement could seduce people to type in the domain
names, however genius its name. The initially overprized stock values of
internet startups, based on presupposed continuous turnover growth lost its
potential customer base. By early 2000 the IT-goldrush, faced with market
saturation, flipped into a downward spiral. The absent clicking and sticking
cyber masses had triggered off the first internet recession.

See here the conspiracy theory of the New Economists: blame it on the geeks.
In Leadbeater's words: "The page-based internet is boring. People want
genuinely interactive experience, with drama, excitement, games and jokes.
The first internet spent little on content and charged nothing for it. The
result: hosts of bored consumers using a medium designed for geeks and

What Leadbeater is trying to sell is dreamware, this time not developed by
Californian anarcho capitalists but big media business, AOL-TimeWarner
style. "The net will prosper when it is no longer the preserve of geeks, and
when the speed of connections and size of bandwidth are secondary to the
quality of the experience it delivers." How the news and game entertainment
industry will reach supremacy while simultaneously pushing the borders of
technological know-how remains unclear. In any case, the taming of geekdom
is on the agenda of the virtual class--not anymore the Microsoft case. The
paranoia for monopolies has shifted to a diffuse fear for over-development
in technological directions without markets.

The playful collaboration of technologists and venture capitalists has come
to an end. Online creativity has shifted to other levels to express itself
and moved, for example, to peer-to-peer networks and open source software
development.  Decentralized gift economies which are much harder to
economize compared to the heydays of webdesign and the following
portalization of online content and services.

Looking down on the primitive, pre-historic past before e-commerce, the
first internet was "accessed through cumbersome personal computers and
narrowband telephone lines that allowed you to download limited amounts of
information," Leadbeater writes. "Its basic currency is information, mainly
in text form, and searching for it is frustratingly slow and chaotic."

As an Online-Uebermensch, just returned from the future, so kind to share a
few of his thoughts with us earthlings, Leadbeater has no mercy with the
clunky functionality of pre-millennial technology which still surrounds us.
"The web pages on which the text is displayed are dense and dull; they
deliver none of the excitement of a good television advertisement. They
rarely make you laugh, intentionally." Someone must have fooled Leadbeater.
Those funny Americans perhaps? Anyway. He is really disappointed. "The
internet was supposed to be immediate, personalized, interactive and rich in
content. It turned out to be slow, dense, clunky and boring."

A brief look into the political economy of bandwidth could help. The
question of internet speed is and will always be determined by economics and
(cyber)geography, as the maps show,4 not per se by the technology used at
the consumer's end. Speed on the internet is moody and in constant flux, not
only depending on one's investment in hardware, locality and available
connectivity. Speed is subjective and cultural experience. A whole range of
unknown factors can bring the undisturbed surfing to a sudden halt. A broken
deep-sea cable, a crucial land cable destroyed by a tractor, the US
Eastcoast suddenly switching on their terminals or one of the main switches
of MCI, AT&T, NTT or BT, gone down for a few seconds. Over the years,
bandwidth suddenly has grown, however, this progress has been too slow for
users to notice. The arrivals of ten of millions of newbies has eaten up new
capacity with recent signs of a drop in bandwidth capacity due to
overpricing; a "lack of demand" as the business press calls it.5

Instead of analyzing the present, Leadbeater rushes back to the future. "The
next internet will be accessed everywhere, anytime, not just through hefty
computers." Charles' future is going to be a Walhalla of access:
"Telecommunication links will be wireless as well as well as landlines, and
they will be broadband." He is promising nothing less than paradise on
earth. "The second internet will be more interactive; games and animation
will become commonplace." In short: "The second internet - wireless,
ubiquitous, fast, rich in quality entertainment, drama and quality - will
transform how we live, vote, shop, save, communicate and learn."

Apparently Leadbeater has not read the "13 things to know about broadband."6
But he is well aware that he cannot deliver his technotopia overnight. "The
components of the next internet will not come together for another three
years." Now, that's interesting. Three years is almost a lifetime, measured
in internet time, specially if we remember the acceleration of the
technological boom during the roaring nineties. The three years in which the
web established itself (1994-1997) and the even less then three years boom
to bust period of dotcom.mania (1998-2000). But let's suppose Leadbeater is
right here. It may indeed take many years until broadband and cable modem
will have penetrated Western households deep enough to create a critical
user mass. Crucial time the internet business community and most users don't
have. We can read alarming editorials on the portal pages of
www.streamingmedia.com about the impact the bandwidth stagnation has on
drying up net.radio and video businesses. Only those with long term
strategies will survive.

A similar situation with the rapidly emerging peer-to-peer networks. Napster
has been build up by university students, using campus hard disk space and
connectivity. An vast majority of the 64 million Napster users have 56K
modem access, mainly interested in downloading, not exchanging files, mainly
due to technical constrains. They are simply not online all the time. True
peer-to-peer networks will only take-off when a critical mass of its users
will have a permanent, open connection to the Net.7 Until then the
uploading-downloading ratio will remain unbalanced. Clerics of professional
positivism will point at the ever bright future, showing bright growth
figures which prove a diminishing bandwidth divide. An ever-growing amount
of users may or may not yet have plenty bandwidth under their fingertips.
The question is when? Streaming media producers and users demand broadband
NOW. Not next year or in a decade. Telcos worldwide are reluctant to roll
out broadband, (deliberately?) delaying the upgrade of their networks to DSL
levels.8 Investments in high performance flatrate access is not generating
that much more cash, compared to the present infrastructure and revenue
streams. It is anyway better to have a few well paying customers from the
business sector than millions of nagging consumers paying only a few pennies
for their all too comfortable stay in bandwidth paradise.

The future is taking revenge on those who have, either mentally or
virtually, already arrived there. It is disappointedly empty and lonely out
there: promising but without customers. Those who do not want to turn into
bandwidth optimists have the option to go  a few steps back and return to
the productive atmosphere of low-tech tinkering. The choice between the
conceptual cave of 3D streaming images and a retrograde ascii-code
fundamentalism is becoming more and more attractive - and uncomfortable.
Where should art projects and community networks go? Stay within the grey
56K world wide wait mainstream? Go avant-garde, requiring DSL, ending up in
the sovereign atmospheres of the happy few? Jump back in history and muck
around on the Unix prompt? Join the WAP debacle? Bet on an i-mode invasion
from Japan? You chose. Of course we want everything, but that's a too easy
excuse. Ideally, content should be provided for all platforms. By the look
of it many users are simply sticking to their PCs and GSMs, unwilling to
upgrade to newer levels which simply do not deliver the promised

The streaming media industry already seems to have made up its mind: it is
withdrawing from the content-for-consumer market towards a smaller but more
lucrative niche market, offering streaming media services to businesses.9

What we see here is a return of a similar dilemma back in the early nineties
between offline multimedia 3D-interactive television/virtual reality and the
real existing cyberspace, internet, about to make its significant yet
aesthetically disappointing quantum jump from Unix kernel to the hypertext
transfer protocol (HTML).

Collaborative filtering sites such as www.slashdot.org and www.plastic.com
are facing the same dilemma. Apart from problematic editorial policies and
the unresolved question of ownership over collaborative text databases there
is the issue of those, living outside of access oases, not being able to
contribute to important debates which are increasingly being held
exclusively on online web forums. Exchange of opinions on the internet is
gradually migrating away from the offline e-mail-based newsgroups and
mailinglists towards websites which require online presence, thereby
indirectly undermining the (presumably) democratic and equalizing character
of e-mail. See here the dilemma: stay at the level of e-mail or jump to the
online level of the web forum?

It is a false but nonetheless real choice which is on the table. The Net is
developing in possibly conflicting directions. The image of a harmonious
convergence of webTV, PC and handheld devices is not in sight. Instead of a
synergy all signs point at digital divergence, with though choices to make
over which standards and devices to use.

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