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<nettime> After nettime-bold, the Internet (Andrew Orlowski)
geert lovink on Mon, 2 Jun 2003 07:00:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> After nettime-bold, the Internet (Andrew Orlowski)

It is not only nettime-bold that died, it is the Internet as a whole, if we
have to believe Lawrence Lessig and this reporter Andrew Orlowski of The
Register. But is there any way to make a distinction between 'objective'
circumstances and mass psychology here? Is the collective psyche right? I
understand that many in the USA must feel depressed (see fascism debate) but
does it really make sense to portrayal the Internet as a body that is sick
and in decay? Why not point that great clashes ahead, new strategies, the
victory of tactical networks, P2P, weblogs and wireless networks and many
more social technologies to come? Geert


Internet is dying - Prof. Lessig
By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco
Posted: 15/05/2003 at 21:33 GMT

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

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

"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

"'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,

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. 

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