This post originally appeared at Heft, December 08, 2017.
This week, the FCC will vote to extinguish net neutrality. The revoke will allow Internet service providers to charge web companies extra for the fast-lines we have so enjoyed using for years. Every streaming service, dating app, online feed, may potentially be slowed or not offered to those who refuse to “pay-to-play”.
The internet is essentially ruled by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. With the elimination of net neutrality, these companies, along with familiar upstarts like Netflix and Hulu, will likely have to fork over more money to ISPs, resulting in raised prices on our end.
To no real surprise, everyone is pissed about this, minus the telecommunications industry, which hopes to profit greatly in the years of regulation to come. In the near future, we may see online services bundled into packages, much in the same way cable companies operate with TV channels.
As many are postulating this repeal as an elite takeover of free speech, it’s important to know that communications networks have always been subject to corporate, and therefore, political control.
History tells us that net neutrality, an updated version of the old telephone industry term “common carriage”, has followed a long path of government regulation which really took off after the successful test of the first US atomic bomb (codenamed Trinity) in 1945. Once President Truman appointed AT&T to man its Sandia National Laboratories, the company would forever transform ways in which the government utilizes and monitors telecommunications. It wasn’t until the 1990s that AT&T resigned from its role as Uncle Sam’s weapons lab manager, very soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The internet, just like television, radio, and movies, is a network-centric market susceptible to monopolization. As one company takes over a network or several, its exclusive control over a commodity can allow it to consolidate said control, provided if and when the government decides to intervene (which it always does).
In his expansion of the Bell System, Theodore Vail introduced a connected network of telephone wires to the United States, ushering in a decades-long dominance over communications services. Vail’s slogan for a “One system, One Policy, Universal Service” brought with it a conquest which mirrored the likes of the-then relentless “buy or die” model previously adopted by Standard Oil. In a lot of ways similar to the business patterns we see today, any competitor could be bargained with or strategically annihilated.
Regardless of Vail’s own competitor-stifling mastery of American telephony, citizens shared a deep appreciation for AT&T’s newfound network, much as we revere Google’s services today.
The world of technology is continuously changing. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 could not have foreseen such advancements as wireless broadband, let alone the industry’s biggest game-changer: the iPhone. iPhone devices brought with them a proliferation of apps and services so varied, it turned the idea of consumer value being dictated by the network itself on its head. Competition is wide as applications compete alongside devices, which compete for the best service provider.
For many years, the internet has connected people from around the globe in such a way not experienced since the advent of radio. What’s still striking is the open use it brings to hobbyists as a platform for broadcasting their views and interests. This has brought forth grounds for not only new forms of revolutionary action under systemic oppression, but also stages for more disruptive causes orchestrated by internet trolls, alt-rightists, and political propagandists. And let’s not forget Donald J. Trump, whose web of cronies used technology to hack our democracy, take the presidency, and divide us to a new frightening level of civil discord.
The Internet of Things, with or without net neutrality, is an interstitial space where varying entities invent means of using—and often times exploiting—whatever data travels through it. This has created a whole host of problems around the world. From destroying privacy to undermining fair elections, technology, with all its capability, has yet to find a way to monitor the real force driving things awry: human nature.
Although rescinding net neutrality will put a damper on consumer choice, it may bring an end to this social epoch we so desperately need. In forfeiting our data, we have become a society of polarized users obsessed with dopamine hits. Social media and receiving notifications is a lot like taking drugs. What’s worse is that Facebook and other network algorithms are bent on having you agree with yourself. So whether we’re addicts in denial or collectively in some unshakable fit of neurosis, the powers of these platforms have shaped us into something causally destructive.
These companies have taken advantage of our anxieties to sell ads for long enough. I mention the troubling effects smartphones have had on the young. Preferring the lonely confines of screen time in their bedrooms, today’s often distressed teens are less likely to go out with friends or date than they’ve ever been.
So where does society’s progress figure into all of this? It’s stuck in a twilight zone episode where childhood heroes turn out to harbor monstrous pasts. As Senate continues its economic descent into madness, providing yet another tax break for businesses and the rich, life really makes you question what it is you’re doing with your time.
Cynicism aside, there appears to be a social reckoning happening simultaneously. We regard our politicians as more corrupt and untrustworthy than ever. Retribution is being made as victims of systemic abuse finally have the power to right wrongs imposed by the patriarchs of control who have for so long misused their dominance.
Power, in the traditional sense, has dissolved. It has gone from leaders telling us what to do, to a mass grid of components working to keep our lives “stable”. Stability in the form of distractions.
As our feelings of being lied to translate into maddening online clicks for validation, the algorithms will ensure that this way of life never changes. Social media has taken the good parts of what makes America exceptional and contorted them to form some gaudy, unsafe, augmented reality we can’t escape from. We must start to look outside if we ever hope to find ourselves through each other again. People have always found a way of morally coming together. Spending less time online will also help us appreciate the natural world, the one we’re dangerously close to forgetting, perhaps even losing.
I find myself asking what’s real anymore. We know enough now to build our own world, our own internet if we have to, as some are demonstrating here. In order to engage the community at large, and to truly reshape the institutions holding us back from progress, we must look beyond the echo chamber for inspiration.