Monday, March 13, 2006

Cultural Environmentalism at 10: Susan Crawford

Liveblogged here.

Some of my notes: Telcos claim ownership of the network, and thus the right to discriminate against packets which haven't paid for carriage -- which naturally entails detailed monitoring of traffic. Crawford pointed out that telcos’ interest in controlling the packets fits very well with the dreams of other incumbents, specifically copyright owners and the government – everyone in power now would love to be able to read your mail.

Sometimes people ask Crawford: Why do you care if one thing is faster than another because only one paid the telcos? Her answer is that people will stop using video that’s unsatisfactory – if it can’t go fast, people will ignore it. So it makes a huge difference to innovators.

Crawford draws parallels to Boyle’s work and to IP battles – the same kinds of arguments are made in communications. The arguments resemble those about why developing countries should adopt strong IP rights: because it’s not owned, the telcos say, the internet is a backwater. Let us surveil, and it will help Hollywood and law enforcement as it helps us. Likewise, there are similarities to the standard IP story’s denigration of indigenous content. A great deal of what’s interesting and valuable about the internet is individually created content: pictures, blogs, dreams, creative collaborations. This isn’t valued at all by network providers. Content is just supposed to be sent down the wire to couch potatoes.

Big open question: What does that mean in practice? The new public interest source of the FCC’s power should be insuring internet access – maybe make telcos public utilities. Also, we need to address who’s going to maintain this magical broadband network. We’re incapable of doing almost anything as a country, so why would we take this on?

It’s fashionable to criticize the early cyberutopians, but they were right about the possibilities. The problem is that we lack a cultural commitment to the decentralized, culture-creating version of the internet that would lead consumers to boycott broadband providers who don’t give us unfettered access to the internet. So we need government intervention.

Neil Netanel: Crawford says: the internet is us. In her view, it’s a global mind; a living ocean; it is the repository of our memories and thoughts; it is a being in its own right, with the capacity for self-reflection and liberty interests. It’s the romantic internet – us, but more than us. Netanel wants to part ways with this trope. As liberating as the internet can be, it’s not us and we’re not it. Millions lack food, medicine, and blogging software; the internet is often an easy way to forget real-world problems rather than a tool for real-world organization.

Where Netanel would look for metaphors would be the traditions of free speech, public discourse, Balkin’s democratic culture, Lessig’s free culture, Fisher’s semiotic democracy, Benkler, etc.

Crawford: The internet isn’t just a tool, because it enables persistent groups to form that have an impact. Sure, it makes no sense to privilege internet access over food, but Crawford can’t solve world hunger; she can maybe do something about communications law. Free speech isn’t enough. There are self-owned creatures in the ocean (giant squid); the same is also true on the internet, where there are collective, persistent human endeavors.

Julie Cohen: Naming the environment in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring jumpstarted a movement, as Boyle did. Naming is only a beginning. Then you need to do the science – detailed descriptions of what the environment is and what harms it – and a normative story about what makes this environment good. Cultural harm, though, is in the eye of the beholder; it’s not simple to do the science. The normative theory needs therefore to do heavier lifting.

Carving out open enclaves is important, but the cultural environment won’t be saved a piece at a time; it has to be saved as a whole.

What makes the internet good? If the network is us, then it isn’t a separate entity at all. To say it has a life of its own is to say there’s a natural form of social order that the internet enables us to achieve. But it’s a social form, subject to path dependencies and other pulls. Simply to say that the network is us doesn’t tell us what’s good. A network of private goods would still be us, wouldn’t it?

Can “doing the science” help? In this case, that would mean richly detailed ethnographies of the experiences the network enables and the activities it supports. How do we link individuals to greater patterns, showing them what they’ll lose in the telco world? Crawford cautions against abstract claims about democracy – we need to link it to concrete experiences.

Cohen argues that the network enables the creation of meaning for individuals and groups. Blogs, affinity groups, and wikis are examples of how this gets done; private internets won’t enable the same kinds of self-constitution. Meaning also emerges from expression not conventionally understood as such – freedom to tinker – which will not be allowed by private internets.

Cohen points out that telcos are not stupid; they will enable all these activities she just mentioned, at least at first and at least to a degree. (See this very interesting New York Times story on that point.) How, then, can we assess options we aren’t given under private control? We need stories: ethnographies, romances and myths reminding people how meaning emerges from the uncontrolled and the unexpected. We need stories that foreground the importance of play.

Sociologists of culture have studied this for a while. Smart providers of internet services speak of constructing playgrounds. But playgrounds are for children. There’s a middle space between the controlled playground and chaos, which is the open network where adults decide what they’ll risk and do.

Larry Lessig called foul on Netanel – he would have a rule that you can’t criticize another scholar by saying “you’re not dealing with hunger”; we aren’t either. Blogs have changed the dynamic of how the media does its job. One way to characterize Crawford’s argument: the internet is an opportunity to change the power dynamics of how business as usual has been conducted.

Netanel: He didn’t mean to criticize Crawford for failing to deal with world hunger. The internet can be a powerful organizing tool, but that’s different from saying that the internet is us.

[Summarizing an interaction between Molly Van Houweling, Crawford, and Lessig: Pushed on nationalization, Crawford backed down, suggesting that we merely study the problem, but Lessig strongly suggested that the unknown losses would mount well before we could identify any specific entrant-strangling that would justify regulation, because new businesses just couldn’t get funding to compete with the telcos in the first place.]

Netanel: We don’t yet have the capacity to have P2P video, do we? The telcos aren’t investing in infrastructure to provide it, unless they can earn money.

Crawford: Japan and France managed it somehow. (I didn’t quite follow, but it was something like, all the Japanese telcos went bankrupt and requiring them to roll out broadband was part of the government’s rescue. This led to my comment, which was that, if we’re looking for examples of what we might lose if telcos are allowed to discriminate against unauthorized packets, we should look at what is happening in Japan and France, where speeds are much higher and unconstrained.)

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