Cultural Contradictions of Net Neutrality

“Free, open, keep one web,” World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s is heard provoking us in the 15 second video above.

How can you champion anything that has the totalizing vibe to it as Berners-Lee’s One Web thing? Doesn’t it sound like One Web=One World=First World? Isn’t this One Web pitch a commercial for the global hegemony of Silicon Valley made technologies, standards, and corporations? Wouldn’t a greater diversity of broadband and wifi options be more advantageous to cultural diversity than merely One? The controversial and slightly ridiculous claim I will make now is that the tiering or diversification of the internet, such as we saw yesterday at the FCC, might foreshadow the fragmentation of the One Web into many ethnic and linguistic webs in the future.

Anthropology sits in a strange place in relationship to Berners-Lee’s idea of One Web. On the one hand, anthropology’s agnostic relativity fits well with the open internet that doesn’t prioritize information packets but treats them all equally. But on the other hand anthropology’s insistence on investigating, celebrating, and defending diversity and sovereignty, does not sit well with Berner Lee’s calls for One Web. This totalizing singularity of One Web unifying all private and public information begins to equate with the cheery idea of a modernist One World, sounds like transhuman wackiness, and could be heard to affirm the hegemony of the First World.

Perhaps what is needed are several webs. Perhaps they shouldn’t be interoperable. Perhaps there shouldn’t be an internetwork of networks. Think of it. An internet subscription system for each ethnicity, packed with subcultural-specific algorithmic search engines, coded by language specific folksonomies, honoring the chiefs’ and elders’ specific concerns for protocols and privacy, all housed on ecologically sensitive and publicly owned server farms. Not One Web but a Web for each public.

Isn’t this socio-technical fragmentation of social systems inevitable? Perhaps diversification of internets may better represent the diversity of needs and desires emerging out of the processes of cultural hybridty. What if a second or third slower and weirder internet did indeed develop, a ghetto for those of us who can’t afford the premium First World/One Web internet? On one level that would confirm the digital divide on the infrastructural level. But, as ghettos go, they are places where one can hide, where amateurs can experiment, where revolutions foment. They are uneconomical and therefore less attended to by the state and corporations.

It hasn’t quite play out the way Berners-Lee wanted. Yesterday, in a 3-2 split the FCC voted to allow broadband ISPs to create a second faster premium internet. This is the new policy of “paid prioritization.” Secondly, wifi owners (Verizon, AT&T) can now block certain sites that offer redundant services (VoIPs like Skype and Google Voice) that compete with their services. According to public interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge, this is a violation of network neutrality–the principle that packets should not be prioritized or marginalized because of their content, but without discrimination be delivered to their destination.

The battle over network neutrality exposes the contradictions in a One World system versus the diversified and globalized world in which we live. Anthropology’s insistence on diversity may run against these populist politics of information. Defenders of net neutrality and the One Web might counter by saying that the open standards internet and decentralized www is a tabula rasa on which any and all cultural expressions adequately find their medium. And yet, the internet never was One, good, egalitarian, decentralized. It has always been owned by a few companies and governed by specific governments. Geert Lovink explains this point about how the feds and major research universities owned the early DARPA internet. What the FCC evinced yesterday was that internet openness is discursively constructed and is a resource that is allottable—to firms.

This diversification of the internet we saw at the FCC yesterday wasn’t a branching off of the internet, its resources, or economic potential into a public sector. It certainly wasn’t a measure to tax internet sales. It was a vote to give opportunities to corporations they are tasked with regulating. The FCC’s tiering of the internet marks a diversifying of the internet based on class, access, and economics. This is clearly a bad sign for anyone interested in media democratization or information equality in the short run. In the long run rich biodiversification begins with the splitting of species from other species, from the one to the many. Finally, network neutrality is a reason to reconsider not just Openness but Oneness in relationship to global information systems.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

8 thoughts on “Cultural Contradictions of Net Neutrality

  1. Adam, how do you see a path from tiered internet access to ethnic internetworks? The First World doesn’t have to pressure anyone for its conditions to get recreated in, say, the income distributions of modern India & China. If we allow Internet access to reflect economic or social place, then we reinforce the mechanisms that create inequity.

    Already there are enough pages on the internet that aren’t in English, and China has its own walled off section of the internet. Just because it is accessible doesn’t mean it’s comprehensible (try wandering around on Orkut!). Where is the contradiction between equal access and state separation & control? Diversity will bubble up.. The internet isn’t a single open space (other than in the underlying technology) – it’s a highly local, specific, group/network driven, and – this is the important bit – porous space, where people from different diversities (to bend a word) can bump up against each other and mingle. If anything, that porousness is a public good that should not be left for corporations to decide.

  2. What we need are more systems that present information ‘as is’ rather than mine and organize it according to specific ontological logics. Focus on networks rather than databases. Twitter is the closest system to what I’m talking about. Here’s an excerpt of something I recently wrote, from the first paragraph of our (successful!) NSF proposal to the STS division:

    The problem of how to work with differing ways of knowing, with differing ontologies, is a central question to business, the sciences, IT, and cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries, archives and other repositories. This is particularly relevant for any institution or technology that holds the task of assembling, collecting, representing, and displaying a set of objects that derive from differing times, places and traditions. It is recognized therefore that these objects speak to traditions, communities, and social groups that are ontologically diverse, differing in ways that they identify and practice knowledge. For these ‘information institutions’ maintaining the coherence of the collection while still being ontologically diverse has become a key tension. Rather than trying to mitigate or alleviate this tension, our submitted proposal aims to explore ways by which digital media system can put this tension to productive and creative use. We propose to evaluate the hypothesis that information systems can be created to support distributed knowledge and multiple ontologies, and that these systems

  3. hi John, what i mean is instead of taking an uploaded image, video, or piece of text and classifying it as x, y, or z (which is much of what web-based ontologies and classification systems do, and Berners Lee’s ultimate dream with the semantic web), allowing it to stand on its own without any imposed classification scheme. Obviously, any of these forms of media are discursively influenced as well as subject to the perception of he/she who views it. But it’s a major step away from the world of imposing categories on knowledge a priori that I’m arguing for above.

  4. Ramesh, if you are “allowing it to stand on its own without any imposed classification scheme,” how do you pick it out of the stream for further analysis? Time stamp, geocoding, there has to be something to identify the item for further analysis.

    That said, you might be interested in my friend Ben Ebirt, who has taken up the idea of identifying terms that tend to appear together without first trying to analyze their meaning. His corpus is the Gutenberg library (the whole thing!). and the process involves first stripping all of the structure words (articles, prepositions, etc.) out of the text, then using a technique suggested by the classic Touring machine: Look at the first seven terms, record their co-occurence, Shift one term to the right, repeat and repeat again until you reach the end of the several million terms in the corpus. Then run a network analysis based on co-occurence scores. Sounds crazy, but Ben is a smart guy with the technosavvy to set up an analysis like this.

  5. The OP is an example of the worst kind of muddle-headed misapplication of ideas from one domain to another where they make no sense at all. Fashion is fine for clothes but has no place in thought.

    “Wouldn’t a greater diversity of broadband and wifi options be more advantageous to cultural diversity than merely One?”

    Exactly, how? Because a vague prejudice in favour of multiplicity over universality in the writer’s mind will magically translate into something meaningful when applied to *internet access*? I usually try to defend you po-mo types from accusations of being useful idiots for capitalism, from my fellow lefties, on the ground that not everything is reducible to economics, etc.

    In this case, however, the OP, despite an unformed attempt to tie the argument to a critique of capitalism, stumbles into the company of both corporate fat cats and the repressive Chinese government. Diversity in telecommunications, as anyone knows who has owned a mobile phone in both America (where ‘diversity’ and corporate profit rule) and Europe (where, the ‘public good’ is emphasised, no doubt from the OP’s worldview as part of a crypto-Stalinist plot to ‘totalise’) knows what it ends up with: high costs to the consumer, shitty technology and a highly parochial network.

    As Deleuze noted, rhizomes are both the best *and* the worst. We need an arboreal system in this case. Sunlight is universally accessible to all, yet it is not an insidiously totalising system that threatens our autonomy. A public healthcare system may not properly respect the belief systems of everyone in its practises, but it’s a million times better than if we are left to the mercies of private provision. The internet is an even more clear-cut case. There are no traditional networks being threatened by universalising hegemony; there is only corporations out to squeeze extra profits, and repressive governments out to suppress information.

    Equal, open access to a single web is the *basis* on which diversity flourishes. The OP provides no contrary evidence, only gestures and prejudice.

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