The Master Switch Symposium: Network Neutrality and Human Flourishing
Since launching the Network Neutrality debate, Tim Wu has continued to play an invaluable role, constantly reminding us that the debate is about more than just economics. Too many experts on both sides of the debate view things solely through an economic lens, which has led us to intractable differences. As I have argued elsewhere, because respected economists line up on both sides, it is very hard to tell whether mandatory network neutrality will, on net, enhance or reduce innovation.
In The Master Switch, a fascinating and important book, Wu argues powerfully that policies like net neutrality are necessary also to protect noneconomic ideals like free speech. (He highlights other benefits of neutrality, most importantly the way it helps us resist tyranny, in his chapter on AT&T’s role in the NSA wiretapping program, but he left me wanting more from this example.) Although free speech is of paramount importance, I think this book provides a welcome opportunity to focus on other noneconomic benefits and values beyond free speech that are also today at risk in the battlefields of neutrality.
The kinds of benefits that I would like to inject into the net neutrality debate are, in fact, referenced throughout Wu’s deft survey of the history of telecommunications technology, but never directly enough: benefits like meaningful human contact, inspiration, and joy. As strange as it may seem, in a modern age many of us receive transcendental benefits like these from information technologies, but only from one class of technology providers, those who create content, and never from the other class, those who build networks.
I am thus connecting the net neutrality debate to strands of legal scholarship that are still foreign to it, from economic definitions of non-monetary utility, to Nussbaum and Sen’s capabilities and affordances, to certain strains from the emerging law and psychology literature on happiness. Happiness scholars speak of enabling human flourishing, and in my opinion, over the past century, content has often directly enhanced human flourishing while networks almost never have.
Wu doesn’t specifically draw out the ways the telephone, radio, television, and cinema have fostered human contact, inspiration, and joy, but a careful reader can find traces of this throughout the book, in some of its most soaring passages. In the first chapter, Wu explains how information technology “inspires a generation to dream of a better society,” [p. 9] “defines the basic tenor of our times,”  and answers the question, “where do your aspirations, your dreams of good living, come from?” .
Of the four or five information revolutions described in the book, the radio is portrayed most as a medium of contact, inspiration, and joy. The “open age of radio” was thought to be a path toward “a more cultured society,” and “a great social interconnectedness.”  Radio could “inspire hope for mankind by creating a virtual community.” . In Britain, “[i]n tune with Victorian convictions about human perfectibility, radio was employed as a means of moral uplift, of shaping character, and generally of presenting the finest in human achievement and aspiration.” . In all of these lofty claims, culture, interconnectedness, inspiration, and even moral uplift were the products of the shows that were airing over the radio—the content—not the way the receiver plucked signals out of the ether.
Because Wu doesn’t focus on the values of human flourishing, he misses the chance to describe how the Internet has become a factory churning out inspiration, human contact, and joy at the content layer. Skype video calls have brought grandparents closer to their children; Facebook and Twitter enrich human relationships (well, some of the time); and YouTube has given rise to occasional whimsy and delight. The iPhone and iPad, despite being eyed suspiciously by Wu for being so closed, are as beautiful as they are useful. We experience them as both tools and pieces of industrial art, tickling our aesthetic sense.
In contrast, innovation at the network layer serves only to prevent frustration and annoyance. We experience network innovation on the Internet only in its absence, wondering why a download is so slow or a video so choppy. In fact, I can’t think of a single innovation in my lifetime created by the cable or telephone industries that has inspired the kind of awe, wonderment, or excitement about new forms of communication that I routinely get from the content layer.
By expanding our values viewscreen, we strengthen the argument for neutrality considerably. If we enact polices that protect the application builders against discriminatory treatment by the infrastructure deployers, we might be able to enable the path toward inspiration, joy, better human contact, and human flourishing. Perhaps in later work I can dig more deeply into the mechanisms at play, but for now I am making a descriptive point, following Wu’s invitation to draw from the lessons of history: one hundred years has been time enough for us to pick a winner in this race, because the outcomes have been so imbalanced.
The lesson for policymakers is this: If you maximize development at the content layer even at the expense of sacrificing better bandwidth, you pave the road to inspiration, human connection, and joy. If instead you choose bandwidth over content, then the people who brought you the clunky interface on your cable set-top box get to design your social networking platform. With the cable companies and telcos in charge, the prospects for inspiration and human flourishing seem quite bleak.