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,” [12] and answers the question, “where do your aspirations, your dreams of good living, come from?” [12].

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.” [38] Radio could “inspire hope for mankind by creating a virtual community.” [38]. 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.” [40]. 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.

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12 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    This sounds like an item from what The New Yorker used to call the “Plus Ça Change Department”. It’s instructive to apply some of your arguments to older technologies. There are still some people who find ceramic cookie jars and even certain printed books “as beautiful as they are useful.” And there are plenty more gun enthusiasts who appreciate guns “as both tools and pieces of industrial art, tickling [their] aesthetic sense.”

    And what’s so novel about your final lesson: “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”? Actually, this sounds more like an argument for funding local theater, music and dance ensembles. To say nothing of public libraries where people can access the Internet for free. And access books, too — you know, those backlight-free portable information devices that people can’t remotely change the content of.

    Why aren’t you advocating for all these institutions? Precisely because they’re not “pieces of industrial art,” I suspect.

    Apropos of industrial and its antonym, convivial: you might reach back before Nussbaum and Sen to Ivan Illich, who talked about the telephone as a “structurally convivial tool”: “The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice: he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with — or protect — the privacy of their exchange.” Tools for Conviviality, (Harper Colophon 1980 [1973]) @ 23. Not that you’re alone in “forgetting” him: he seems to be absent from Tim Wu’s book, too.

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    I really like the idea of recognizing “benefits like meaningful human contact, inspiration, and joy.” I don’t think they can be factored into a cost-benefit analysis, but they should be part of scenario planning about the future of the net.

    I think that it’s a false economy to think that we should pay for better bandwidth by allowing the communication companies to effectively control what’s going on at the content or apps layer. As Brett Frischmann has argued, there is a value to an independent infrastructure that can support many different types of innovation.

    But I also worry about the “Apple” device layer. Apparently Jobs wants a 30% cut of all the revenues from the “customers Apple brings” to app makers. Maybe that’s fair, but at some point the pound of flesh will start deterring creativity. Would you say that Apple is clearly a better, more customer-friendly company than the cable companies and telcos? Or is the point that there needs to be private innovation and competition at the level of devices people actually use, but not so much at layers where there is no direct personal experience of the tech involved?

    My final point would just be: we should, as a society, strive for the fastest internet access. Given the extraordinary level of inequality in the US, it’s really not fair to ask everyone to pay the same amount for access to that universal service. Much more of the funding for fast access needs to come from a general revenue pool funded by progressive taxation.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Apropos of Frank’s last point, shouldn’t the US as a society also strive for universality of access? Why is the fastest internet access such a noble goal? Shouldn’t access be treated as a necessary utility, like water and power? Especially if the Internet contributes so much to the destruction of local services that one can’t effectively lead a normal life without it?

    The theme of destruction also helps put a finer point on my earlier comment: panegyrics such as this post’s for the “meaningful human contact, inspiration, and joy” provided by the Internet conveniently overlook that the Internet also destroys flesh-and-blood, face-to-face sources of these benefits. The metaphor of “net neutrality,” economistically constrained to carrier-related issues, becomes ironic when considered in this larger context. The virtual is not an adequate substitute for the real. It seems perverse to argue so passionately that the Internet promotes certain values whose breathing incarnations it in fact helps to destroy. Why support only the joy etc. provided by the Internet, and not from these other sources as well? At the very least, if you’re going to ask society to strive for such lofty goals as the fastest Internet access, could you also spare a coin for the living arts and local communities? Or maybe their demise is to be written off as “creative destruction” — i.e., of the creative, rather than by the creative.

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    Paul, I have a slight quibble with your premise but a bigger quibble with your conclusion. The slight quibble with the premise is that I can distinctly remember, back from my video game days, people hungering over such things as cable modems, T-1 lines, or even DSL. I suppose it was attempting to avoid a negative — lag in video games over dial-up connections — but it seemed a lot of people were anticipating positive joy from faster speeds in their own right. Perhaps there’s other examples, like when second residential telephone lines became affordable or an increase in the sheer number of channels available to watch.

    The more substantial quibble is with the conclusion. In the last paragraph, you suggest maximizing development of “bandwidth over content” always leads to static and clunky efforts at providing content by existing bandwidth providers. Even if that might be the outcome of a particular regulatory battle between certain bandwidth providers and certain content providers, I don’t think it’s generalizable. Some of the most transformational changes in history have come as a result of developments in transport technology, whether information or physical goods: books, canals, railroads, automobiles, electronic communications (radio/telegraph/telephone/television). At this point it seems safe to me to say that the Internet is going to place pretty highly in this list. So I think maximizing the width of the pipe available to users is likely to have a considerable payoff in human flourishing. I think what you’re talking about is the cost of the trades to get there, e.g. the railroad right-of-way.

  5. Paul Ohm says:

    Great comments, all. For readability (not stat-pumping) purposes, I’ll break my responses into different comments.

    @AJ: We agree on quite a bit. In an early draft of this post, I talked about how the earliest telephone calls must have brought awe, joy and inspiration. But ever since the telephone, the telecomm industries haven’t acquitted themselves well when it comes to inventing things that inspire.

    I think you set up a false choice between institutions that work toward human flourishing in meatspace and those in cyberspace. Although I may spend less time in local shops because I now have Amazon, this is a very different kind of dynamic than the fight happening in net neutrality.

    If you want to tamp down innovation on cyberspace in order to save the corner store and local theater, so be it, but you wouldn’t be doing it because one institution produces human flourishing and the other does not. They both contribute to human flourishing, in different degrees, and in different ways, and I disagree that one is worth saving and the other is not.

    Finally, I don’t think the Internet is going to end up destroying all local institutions and enticing us to give up on all human interaction. I think we’ll see that it destroys some local institutions, helps others, and creates yet others. I’ll miss Borders when it is gone, just like I miss the local bookstore the Borders replaced, but just because I love my net connection, it doesn’t mean I don’t also love going out to and interacting with other people.

  6. Paul Ohm says:

    Frank. Thanks, as always, for the insightful comments. I plan to write a post about my thoughts on Apple, but I’ll preview it here, in case I run out of time.

    First, James and I have co-authored a piece that more optimistic about generativity in the era of the iPhone than Wu is in this book.

    Second, I predict that Google Android will end up eating Apple’s lunch. If you compare this looming battle to the old Windows vs. Mac OS battle, you’ll see that Google has most of the advantages that Microsoft once had without being saddled with some of the disadvantages.

  7. Paul Ohm says:


    I think you’re confusing “the Internet” with “the high-speed Internet.” Take away the Internet, and you’d take away a lot of the things I describe in the post as inspiring. Take away the high-speed Internet, and I’m not so sure.

    What if we still lived in a 56 kbs dial-in world? The Internet would be a very, very different place, and Skype and YouTube wouldn’t exist, but Facebook and Twitter probably would, as would dozens (hundreds?) of other innovative and very different content websites.

    Besides, nobody on the Net Neutrality side wants a policy that will kill innovation for the network providers. But most of them are willing to tamp down innovation on the network, at least a little, in exchange for other things they value a lot.

    Finally, putting constraints on the network providers probably won’t interfere much with the forces that will lead to the next great telecommunications technology, the one that comes after the Internet. Tim’s book demonstrates that the next great thing almost always comes from someone other than the incumbents.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I do understand well, as mentioned in my second comment, that this is not the fight happening now in “net neutrality.” And yes, ideally a kind of precautionary principle about IT inventions does strike me as a good idea. But I realize that the list of reasons why it would be impossible for something like it to get traction in the US is as long as a regulatory czar’s arm.

    What local, face-to-face institutions has the Internet created that weren’t there before? It may recently have facilitated mustering people for certain types of protests, but there have been plenty of popular revolutions without it. I’m open to hearing your list, though. Even I can think of some. Hacker conventions, for one. Security conventions, too, while we’re at it. And let’s not forget all those overcooked chicken/salmon/Chinese dinners in Silicon Valley (and other select venues) about how to become a gazillionaire flipping your start-up. Those edible fauna did not die in vain.

    Apropos of “They both contribute to human flourishing, in different degrees, and in different ways,” I’d be foolish to disagree. After all, we’re having this discussion on a website. But the differences among the ways are at least as important in my view as the differences in degree. Especially, I don’t share the contempt that’s implicit in the word “meatspace.” The fact that this term can be used so casually and, I expect you’ll protest, jocularly, demonstrates exactly the sort of devaluation of the human that prompted my initial comment. Maybe it’s generational, but I find that a positively chilling and even shocking metaphor. It doesn’t make the realization that folks like you are comparatively the “good guys” in the intellectual debate about the Internet at all comforting.

  9. Bruce Boyden says:

    Thanks Paul. I’m not sure I follow the response, which is probably due to the bandwidth limitations of blog posts and comments. I wasn’t attempting to distinguish between dial-up and higher-speed internet and I didn’t think you were either, in the original post. Rather I was thinking about the Internet as an instance of the effect of a technological change in “transportation” on society. (“The Internet” is of course a broad term that includes a lot of separate technologies within it, developed in particular times and contexts, just like “railroads” or “books”.) In that context — and this may not have been what you meant to suggest — I don’t think we can always say that it pays to prioritize development of content over transport. But perhaps I misunderstood where you were heading at the end of the post.

  10. Paul Ohm says:

    AJ: Thanks for another great comment.

    I don’t think the Internet has created many important new face-to-face institutions yet. It has improved a few: A few groups in my town (Boulder, CO) use to great advantage, and I spend more time in coffee shops now than I ever have before, because I can surf the web in between meetings.

    But I think that these are silly examples compared to what is probably yet to come, spurred on by two things: First, augmented reality and GPS chips in our phone will inspire someone to create a truly great UI that will inspire us to meet up, face-to-face, with others. Foursquare and Dodgeball etc. point to the future, but they seem like first generation examples to me.

    Second, as our old social institutions fade, we’ll want to replace them with something else. I think that’s human nature. Sure, these new institutions may be different (cf. Bowling Alone) and they may leave some people yearning for what’s been lost, but I bet they’ll end up being things that people (in the next generation) truly learn to love for the way they help connect people together.

    I think the important thing to do is separate what we truly love and want to save about our fading institutions from what is probably just based in sentimentality.

  11. Frank says:

    AJ, you asked “What local, face-to-face institutions has the Internet created that weren’t there before?”

    I do think that facebook groups occasionally lead to new ways of people getting together.

    Rachel Brotsman has said that 90% of the stuff we own we use less than one time a month, and that therefore, a lot of green collaboration could result from internet-enabled sharing:

    Also, here is someone who has “grown especially interested in the way that massively multiplayer online gaming generates collective intelligence [which could] be utilized as a means of improving the world, either by improving the quality of human life or by working towards the solution of social ills:”

    On the flip side, one could credit the internet for promoting new levels of narcotization and quiescence as political and economic trends accelerate social and environmental decline.

  12. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Frank, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by these examples. Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t see how the McGonigal activity relates to real-world face-to-face relationships. And while “collaborative consumption” may have some good features, prima facie it seems more like an instance of a type of relationship that’s being facilitated by the net, rather than originated by it. (Cf., e.g., the Amish and their procedures for introducing use of electrical appliances and even the Internet itself.) I haven’t yet read Rachel Botsman’s book, but from a flip through and some online searching it seems to discuss a very heterogeneous set of online businesses and other websites, with relatively few involving face-to-face meeting of any kind. I’m also a little suspicious about the book’s having, at this date, exclusively 5-star reviews on Amazon (13 as I write this), of which only 6 are by people using their real names and, among those, only 1 by someone who has reviewed any other books — could there be just a little bit of hype involved? So the real scale of this “new” form of interaction may be hard to judge at this time.