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FiberFete and Plenums

I gave the closing talk at FiberFete on Thursday. FiberFete was a celebration of the complete fiber-ing of Lafayette, Louisiana — an impressive story of a city struggling to overcome entrenched interests with a vision of how low-cost bandwidth can bring about major benefits in education, medical care, and the economy. The Fete was organized by Geoff Daily and David Isenberg as a celebration, and as a way to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in what a fully connected city can do. The day was impressive and even moving as we heard from the CIOs of San Francisco and Seattle, technologists, visionaries, and an awesome group of Lafayette teachers and students.

David wanted me to talk about what we could do if we had ubiquitous, high speed, open, symmetric (i.e., roughly the same speed for uploading and downloading) connectivity. Since I don’t know what we could do, I tried to beg off, but David insisted. So, here’s a summary of what I said in my twenty minutes.

The important thing about ubiquity is not the percentage of people connected, but the ubiquity of the assumption of ubiquity. E.g., we assume everyone has access to a phone, even though “only” 95.7% of American households have one (including cell phones). Nevertheless, the assumption creates a market for innovation.

The core of that assumption is an assumption of abundance…an abundance of information, links, people, etc. Our brains have difficulty comprehending the abundance we now have. There are so many people on line that the work of 1% can create something that boggles the mind of the other 99%. As more people come on line, that rule of 1% will become a rule of 0.01% and then 0.001%. The curve of amazement is going straight up.

The abundance means we will fill up every space we can think of. We are creating plenums (plena?) of sociality, knowledge and ideas, and things (via online sensors). These plenums fill up our social, intellectual and creative spaces. The only thing I can compare them to in terms of what they allow is language itself.

What do they allow? Whatever we will invent. And the range of what we can invent within these plenums is enormous, at least so long as the Net isn’t for anything in particular. As soon as someone decides for us what the Net is “really” for, the range of what we can do with it becomes narrowed. That’s why we need the Net to stay open and undecided.

These abundances are not merely quantitative. They change the nature of what they provide. And they refuse to stay within their own bounds. For example, we go online to get information about a product, probably through a mobile device. There we find customer conversations. These voices are not confined to giving us product reviews. We are also ubiquitously connected to pragmatic advice, to new businesses and institutions that compete with or make use of the item we’re engaged with, to governmental and legal information. If people are unhappy with the product, they may use their online meeting spot as a way to organize an activist movement.

In other words, Clay Shirky is right: The Net makes it ridiculously easy to form groups. In fact, when your information medium, communication medium, and social medium are all precisely the same, its ubiquity will make it hard not to form groups. For example, if your child has a bad cough, of course you’ll go online. Of course you’ll find other parents talking about their kids. Your information search has become a communicative enterprise. Because you’re now talking with other people who share an interest, your communication is likely to spawn a social connection. These plenums just won’t stay apart.

Furthermore, many of these networked groups will be hyperlocal, especially within localities where connectivity is ubiquitous. As we get more of these locations, hyperlocal networks will connect with other hyperlocal networks, creating superlocal networks (although I have no idea what I mean by that term).

These plenums will affect all of our institutions because they remove obstacles to our being more fully human.

37 Responses to “FiberFete and Plenums”

  1. Well said! However, one should not discount the possibility that that ‘assumption of abundance’ is already widely held, and quite influential to decision making, in an ironic sort of way. To give just one example, people who are familiar with optical multiplexing technologies know that the age of abundance has already arrived — that we’re already a decade or so into it, in fact. But that group includes quite a large number of self-conscious adherents of some version of the subjective theory of value, and is also almost perfectly coextensive with the group of individuals who have a deep, long-term private interest in the profitability of commercial IP networks. In cases where those two factors coexist, one might expect the resulting clash of private knowledge with that particular combination of material interests and philosophical inclination to reject the possibility and/or relevance of “objective” supply conditions (including extremes like exhaustion and abundance) to produce strong reactions…. maybe even reactions of the kind that precipitated the net neutrality fights in the first place…

  2. […] Weinberger talks about what he presented – at FiberFete. […]

  3. I find your use of the term “plenum” confusing. Is there another term you could use that has somewhat fewer meanings?

    I’m interested in the invitation-only nature of FiberFete. Is seems a bit cult-like to have a conference in which participants must pass a loyalty oath in order to attend.

    It was also sad for eComm that the organizers chose to push a stick in their eye by scheduling FF as they did.

  4. I thought “plenum” only had one meaning: Absolute fullness, every space filled. But you’re right that it’s not actually the right word, since Web “space” isn’t a set volume that can be full, empty, or something in between. It’s a space that is created by its objects. But, it was only a 20 min talk, and I thought it might be a useful way to talk about an abundance that grows by simultaneously creating and filling more and more possibilities.

    The conference was a fete, a celebration of the upcoming completion of Lafayette’s installation. Some parties, and some conferences, are invitation-only.

    The timing was tied not to eComm (as I understand it) but to the famous music fete held annually in Lafayette that began the night FiberFete ended.

  5. To building architects and network administrators, “plenum” is an air space in which you sometimes pull cables. Technically, it’s the ducts for HVAC, and the cable has to be “plenum rated” in terms of the composition of the cable’s jacket. “Plenum-rated” cable is fire retardant and doesn’t give off toxic gases when burnt, so the term “plenum” evokes images of fire and infrastructure. You’re using it to mean “abundance” in the dictionary definition of the opposite of “vacuum”. It might be clearer just to stick with “abundance.”

    The net neutrality movement has an odd connection with George Gilder insofar as Gilder was writing a decade ago about a future in which bandwidth was so abundant it would be too cheap to meter. Gilder (who is, incidentally, an intelligent design creationist and enemy of empirical science,) overlooked the fact that the difference between a network in which bandwidth is abundant and one in which it’s scarce can come down to a single application. There was plenty of bandwidth in cable-based DOCSIS networks until P2P came along, for example.

    The social aspect of ubiquitous networks is certainly interesting, but it’s one of many applications modern networks can support. I think the way it works is that the network is capable of being tuned for a variety of applications; rather than being blind to apps, it’s capable of recognizing them and adjusting to their requirements. So the Internet is not so much Isenberg 2.0 (one service for all apps) as Isenberg 1.0 (data tells the network how to behave.)

    Apps that enable different modes of interaction need different network services in order to run well.

  6. Aha! I had no idea “plenum” was a term of art to infrastructure administrators. I know of it only in its philosophical context. So, thanks for the explanation. But, “abundance” isn’t quite the right word, since I want to give the sense of an abundance of variety as well as of quantity — filling every space and niche.

    On your second point: I don’t want the carriers to be the ones who decide for us which modes of interaction and which applications are the ones that work best.

  7. The network operators are the only ones in a position to ensure that the networks work well for all of us, so I don’t see that there’s a choice “B” on that menu.

  8. Richard,

    Come on.

    “The Net Neutrality movement has an odd connection with Gilder”??
    Most net neutrality advocates don’t operate from premises that have anything at all to do with bandwidth being too cheap to meter; the association won’t stick. And it doesn’t even work as a critique of those who do think that the ratio of optical multiplexing returns per dollar invested is likely to remain far enough ahead of all human demand as to be effectively infinite. If you think that Gilder would have found in the unusual aspects of bandwidth supply any justification for its exemption from customary treatment under what he called “monopoly capitalism,” then I suggest that you read a little further. His 1979 Forbes essay on “Galbraithian Truth and Fallacy” would be a good place to start (see quote below, pls. let me know if you want a full copy).

    And really: Gilder was “an enemy of empirical science”?? By this do you mean that he embraced the same broadly Austrian economic perspective that guided most policy-making under the previous Administration, including most prominently US bank (un)regulation and monetary policy under our illustrious former Federal Reserve Chairman? The same broadly Austrian economic perspective that motivates current nostalgia for the good old (imaginary) days of the Free Banking era, as well as the current dreams of standards-free networking?

    Apps may need “different networks services” but the current and potential future users of those apps need network services that work together is transparent and predictable ways.


    “The truth, perceived by Galbraith perhaps better than by most of his adversaries, is that the very essence of capitalism is the competitive pursuit of transitory positions of monopoly. This pursuit is not guided by any invisible hand. It is governed by the quite visible and aggressive hand of management and en- trepreneurship. Businesses continually differentiate their products, marketing techniques, advertising and retailing strategies, in order to find some unique niche in the system from which they can reap, as long as possible, monopoly profits.”

    George Gilder, “Galbraithian truth and fallacy”
    Forbes (November 12, 1979)

  9. Tom, really. Larry Lessig is the acknowledged king of net neutrality, and all the most vocal advocates take their cues from him. Lessig supports his position with reference to e2e, which is at best half the story of the Internet, and with frequent references to Gilder’s abundance theories. Lessig and Gilder have appeared on several panels together over the years. Lessig touted the abundance theory at the FCC’s Comcast hearing at Stanford in the course of urging the Commission to issue an unlawful order against Comcast.

    Economics is a very interesting subject, but it’s not one in which I’m schooled, so I’ll have to decline the invitation for an economic argument. Gilder works for the Discovery Institute, an organization that wants to replace the teaching of evolution with the teaching of Intelligent Design. That’s the anti-scientific doctrine I referred to in my previous comment.

    Network engineering recognizes that all applications are not equal with respect to their network service requirements. Work out the economics to support that reality in your own way.

  10. “Work out the economics to support that reality in your own way…”

    Actually, we already did; it’s called the Internet ;-)

    But I can understand how that might not be apparent to you, given your apparent eagerness to dismiss e2e (which is basically equivalent to the concept of “acceptability” in monetary affairs, or “marketability” in the Austrian/Mengerian version thereof).

    To each his own I suppose…

  11. You’re quite a troll, Tom, and I say that with the deepest respect and admiration. Can you point me to the RFC that describes Internet economics? That’s a trick question, of course, until the Pre-Con group finishes its work.

    What I said about e2e is that it’s “at best half the story.” TCP is an end-to-end protocol, but IP, DNS, and BGP are not. The Internet depends much more heavily on its ability to interact with physical networks than with the ability of applications to rate-match each other. The genius of the Internet is network-to-network interaction, as all applications are inherently end-to-end, even AOL dial-up.

    But you knew that, and have chosen to play dumb for entertainment. As you wish, but I’m not playing along.

    Fiber Fete surprises me because it was a closed conference to celebrate an allegedly open network. That doesn’t feel right.

  12. BTW, I don’t know anyone who acknowledges Larry Lessig as “the king of network neutrality.” We don’t and never did take “cues” from him or from any particular person, any more than you “take cues” from someone for your views. (BTW, Lessig has been primarily focused on campaign finance reform for the past couple of years, so you might at least want to update your monarchal org chart.)

    The dissonance you find about FiberFete sounds a bit forced, Richard. FiberFete was a celebration. I don’t see why it was required to invite naysayers. You can have your own parties.

  13. See:

  14. Richard, do you intend that video of Lessig’s recent talk on broadband policy to refute the point that Lessig is _primarily_ focused on campaign finance reform (he is the head of a center at Harvard to that end) or my contention that he does not have the status of a monarch? The citation fails in either regard.

  15. Lessig uses Congressional corruption to explain why nobody in power is willing to adopt his recommendations on NN and copyright. It’s evident that he’s still out there pushing his radical regulatory agenda and has simply bolted his corruption campaign on the side of it.

    Ironically, this is the man who co-founded a Google-funded center at Stanford, acted like a Google lobbyist for ten years and tried to run for Congress before going back to Harvard with a pure heart to complain about campaign contribution corrupting the Congress he wanted so desperately to be a part of.

  16. I would think keeping limits on government extending private monopolies (copyright), and regulating utility-like near-monopolies (teleco’s), would be quite a reasonable regulatory agenda. Anyway, Lessig quotes Gilder because he (Lessig) wants to appeal to right-wingers, thus he tries to build connections with right-want technology-evangelists like Gilder (and Gilder being a political hack is sort of intrinsic to the problem – you basically don’t get to be prominent in those circles with certain tribal nonsense like being anti-Evolution). People have suggested to Lessig that this strategy is futile, in part because he’s attempting to be rational with the irrational, but he tries anyway.

    Yeah, Lessig explored the idea of a run for Congress, but decided it wouldn’t work – what’s wrong with that? I think it was a good experience to see what was involved, even if it never went anywhere.

    What does all this have to do with David’s skillful performance as entertainment storyteller to the conference audience?

  17. Argh, I should proofread better

    “right-want technology-evangelists” -> “right-WING technology-evangelists”

    “with certain tribal nonsense” -> “withOUT certain tribal nonsense”

  18. Blog comments are like conversation, you start somewhere and end up somewhere else. Al Gore and Vint Cerf co-invented the Internet so that things like this could happen, Seth. Anyhow, I didn’t get to hear David’s talk at FF because I wasn’t invited and it’s not available to the great unwashed. He does a fine job, of course, as you would expect of any good Heideggerian.

    Do you agree that Lessig is the king of net neutrality, Seth?

  19. King? Nah. That’s making him a bogeyman. He’s certainly nobility, but king is much too high. I’d put him as a powerful Duke. Tim Wu is the Vizier. Eric Schmidt is the King.

    (David is a court Bard :-))

  20. Eric Schmidt isn’t even a supporter of NN, Seth, he tolerates the NN folk at Google (a very small number, BTW) at best. Wu is one of Lessig’s proteges, and much less enthusiastic about the regulatory nonsense than you might think.

    David’s fundamental insights about the social implications of the Internet and how information gets organized have nothing to do with NN as far as I can tell. Supporting NN is like working at a soup kitchen in addition to your day job, might make you feel good but doesn’t accomplish much.

  21. My point was that you’re confusing name-recognition with kingship. Lessig is certainly prominent, but it’s absurd to attribute a multi-billion dollar business dispute (between Google, etc. and telco’s) to him.

    And no, part of David’s job as a court bard is to compose songs and stories about NN. It’s a small part of the lobbying to accomplish that those in the realm of Google should defeat the forces of the teleco’s.

  22. Lessig has probably collected more coin from the NN squabble than anyone, and he is, after all, the dude who started it back in 2000 when Google wasn’t even aware that there was such a thing as policy or such a place as DC where the laws get made.

    And let’s not forget the court jester, David Reed, without whom this controversy would be much less fun.

  23. It is fascinating how everyone but Richard Bennett is typically incorrect.

  24. Regarding, “Lessig has probably collected more coin …” – I don’t see any evidence of that. From where, and how much? I don’t begrudge you any coin you may collect from your “The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation” fellowship, but I don’t see anything similar for Lessig.

  25. I’ve noticed that too, Glenn; it’s my cross to bear.

  26. Lessig makes his from selling books and speeches, Seth. He’s done quite well.

  27. “Selling books”??? Ha ha ha. You can’t be serious. That sort of royalty money is hardly going to be “more coin from the NN squabble than anyone”. I can’t see his speeches being that either. C’mon, what do you think telecom and Google lobbyists get paid? That sort of demonization is silly when you justify it so weakly.

  28. I don’t know what Lessig’s speaking fee is, but it’s probably not far south of Sarah Palin’s, and he’s been racking up the net neutrality fees since 2000. Granted, we can’t count Google’s $2 million contribution to Lessig’s “Stanford Center for the Internet and Free Downloads” as personal wealth, but it has helped cement the brand.

  29. Consider: “I don’t know what Richard Bennett’s consulting fee is, but it’s probably not far south of Karl Rove’s, and he’s make himself a nice position to be racking up the net neutrality coin for a long time”.

    See the problem?

  30. Yeah, you shortened my comment to fit it into your stereotype. I think the comparison between Palin and Lessig is fair based on their national visibility and propensity to manipulate audiences; neither is as clever as they believe they are, either.

  31. “comparison between Palin and Lessig is fair based on their national visibility …”

    Google news for “Lessig” now: 85
    Google news for “Sarah Palin” now: 7,420

    I rest my case :-(

  32. Lessig made an interesting critique of Sarah Palin’s experience,

    But Palin was more qualified to run for VP than Lessig was to run for Congress.

  33. Palin is getting 6-figure speaking fees. She is one of the highest paid speakers in the world. The notion that Lessig is “not far south” of that is ludicrous. In fact, I couldn’t even find a way to contact Lessig as a speaker: There’s nothing on his site, and a quick googling failed to turn up a speakers bureau that represents him.

    But the more important point is: You are once again attacking people on ad hominem grounds rather than confronting their arguments. Richard, I honestly don’t understand why you cannot accept the possibility that people disagree with you honestly and not because they’re corrupt.

  34. The video I gave you was from a paid speaking gig that Lessig did a few days ago. Google tells me his speaker’s bureau is here:

    I actually do believe that most of the people who disagree with me are ignorant or misguided rather than corrupt; I make an exception for Lessig for a couple of reasons: 1) I know he’s been told by credible people where his analysis of the Internet falls short; and 2) Lessig accuses all his opponents of being corrupt, so it seems fair to judge him by his own standards.

  35. […] Read more at David’s site, “JOHO the Blog!” Ignore Richard Bennett’s comments. Think about what David is saying, and feel free to comment here, because I’d love to discuss it. […]

  36. I suspect Lessig has never heard of All American Speakers. All American Speakers are lead generators, and if you read their fine print you realize that they don’t claim to actually represent the speakers. They prolly just get a finder’s fee for a referral to the ACTUAL speakers bureau.

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