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Internet exceptionalism

Because of preceding comments at the little confab on “The Net as a human right?” I went to, I decided that it might be worthwhile to defend Internet Exceptionalism, since that’s the basis for the claim that access to the Net ought to be a human right. So, I opened my brief comments by pointing to three exceptional things about the Internet [abbreviated]:

1. As a medium, we use it for information, communication, and sociality. It’s hard to find another medium that combines those three uses and is becoming dominant in all three. This matters because it means we go to the Net to ask a question and end up making friends.

2. The Internet scales from one to billions, group to any size group. It is different at every scale.

3. Telephones were invented for speaking, and cars were invented for driving, but the Internet was not invented for any single use. That is the source of its value, and certainly of its economic value. It’s why we need to preserve Net neutrality. It’s also why the Net does not fit into any frame perfectly.

Then I pointed to three things we learn from this exceptional invention. 1. We create unimaginable things when we are put in a connected environment that has been made permission-free. 2. Collaboration is natural. 3. We will never ever agree about anything.

But, does that exceptionalism mean that the Internet ought to be made a human right? Nah.

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18 Responses to “Internet exceptionalism”

  1. Well, we used “paper” for that in the past, but “print exceptionalism” shows the limits of the concept. Note there’s a certain pivoting on the word “exceptionalism” – every medium, by definition, has characteristics that distinguish it from others. But that hardly means it’s exempt from overall principles. Look at it this way – as people, we are all both unique, and in theory, equal before the law.

    But what I found really interesting, in terms of the politics (especially for an international audience), is how you reconcile the implications of such evangelism with the framework and constraints of business – sort of a net version of gospel-of-prosperity. That requires much skill to pull off, especially in a context of people who believe in extensive government-provided social services.

    Again, I’m NOT criticizing you for doing this – I’m merely analyzing it for what is being done.

  2. Omniscience is a human right and upon that principle libraries have proliferated. As a library technology, the internet can reinforce free access to information, news, literature, commentary, art, etc.

    As a pipeline, the internet transports many different things: books, the human voice, advertisements and product menus, personal correspondence, news, Literature, and the Arts.

    The human right to omniscience should not be confused with the technology ( access to printed books, internet access) that fosters and nourishes omniscience.

    However, without access to the necessary irrigation, omniscience remains a parched fantasy.

    What if the internet was a library technology and all business and advertising usage of the internet was paid to libraries in order to improve access to knowledge.

    All individuals would have free access to the internet as they now can obtain free library cards, and if businesses wished to utilize internet technology, they would have to pay the libraries for the privilege of renting the internet space.

    Of course this scenario assumes that we live in a society where corporations are not given the same ‘rights’ as individuals; and unfortunately we do not live in this kind of society.

    The question of Internet rights merely reflects the current political struggles between the rights of individuals and the privileges of elites.

    We should have free universal internet access provided by community libraries.

    Corporations should be required to pay for their marketing use of this technology.

    No corporation should be in control of the wires of internet transmission, just as no corporations should be in control of public libraries.

  3. “…the Internet was not invented for any single use”?

    May I suggest that the Internet was invented for one specific, simple, single use: to move bits among networks.

    All the technical, operational, and policy issues that cloud our understanding of the net can be clarified when viewed through the prism of that fact.

  4. I think the Internet will increasingly will become a tool facilitating collaboration.

    All the technical, operational, and policy issues that cloud our understanding of blogs visited (e.g. ) could be clarified with a simple ‘About’ page or sidebar colophon widget. -but nice reads here and there btw.

  5. Obviously I agree with you, Frank. (Obvious from what Frank knows about my commitment to a policy Net neutrality.)

    Nevertheless, we want that free flow of bits because we don’t want to determine ahead of time how those bits can be used. Bits are the ultimate abstraction.

  6. David, I keep pointing out, that’s reasoning which has some very bad consequences – if we don’t “determine ahead of time how those bits can be used.” to some extent, then the bandwidth-hogging applications can crowd out the time-sensitive applications. This is a classic case where not making a choice is in effect making a choice – and not necessarily a good one.

    Indeed – “to move bits among networks” – and now we want to move *a lot* of bits, with conflicting requirements. Those conflicts come from issues in practice which are not addressed by the abstraction.

  7. Darryl, thanks for the quick critique of listics… it’s shamefully ill-managed these days. My RSS feed has been broken most of the year… I hope to improve it all very soon, and the colophon and informative widgetry will presumably help a lot.

    And, yes, David, I agree that “we want that free flow of bits because we don’t want to determine ahead of time how those bits can [or will] be used.”

    So, Seth, IMNSHO there’s no such thing as a band-width hogging application. Bandwidth is virtually infinite. I know this to be true even as I look at the DSL NID on my wall, a device that throttles that infinite bandwidth down to something pathetically slow.

    Back in the day, as recently as the nineties, really, there was a serious argument to be made about contention on the net. There was concern that my TeeVee addiction could swamp your compelling need for quick interchange of textual bits, or whatever. Today, avoiding the issue is a small matter of engineering (SMOE, like SMOP only with a hardhat replacing the propeller beanie). We truly do not want to determine ahead of time how the bits will be used because if we do so determine, then we will be saddled with somebody’s value judgment regarding whose bits are more important and why.

    Truly, bits are simply bits and bandwidth is a commodity that can move all the bits there ever will be at an ever decreasing price.

  8. > Bandwidth is virtually infinite

    I cannot make sense of this statement. In comity, I try to apply the principle of charity, i.e. seek a meaningful interpretation of it. However, I cannot find that. Please clarify.

    > then we will be saddled with somebody’s value judgment regarding whose bits are more important and why.

    And if you don’t, you are also saddled with somebody’s value judgment, that e.g. time-sensitivity is not important. There’s an obvious philosophical paradox that can easily be abused. But this case seems a pretty clear instance of value judgments either way.

  9. Maybe I was a bit too poetic. I thought the ironic juxtaposition of the image of my DSL network interface with the sweeping statement regarding the infinite capacity of the sum of all transmission media would speak for itself.

    Consider Korea. More and more people there have affordable access to more bandwidth than they can use, because they have a properly provisioned infrastructure and a well run market.

    I guess “more bandwidth than they can use” is the key concept. If I provide you with a megabit of bandwidth and you are constrained by present need or immediate expectation… i.e. you need 2 megabits of throughput and I only supplied one, or you anticipate the need for 2 megabits and the single megabit while adequate today will clearly be inadequate tomorrow, you live in an environment of scarcity. It’s as if a monopolist is squeezing you. On the other hand, if I provide you ten megabits, but the most you can conceive of using in the foreseeable future is 3 megabits, then you have been provisioned with “virtually infinite” bandwidth. In this model any number greater than three = infinity. Bandwidth is infinite when everybody can have more than they need. The telecommunications industry can provide virtually infinite bandwidth.

  10. There is no such thing as “everybody can have more than they need”. Work expands to fill the time available. Applications expand to fill the resources available – and note, more resources means more potential for conflict.

    Or, remember the apocryphal statement “640K (of memory) should be enough for anyone”.

    For heaven’s sake, people are now finding 1 TERABYTE hard drives are insufficient. For ordinary people.

    This is all a bit like the argument that one should never need a special-purpose coprocessor, just a faster general-purpose processor.
    After all, if you have a graphics card, that’s making a value judgment that some sorts of calculations are more important than others. The correct thing to do is improve CPU engineering, to virtually infinite cycles, because abstractly it’s all just calculations.

  11. I stand corrected. Should have said: “Everybody can have as much as they need,” not “more than they need.” Didn’t think I had to qualify my comment to include shifting perspectives over time.

    If it’s okay with you, I’ll simply reject the aphorisms about work and applications expanding. I’ll grant that we do have an infinite demand for bandwidth, but I’d like you to see that there is infinite bandwidth available.

    Brief comment on “pterodactyl requirements of ordinary people,” or whatever. Most ordinary people haven’t ever seen a parrot, much less a pterodactyl. Nevertheless, there will be bandwidth available for their pterodactyls if they ever need it. They may, of course, be required to file a flight plan.

  12. BitTorrent already proved the aphorism. If infinite bandwidth was available, it would try to use infinity-plus-one. Or more like Cantor’s infinity aleph-one.

    People have already found that they need more than is available, and will for the foreseeable future (24 hour 300dpi real-time 3D lifecasting, anyone?)

  13. SMOE

  14. […] See th&#1077 rest here: Joho th&#1077 Blog » Internet exceptionalism […]

  15. […] David Weinberger […]

  16. DW and sympathizers are right, The Internet is inherently exceptional — at least for now. The current relationship between BitTorrent and access network congestion proves nothing, except perhaps that the currently widespread practice of strategic edge network rationing fixes access capacity at a level that falls below the upper limit of finite individual-level attention spans/filtering. But this is a contingent byproduct of current circumstances. If individual network users were not haunted by the legitimate concern that even more draconian artificial rationing might be just over the horizon, the BitTorrent-enabled strategy of “grab as much as possible now, filter locally later (if necessary”) would probably be quite anomalous — and eventually (if access capacity were allowed to grow in line with actual technology-cost-adjusted provisioning and maintenance costs), even the most gluttonous, attention challenged infovore would never be able to find the bottom.

    Unfortunately, the condition of non-scarcity is not only exceptional, it’s anathema in the context of our current economic system. In fact, recognition of even the possibility of technology-driven non-scarcity would represent a clear and definitive refutation of the worldviews of some of the most vocal (and currently, quite influential) champions of the “pure” market-based life (Austrian economists, anarcho-capitalists, etc.). The facts will never hold sway in this particular context, because the worldview dictates that the facts must be otherwise.

  17. […] matter for the social good is a natural extension of David Weinberger’s idea of “Internet exceptionalism“.  It also echoes the spirit of the recent paper “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in […]

  18. The internet is an extension of a primary concept to control information, it was built with a basic single purpose ….. to control information. Information manipulation is not a by product of computer science it is the motivating force. Who can get to the mecca of supreme information control first. Google and Facebook are constantly engaged in a power war over the information mecca.
    To state that the internet is a human right is to demoralize humanity. While the internet holds much information and is a source for many to inspire and educate in the same manner as a library, the internet also is a playground for cyber criminals and deviants who have no correlation to Omniscience.
    The internet is it’s own beast and while we can derive commonalities with tangible objects like paper and libraries, we are yet to define internet regulation. Paper and libraries answer to copyright law while the internet currently has no formal legislation on this issue. Until cyber democracy is defined by the people the internet CANNOT be upheld as a human right, since human rights require a framework of laws to operate in. The internet is everything to everyone, leaving it wide open to consumerism which is also NOT a human right …… just ask someone from an underprivileged nation. Television is not a human right nor is having a cell phone. The internet is the ultimate in free speech. Democracy recognizes a right to free speech but not without engaging due process. Crisis Management is the only due process that the internet currently offers. :)

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