A year in the life of the internet

This has been a fascinating year for those who take an interest in telecommunications issues. The heavily politicised technology and infrastructure debate surrounding the rollout of the National Broadband Network has obscured some of the deeper and more interesting issues, which in 2011 began to come to the fore.

This broadband rollout is something unusual: a colossal public investment in an age when free markets were meant to have taken care of everything.

This is the first time in recent memory that we’ve considered the quaint notion of a government utility building a new piece of national infrastructure. We were here a century ago with the water distribution network, sewerage, gas and electricity, and of course that’s how our existing copper telephone network was built: taxpayer funds deployed in large measure for the supposed collective good.

Recent experience has demonstrated the rather more spasmodic and self-interested way in which private corporations handle the construction and operation of such infrastructure. Shareholders’ expectations of ever increasing returns tend to displace the public interest as the primary motivation of those managing essential services. The best markets are cherry picked and others neglected; service quality slumps as ownership concentration thins competitive pressures, and the political clout that comes with operating essential service infrastructure is wielded against Governments, to the detriment of the taxpaying public.

It seems reasonable that if we accept rapid telecommunications are a public good in the same way as water and electricity, then it is appropriate for the public purse to fund the NBN and maintain ownership of it. This has particular application to the thorny issue of who should provide loss-making essential services to our far-flung regional hinterlands, and where the buck should stop when things go wrong.

The question of public or private ownership doesn’t quite explain why the NBN has attracted such enormous hostility though. Analysts and commentators have lined up to take a swing, lending credibility to Tony Abbot’s directive to opposition communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish’ the case for the NBN.

The voices of opposition have been powerfully amplified by the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper, which cheerfully tramples the line between legitimate scrutiny and shrill self-interest advocacy on a daily basis.

We can speculate that one reason for this is a collision not just of ideologies, but of centuries: as this expanding thing we’re calling the internet continues to absorb and displace media platforms one by one, it is melting obsolete business models as it goes. Newspapers, music stores, commercial TV stations, bookstores, all appear to be under threat as people transfer their attention spans and spending decisions online.

The 20th century saw the perfection of the broadcast paradigm, where radio, television and newspaper proprietors packaged news, advertising and opinion and delivered it, one way, to hundreds of millions of passive consumers. Participation was limited to talkback radio and letters to the editor; that is, participation by express consent of the broadcaster.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the broadcast model may well have peaked, and the picture isn’t pretty. Media corporations have grown and swallowed each other like blobs of mercury, unconsciously narrowing public debate to an echo chamber of empty consumerism. Media oligarchs trade stakes in TV stations as though they were poker chips and the line between editorial and advertising has been obliterated everywhere except the ABC. Offshore proprietors use cross-media platforms as political weapons, deployed to devastating effect during contests between elected governments and powerful industry sectors, the mining tax debacle being one recent example.

This is the domain where child psychologists are employed to refine junk food messaging for maximum impact on three year olds, and where hyper-sexualised branding strategies monetise the carefully researched insecurities of teenagers. In this world we’re still meant to be passive consumers. Political debate seems at risk of being reduced to the same imperative; an undignified zero-sum contest of soundbites and confected polls over who is best placed to manage 3% annual growth in the consumer economy and protect us from people who look different to us.

This, of course, is just a caricature of the bigger picture, and it’s not even the most interesting part of it. An unruly, unmediated and unrestrained global conversation is rapidly sidelining the centralised broadcast paradigm. In this place, the distributed, many-to-many nature of the internet has flowed around old hierarchies and in some cases threatens their very existence. It’s coming off a very low base, but in this world, each of us can at different times be a consumer, a curator, and a producer. In the 20th century, the closest analogue would probably be small-scale community broadcasters or collectives assembling zines on photocopiers; now, homemade content can make its way around the world at the speed of light, propagated over social networks where the only criteria for rapid circulation is whether the material is interesting or not.

Marketers, media empires and social engineers are exploring and shaping this space like everyone else, but at least for the time being, the communications playing field is undergoing a kind of anarchic levelling.

The nature of political communications is changing as well. This is not just a matter of one-to-one contact with your political representatives via irreverent banter on twitter (#nbn, #qt, #auspol) – it goes as far as the entire classified contents of US State Department diplomatic archives laid bare for every journalist, campaigner and interested bystander on the net. The internet was not designed as a broadcast medium – although it can be used as such – its real power is hinted at in the role played during democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions of ordinary people adopted the tools of social networking chit chat with history-making intent.

In Australia, an entire generation is abandoning newspapers and picking up their current affairs in real-time through syndicated news services and social networks. The 24 hour news cycle is fragmenting into something more interesting as an interactive hypertext of commentary and feedback now surrounds every significant political development. In one of the tighter and more fascinating feedback loops, policy proposals relating to the internet itself generate the fiercest debates which can morph into powerful political campaigns – witness the furore over the Government’s net filter proposal (#nocleanfeed, #openinternet).

As we step into this golden age of e-democracy and ever funnier lolcats, a few final caveats are probably in order.
The NBN rollout is an excellent time to remind ourselves that the weightless dimensions of cyberspace are grounded in plastic pipes and drawn glass fibre, holes in the ground and wires strung on wooden poles, humming server farms in far-off places lit up with coal-fired electricity. Stephen Graham sounds the warning in ‘When Infrastructure Fails“:

“…without the “dirty” world of fossil-fuel extraction, refinement, transport, and use, the supposedly virtual worlds of new media – the hail of electrons and pixels on screens – would instantly cease to exist. The internet, covertly, is one of the fastest-growing polluters on the planet.”

The internet may seem frictionless and infinite, it may seem to have collapsed the physical distance between people, and it holds out the promise of a new age of productivity, innovation and global cultural cross-pollination on a scale that’s hard to guess at. But as we mesh ourselves ever more intimately with mediated electronic domains, we’re also losing contact with the people who live next door to us. It’s worth remembering the old adage that “it doesn’t matter how fast your modem is if you’re being shelled by ethnic separatists.” It’s worth remembering that nearly a quarter of Australian homes don’t have a computer in them, and we have more than a hundred thousand homeless people in Australia. It’s worth remembering that despite rapid growth of ICT in the global south, billions of people are yet to make their first phone call.

Sometime soon, I look forward to leaving the NBN technology debate to the experts and have the Australian Parliament settle the market rules of conduct. As fascinating as these conversations are to a tiny handful of people, they are just a precursor to the real story of what we’ll do with these global communications networks in the age of climate change, as a growing fraction of planet earth’s population comes online.