“Net Neutrality” speaks to access and control of the Internet’s jet stream of information. That flow comes into our homes and offices through a cable or wireless connection, which carries and distributes the bulk of info, both visual and aural, dispersed across the world. Net Neutrality is one of those buzz phrases the cognoscenti develop and use to distinguish their fief from other fiefs. The alliteration makes it feel good in the mouth and sparkly in the mind; but after the term lands…Most people, even after hearing it several times, are still baffled.Everyone understands what a net is and certainly that Neutral is a position on a car’s transmission control—that space between its gears in which the car can’t move…But Neutral on the Internet? Reminds me of that exchange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, during the Hatter’s tea party…“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.” “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter.
Terms of art can fail miserably when used to address a general public. The fate of Net Neutrality is a recent example of such a failure. The debate about what effect, if any, the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling might have over who might control the future shape of the Internet, was fogged over by the phrase. While the technology elites prattled on about Net Neutrality, most users/consumers of Internet Services scratched their heads trying to grasp exactly what it all meant. More than once I’ve heard techsters try to define Net Neutrality only to see near-blank expressions on the faces of their listeners.
With palms up and a virtual head-scratch I think, WTF…could Net Neutrality mean Equal Access? This pair of words, while not necessarily conveying all that’s implied in Net Neutrality, might have fired up the public, moving more people to resist what amounts to a new Enclosures Movement. What’s wrong with these techsplainers anyway? What should have been a layup for campaigners against the monopolization/privatization of common resources turned into a debacle. One that was punctuated with a mocking Youtube piece starring the FCC’s Chairman, Ajit Pai, who rubbed the opposition’s collective noses in their campaign’s failure.
In our time of “Make America Great Again,” communication has become all about tone and punchlines that provide titillation sufficient to arouse the blood but only to shoulder height, not high enough to nourish the brain’s capacity to think critically.
Facebook, Google, and their offspring; Snap, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and the Blogosphere began as common spaces, free to their users, but quickly new languages sprung up to grab and hold digital and mental territory. These became fungible and the bosses of these various enterprises became the new overlords, imposing cultural signifiers and terminologies that exert control over their digital serfs, who, by agreeing to “Terms and Conditions,” are granted access to, and use of, the new communication (and soon to be not so common?) platforms. This is no less than a new corporate feudal system. The three classes that define this new feudalism are: the lords (corporate controllers), their vassals (sponsors and advertisers and techies) and serfs (users). Besides the iconography (corporate logos and emojis), specialized language and terms are invented that help to delineate the digital territory brought under the control of the overlords as they seek to privatize and profit from the enclosing of their platforms.
These new platforms and their jargons define the social and business geographies and create a kind of gate-keeping function that can restrict access to those who are not literate in the new platforms’ languages. That reduces the reach of democratic discourse even as more people seem to be participating. The failure to mobilize in defense of Net Neutrality is only one example of this phenomenon. The immediate gratification of Hashtagging makes signing on to bandwagons as easy as getting on the bus. But what comes of those movements? (As Susan Faludi noted recently, ”Without gainsaying the courage of ‘silence breakers,’ one can note the flip side: that their words, especially now, can generate instant, and dramatic, response — and more immediate gratification than one gets from protesting economic and legal structures….#MeToo will continue to topple patriarchs, while the patriarchy continues to win the day.”….and profit from it.)
Hashtagging and Twitter, powered by the Internet, have taken the high ground of most cultural and political arguments. For the most part the public no longer gets news based on facts presented in ambient contexts, but instead gets it from watching and reading minimal character Facebook and Twitter posts. With the tech revolution we are confronted with a linguistic labyrinth, a maze of information sourcing that knits together opinion and fact. Stories that are subtly infected by jargon, tone, and body language. It is in resistance to this vein that I offer you the following 11:50 minute presentation by Andy Lippman, Associate Director of MIT Media Lab, which explains what Net Neutrality is really about.