Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ted’s Tubes and Larry’s Lanes

The digerati are having a good snigger at Ted Stevens, Chairman of the US Senate committee that’s deciding how the Internet will be regulated. The Daily Show recently lampooned (video clip) his attempts at explaining network neutrality. Senator Stevens said, to much derisive merriment among the net-savvy studio audience:
“The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s, it’s a series of tubes. [...] And if you don’t understand that those tubes can be filled, and if they’re filled when you put your message in it, it gets in line, it’s gonna be delayed by anyone who puts in that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”

It was amusing because homespun analogies seem out of place coming from a person deciding our high tech future. Ted got a bad rap, though, because no-one can avoid this kind of language. Cognitive science suggests that we have no choice but to use mental models based on the tangible world to reason about intangible things like interpersonal relationships (“we’ve been close for years, but we’re drifting apart”), mathematical abstractions (“the real numbers are points on a line”), and the Internet.

Everyone in this debate misuses metaphor, including Larry Lessig, the house theoretician for network neutrality. An op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post last month with Robert McChesney was premised on an extend (and well-worn) metaphor: The Internet-as-Highway. Some excerpts:

“Congress [will decide whether cable and phone companies] can put toll booths at every on-ramp and exit on the information superhighway. [...] Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. [... Those companies] would be able to sell access to the express lane to deep-pocketed corporations and relegate everyone else to the digital equivalent of a winding dirt road.”

Sen. Stevens uses the Internet-as-Pipes metaphor, and Prof. Lessig prefers Internet-as-Roads. There’s little to choose between them. Both convey some truth, and both have shortcomings.

The superhighway metaphor is inaccurate in that the networks making up the Internet are owned by private agents, whereas most of the highway network is owned by the state. The notion of “speed” is also technically inaccurate: all packets on the Internet move the same speed (some fraction of the speed of light). More packets get through per second on some parts of the network, but because “there are more parallel lanes” rather than because they speed along faster. The Highway metaphor also implies that two distinct Internets will be created side-by-side (echoes of Separate But (Un)equal) , whereas in fact all traffic will move over the same infrastructure, but be prioritized differently.

The choice of analogy has consequences, though. One could mangle poor McLuhan again by saying that the Metaphor is the Message. We think of the highways as a public good, provided by the state for the benefit of all, where everyone is entitled to equal access. This resonates with those on the Left, like Prof. Lessig. The ownership of tubes and pipes varies, but is open to notions of private property and investment, which is agreeable to those on the Right, like Sen. Stevens. Plumbing is invisible, and can safely be left to experts to worry about, whereas roads are something we all feel we have a daily stake in.

The highway metaphor is the more common one in the debate to date. It is perhaps more intelligible; we have more experience with roads than plumbing. However, one shouldn’t forget that it was forged during the last rewrite of the telecom act, which happened during a Democratic administration. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Right experimenting with alternative metaphors which are better at connoting their values and agenda – plumbing, perhaps, or airlines.

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