Between & Beyond: Net Neutrality

Don’t mourn the loss of the internet. It’s already dead. The FCC has voted in favor of the so-called internet “fast-lanes” which would allow service providers to charge content providers extra for access to the exclusive high speed and therefore mean better/unequal performance for those who can afford it. This is all causing quite the stir as armchair activists now have a cause that hits them right in their armchair. But what are we actually fighting for? Can the internet even live up to its loftiest ideals anymore?

Back in 2004, I saw Ralph Nader speak at SUNY New Paltz. I remember there were a lot of protestors gathered outside the lecture hall. They were actually all Democrats worried about Ralph’s ability to “spoil” the upcoming elections. I walked past one, who happened to be a history professor at the college, and he said something along the lines of, “We voted independent in ’73, and we got Nixon.” To which I replied, “Sorry you gave up.” Back then, I admired Ralph because he talked from a place of honesty and heart. To be a mainstream politician is a very particular job. Your job is to keep your job. You do this by being two-faced. You trade power for money in backroom deals, and your other face consists of carefully crafted talking points that give vague suggestions about solving issues that matter to common people (those without power or money). Ralph has intelligence and heart, and he proved it that very day. He said, “The number one problem with America today is that we no longer create our own culture. It’s handed down to us from on high through corporate mediums.” This statement hit the bull’s-eye for me, as it should for anyone who believes that human beings at their core are good and valuable, but easily misguided.

See, when culture is centralized, meaning it comes from a sole source, like corporate media, which is really only about five mega-corporations dolling out news, books, music, TV, it then ceases to carry the flavor/perspective/values of the people who participate in it. In fact, the only value that corporate culture really contains is profit. It’s masked as a great many things, but ultimately it’s profit. The way it’s supposed to work is that people of a specific time and place look at the world around them, decide what their needs and destinies are, and then reflect those needs and values in their art and their laws and their way of life. That’s what we all want. Self-determination. This concern should be the real dubious element of another debate that’s in the news lately: the Common Core. It is basically centralized education. And the real horror of what it does is strip teachers of their ability to be teachers. If they are going to be worried about keeping their jobs based on their students passing a standardized test, then they will teach to the test and cease to be teachers. They will be merely mouthpieces of the institutions developing the curriculum. Do you want your child to be taught by a dedicated, caring individual who knows your child face-to-face, or do you want your child to be educated by some board of distant faceless individuals who consider that all children learn the same and need to know the same things?

The internet’s true promise was that of culture. Douglas Rushkoff’s work has explored the idea of communication technology and literacy and how they have run alongside human evolution/history. In his analysis, he sees the common folk always one step behind. Reading and writing were once confined to a ruling class, like priests who had a command over sacred texts. Eventually reading became popularized, but there was still rule over writing. Then we could all write but the gates of publishing were kept under lock and key. And now that we have the blogosphere, they are still ahead of us on the literacy of writing code. Sure we can publish all our thoughts, but only via the box that Blogspot allows us to have, or the software Microsoft has written for us.

So, in the halcyon days of the internet that I remember, there was a great sense of freedom and community. Yes, software pirates reigned, but I don’t mourn the loss of that freedom to pillage necessarily. I mourn the loss of the community that surrounded it where skill share sessions were conducted; teaching other folks how to crack software keys and learn about coding. The longstanding gap of literacy was about to be closed. Nowadays, the internet is largely about instant dopamine gratification. We have become lab rats pulling levers. Between Buzzfeed lists peppered with animated gifs or cat pictures or incessant memes, we have begun to mirror the corporate world that we should have been moving away from. All this, while the unblinking eye of the NSA roves the landscape, and if like me, you are trying to circumvent the gatekeepers of old media and put music or art out to an audience, then Facebook will just use you to sell ads and metadata to the highest bidder, lining its pockets as a parasite. So, in the end, the current net neutrality debate doesn’t mean much to me as none of it seems to address the fact that our freedom in this once promising virtual landscape has already been locked down and monetized long ago.