Death of Distance and the End of Time

I was fortunate to spend an hour with a group of about 30 people and Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC yesterday morning. It was a super interesting and stimulating conversation that preceded an excellent speech that Wheeler gave on his Net Neutrality proposal. Go read it and ponder it. It’s in English (not legalese), is blunt, direct, and at times humorous. And it hits the soundbites that are being used against “the government takeover of the Internet” and “the end of the Internet as we know it” crowd quite effectively.

But in this post I want to talk about a phrase Wheeler tossed out early in the conversation that really stuck with me. He said:

“In the 1800s, in a very short period of time, we experienced two innovations that created the death of distance and the end of time.” 

If you don’t know what these two innovations were, they are the railroad (death of distance) and telegraph (end of time).

I’ve been very open about my belief, which I wrote about for the first time in my book Startup Communities, that the global financial crisis was the point at which networks overtook hierarchies in importance in our society. And, while I’ve read about the history of railroads and the telegraph, I never really thought about them as the starting point for the creation of networks given the death of distance and the end of time.

It’s a powerful construct. Today we are starting to see the self-actualization of networks and the path to what many refer to as the singularity. Regardless of whether you believe this, are comfortable with it (like I am), or are afraid of it (like many others are), it is inevitable that innovation, networks, machines, and AI will continue to evolve at an extremely rapid pace. If you don’t believe me or understand this, go read William Hertling’s amazing Singularity Novels.

As a species, I do not think we can control this. Nor should we. We should enable it. We should explore ways to make us a more amazing species. A more fascinating society. We should embrace our innovations and evolve with them.

The path we are on started in the middle of the 19th century. The debate over Net Neutrality is a tiny blip on this path. If we study history, at all points along this path companies behave in their self-interest. We expect that. Human behavior and economic interest always move toward the question, “How can I maximize the position I’m in?” Think about the evolution of the railroad industry. Think about the evolution of the telegraph, and then the telecommunications industry. Think about where we would be if AT&T still prevented us from putting non-AT&T manufactured things “on their network.” Or, maybe more importantly, think about where AT&T would be, which given the passage of time would likely be still promoting Picturephones. Ok – that was gratuitous and unnecessary, but I couldn’t help myself.

In our discussion yesterday, the idea of epistemological modesty came up, reminding us that we can’t predict the path of innovation even in something we know well. I live this every moment in my business as a VC and strongly believe that we should enable, not try to control, innovation.

After listening to Wheeler, reading his speech, and thinking deeply about this over the past few years, it’s clear to me that he understands this. And for those saying “he’s using 1930s monopoly-style regulation to have the government control the Internet”, you are simply wrong. Read his words:

“We will forgo sections of Title II that pose a meaningful threat to network investment.  That means no rate regulation. No unbundling. No tariffs or new taxes. I would note that when applied to mobile voice service over the past two decades, the use of such light-touch Title II – which, by the way, was sought by the industry – went hand-in-hand with massive investment.”

It’s really hard to ignore the soundbites and dig into the facts. But I encourage everyone to try.