In Neal Stephenson’s newest book, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel, the protagonist Richard “Dodge” Forthrast uses the phrase “The Miasma” to refer to the collection of technology that we commonly call “The Internet.”
When I first came across the phrase, I said out loud, “Brilliant.”
I was poking around on the Miasma this morning looking for a reference to this and found this Slashdot post about an interview with Stephenson from PC Magazine.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the internet? Just in a general sense of its role in our daily lives, and where that concept of the Miasma came from for you.
Neal Stephenson: I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.
The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint… I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me. I’ve heard remarks in a similar vein from other science-fiction novelists: do we even have a role anymore?
I’ve spent the past year struggling with the Miasma. I’ve deliberately disengaged from some of it through deleting my Facebook account, limiting my Twitter usage to broadcast only, and trying to use LinkedIn in a productive way even though the UX seems to be set up to purposely inhibit you from using it in a way that doesn’t suck you into the LI vortex. I’ve stopped going to websites online proactively, have unsubscribed to everything except for a limited number of technology-oriented newsletters, and only read the articles that I click through to. I get summaries of what is going on daily through Techmeme’s newsletter, have a set of specific search filters set up in Google Alerts, and scan blogs I’ve subscribed to via Feedly. I try to never, ever, go to news.website.com (whenever I am bored and feel like doing this, I do ten situps instead.)
But the Miasma is still – well – the miasma. The relevant definition, if you don’t know it, is:
an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt
a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike influence or atmosphere
While I was reading Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record, he reflected on the joy of interacting with the Internet of his youth, which was the Internet from the mid-1990s. He remembers it as an idealized thing that has now become completely and totally corrupted.
When I described this to Amy, she responded with a magnificent rant that was something like “this is a romanticized utopian ideal about a thing that was inhabited by socially inhibited, white male nerds who consider themselves too smart to be misogynistic but, well, often are.”
The Miasma is a mess. It’s always been a mess. And it will always be a mess. Figuring out how to find beauty, usefulness, and joy in the mess is the opportunity. I’ve been thinking about that more lately and have a few ideas I’m going to play around with.
I love weird Internet memes.
Recently, I plumbed the depths of this one with my friend Quinn. Go to your Google browser and type “did ab” and see what comes up for you.
If it’s “Did Abraham Lincoln Invent Pancakes” then the Internet is working as expected.
Of course, our next move was to go see if there was a website at https://didabrahamlincolninventpancakes.com/. A week ago there wasn’t, but there is one there now. Bwahahahahahahaha.
Did Abraham Lincoln Invent Pancakes? is now a permanent part of the web. I wonder what Google is going to do with it now?
The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries was one of two books I read this weekend (the other was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness).
It was outstanding. I made it the August book club book for my dad and my brother. And then, this morning, I woke up to the following headlines.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who is paying attention. There is now a long history of governments trying to control the Internet. One approach over government is censoring the Internet; another is weaponizing it.
The Red Web covers Russia’s history around the Internet starting during the Cold War with a focus on the last twenty years. While Russia had a slow start, the Internet played a big part in both sides of things – the increasingly free flow of information combined with government control over information.
I believe we are at the very beginning of a new version of this battle. Since the beginning of humans, information – and the control of information – has been one of the key dynamics of power. At least we don’t need to use ravens anymore. But, depending on which country you are in, they might be a good backup plan.
Tomorrow, the FCC is expected to vote on a proposal for new rules around Net Neutrality. The vote is likely to be 3-2 in favor of the rules, split along partisan lines (3 democrats, 2 republicans – shocker…). There has been an enormous amount of bombastic rhetoric in the past few months about the issue that has recently become especially politicized in the same way the debate about SOPA/PIPA unfolded.
I’ve been very public about being a supporter of net neutrality and the idea that the FCC should put down clear, legally enforceable rules around it. However, every time I write or tweet something about the topic, I get a flurry of responses telling me why I’m wrong, why this is bad, or why I’m an idiot. I find these helpful as they force me to focus on the objectionable issues, although I have to put some work in to separate the noise from the signal. And unfortunately there’s a lot of noise these days around anything our government tries to do.
I’m not a lawyer, nor do I ever plan to be one, but I spent plenty of time with them. As a result, over the past 20 years I’ve learned a lot about how the law works in the context of innovation, new products, infrastructure, and consumer protection. I’ve been involved in a number of public policy debates, especially around the Internet, innovation, and immigration. And I’ve made a bunch of friends, on all sides of the discussions, who I’ve argued with, agreed with, been frustrated by, and likely annoyed greatly with my strong opinions and continuous questions to better understand whether my opinions are valid. I learn, evolve, and change my mind based on data and compelling arguments, not on sound bites, so this can be hard work to sort through, but it’s the way my brain was trained, both through my experience at MIT and reflecting on many of the successes and failures I’ve had along with what I’ve learned from them.
A few weeks ago I wrote the post Explaining Net Neutrality to My Dad. He and I engaged in a continuous discussion about this in the past few weeks. He’s endlessly intellectually curious and deeply negative about our government as a result of their engagement with the healthcare system so he has been sending me the “anti-net neutrality” and “the government is taking over the Internet” messaging that has been floating around. I was able to directly respond to some of it, especially the real nonsense, but there were some things that I didn’t completely understand, so I talked to some of my lawyer friends about it.
A few days ago, I decided to summarize what I believe to be the truth around several of the key things I keep hearing over and over as opposition to the FCC proposal, especially around the reclassification of ISPs as Title II telecommunication services. My perspective is informed by two meetings I’ve attended with Wheeler – one a year ago where I was terrified by where he was starting from and one a month ago where I strongly endorsed where he had ended up. In the most recent meeting, I learned a lot about his own intellectual framework for what he’s proposing, which I wrote about in my post Death of Distance and the End of Time.
So – here are a few of the things that I’m regularly hearing as opposition to the new FCC proposal, along with what I’ve believe to be the facts. This comes from the premise that I have which is that strong net neutrality rules are critical to protect an Open Internet and that I’m directly aligned with companies like Twitter who recently wrote why they favor #NetNeutrality and Tim Berners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, who recently said “YES to #NetNeutrality.”
The Government Is Taking Over The Internet: The rules will not lead to the FCC regulating the Internet. The rules around Title II only allow the FCC to regulate transmission which many refer to as the on-ramps to the Internet provided by cable and telephone companies. There used to be rules around this, but there haven’t been for over a year since the federal court struck down the prior rules.
Title II Will Make the Internet a Public Utility: Reclassifying ISPs as Title II “telecommunications services” will not make them “public utilities.” While Title II is the firmest legal ground for the net neutrality rules, the FCC is applying a light-touch version of Title II where there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no burdensome administrative filings, and no last-mile unbundling. Instead, there will be prohibitions on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization.The FCC will be able to stop any practice that harms user choice or edge providers’ ability to reach users and will be able to act on complaints that ISPs are acting unreasonably when they interconnect with transit providers (e.g. Level 3) or content delivery networks (e.g. Netflix, Amazon.)
ISPs and Broadband Companies Will Invest Less In Their Networks: There is no evidence that Title II will cause ISPs to invest less in their networks. Most Wall Street analysts have said that they see no threat to investment from reclassification because there will be no rate regulation. Sprint, Google, Verizon, Charter, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and others have told Wall Street that Title II poses no threat to investment. Mobile voice is already regulated under light-touch Title II and wireless companies invested nearly $300 billion in their networks in the last 20 years.
Obama is Forcing the FCC To Do This: When I met with Wheeler about a year ago, he had a very different starting point around this issue. I had a strong negative public reaction to this during the initial public comment period and made my point of view clear on the original set of proposals along with about four million of my American friends. I’ve been told this was by far the most comments on FCC rules of any sort. The vast majority of people asked for the strongest possible net neutrality rules which align with the Title II approach. These got incorporated into the proposal as a result of this public response and Obama didn’t actually weigh in publicly until after Title II was incorporated into the proposal. When I checked on history, it turns out that it’s not unusual for the President to weigh in on FCC matters as Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush have all publicly urged the FCC to take certain actions on regulatory matters.
Everything Was Done In Secret: This is a talking point that apparently started when one of the FCC Commissions (Ajit Pai) put it out there that the upcoming final proposal (what government people call “the order”) was not made public before the FCC vote. It turns out that no FCC Chairman has ever made the full text of an order public prior to a vote. Given how the existing process works, which incorporates public comments on the draft (remember those four million comments I mentioned above), the notion around the FCC making the final proposal public before the vote seems like a cynical ploy for delay, as any comment on the proposal would have to then be considered and incorporated, leading to an endless cycle of public comment.
Ultimately, Congress can weigh in with new laws around this. Remember that the FCC can’t make new laws, they can only enforce things under current laws. There’s a clear-minded article in the New York Times this morning titled F.C.C. Net Neutrality Rules Clear Hurdle as Republicans Concede to Obama that create additional perspective on both the partisan dynamics at play along with the challenge that paralyzes Congress in general right now.
While this certainly isn’t the end of this issue, and given the dynamics around networks in general, I expect it will be one we face for the rest of time, I continue to believe strongly in the proposal the FCC is considering. And I’m proud that so many people have engaged constructively in the discussion.
It’s late Saturday night after an awesome day in Las Vegas with my dad. We are doing our annual father-son weekend, where we head out on Friday somewhere he wants to go and return Sunday afternoon. Don’t ask my why we ended up in Vegas – it’s a mystery to both of us, but we are having fun.
Today we bought some art at the Martin Lawrence Gallery, tried to buy tickets to Rod Stewart but finally gave up, headed down to Downtown Las Vegas, had lunch at The Container Park, hung out with Tony Hsieh for a while at his new Airstream Park, had ice cream twice, dined at Nobu at the Hard Rock, and spent a lot of time talking about the government, health care, and net neutrality.
If you read my dad’s blog Repairing the Healthcare System, you know he’s incredibly passionate about healthcare, the importance of the relationship between the patient and the doctor, and how the current administration is completely bamboozling the public while subsequently nationalizing the healthcare system. Ok – that’s probably too soft – he’s certain that the system is being completely destroyed and a total collapse is imminent.
I’m not in the same headspace on this as him so we have entertaining conversations about it. I try to learn as much as I can by listening to him, challenging his assumptions, and going back and forth – sometimes lightheartedly – with my favorite Battlestar Galactica quotes, including “All this has happened before, and it will happen again.” And, as a classic misdirection on my part, I ask him “What do you think Ben Franklin would think of that.”
We have a lot of fun and learn a ton from each other. So when the conversation turned to Net Neutrality, I felt obligated to separate fact from fiction for my dad while at the same time understanding how someone like him was hearing what was going on. Not surprisingly, his understanding, which is consistent with the “anti-government” message, is to be absolutely appalled that the government is trying to control the Internet. Which, after an hour of talking about it, he started to understand that wasn’t really what was going on, or what the debate about the FCC, net neutrality, and Title II was really about.
Over ice cream (#3 for this trip) I drew him a detailed picture on a napkin of how the Internet actually worked. I rarely do this since I just assume everyone understands it. Bad assumption. It was fascinating to answer his questions, explain the parts he had wrong, and help him understand some nuances around data and how it gets from one place to another. At some point I mentioned John Oliver and Cable Company Fuckery to him.
We talked about a bunch of other things at dinner, forgetting for a while about health care, net neutrality, and the government. After ice cream #4, as we were heading up to our room, he said, “Show me that John Oliver thing on Net Neutrality.” So I did. And, if you haven’t seen it in a while, or have never seen it, it’s worth another 13 minutes of your life.
After he saw it, he said, simply, “I get it, but I’m still suspicious of the government’s intentions here.” So we watched a few more videos including this really good summary on The Verge.
We finished things off with the awesome testimony from Brad Burnham at Union Square Ventures in front of the Judiciary Committee last fall. My dad knows and really respects Brad, so after seeing this he totally got the whole picture.
John Oliver and his new show Last Week Tonight has become Sunday night entertainment in my house. He’s simultaneously brilliant and hilarious.
Oliver took on Net Neutrality on Sunday. Due to my cable connection being down, I didn’t see it until Monday when I was able to watch it on my DVR. He started off by reminding us that American’s simply don’t respond to “boring” so he suggested we change the phrase “Net Neutrality” to “Cable Company Fuckery.” He then goes on to explain, in clear and outstanding prose while being hysterically funny, exactly what is going on.
If you are perplexed by Net Neutrality and are having trouble parsing the discussion, just watch this. If you want to laugh your ass off, watch this. And then take the requested action at the end.
Boing Boing has a good set up cribnotes up on their post It’s not Net Neutrality that’s at stake, it’s Cable Company Fuckery. The snippets they highlighted (a few of many) were:
– On Internet Fast Lanes: “If we let cable companies offer two speeds of service, they won’t be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolt on a motorbike. They’ll be Usain Bolt and Usain Bolted-to-an-anchor.”
– On the Rare Cooperation Between Consumer Advocates & Major Tech Companies: “What’s being proposed is so egregious, activists and corporations have been forced onto the same side. That’s basically Lex Luthor knocking on Superman’s apartment door and going, ‘Listen, I know we have our differences but we have got to get rid of that asshole in apartment 3-B.”
– On the Appointment of Former Cable/Wireless Industry Front Man Tom Wheeler As FCC Chair: “The guy who used to run the cable industry’s lobbying arm is now running the agency tasked with regulating it. That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”
– On the Notion that the Comcast/TWC Merger is Okay Because the Companies Don’t Overlap: “You can’t reduce competition when nobody is competing. You could not be describing a monopoly more clearly if you were wearing a metal while driving a metal car after winning second prize in a beauty contest.”
I’ve been reading a lot more lately – mostly on the weekends – but I’m getting back into a good book rhythm. I can feel it helping my brain and my soul – I’ve always been a huge reader and when I go through phases where I’m not reading something is clearly off.
The second of the three books I read this weekend was Worm: The First Digital World War. It was crap in your pants scary in that real life, cyberwarfare way. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a DDOS attack, you have to read this book.
The author, Mark Bowden, does a great job of telling the story of the Conficker worm in English. Even if you aren’t technical, you’ll enjoy this book as it borders on cyberthriller while telling a real live story that unfolded over several months in late 2008 / early 2009. I was vaguely familiar with Conficker (as in I remember the hoopla about it) but I didn’t know the backstory.
Now I do. And it’s terrifying. And amazing. At many different levels.
We continue to visibly see the impact of physical war and terrorism all the time. But we are just beginning to see cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism. On one of the participants, Paul Vixie, is quoted near the end brilliantly in his “one command away from catastrophe” rant.
These problems have been here so long that the only way I’ve been able to function at all is by learning to ignore them. Else I would be in a constant state of panic, unable to think or act constructively. We have been one command away from catastrophe for a long time now. . . . In a thousand small ways that I’m aware of, and an expected million other ways I’m not aware of, the world has gotten dangerous and fragile and interdependent. And that’s without us even talking about power grids or the food stocks available in high population areas if rail and truck stops working for a week. AND, in a hundred large ways that I’m aware of and an expected thousand I don’t know of, ethically incompatible people out in the world have acquired and will acquire assets that are lethal to the industrial world’s way of life—criminals and terrorists using the Internet for asymmetric warfare is the great fear of our age, or at least it’s my great fear. But I’ve lived with it so long that I have lost the ability to panic about it. One day at a time, I do what I can.
We are just at the beginning of this.
I’m at the The Athenaeum at Caltech which is the alumni club / hotel on Caltech’s campus. I’m on Caltech Guest WiFi and am getting speeds of between 2 and 10 Kbps (e.g. miserably slow). My Verizon phone has one bar and is flickering between 3G and LTE, but is mostly 3G.
I have no expectation that I get a certain level of infrastructure and connectivity in my life, so this isn’t a rant about that. In fact, I’m amazed on a regular basis that any of this shit actually works. Rather, I’m intrigued by the disparity between the top and bottom speed of connectivity I experience on a daily basis with my laptop and my iPhone.
Last week in Kansas City I experience the 1gig internet speed that is provided by Google Fiber. I was in a house next door to mine – my Google Fiber was being installed yesterday.
The gap isn’t a little – it’s orders of magnitude. And it’s fascinating to think about the impact of this unevenness. In my house slightly outside of Boulder we have an old T1 line that gets 1Mbps to it via a CenturyLink connection – this is the fastest connectivity I can get where I live. In my condo in Boulder, we are on 50Mbps Comcast connection (although I rarely see more than 20Mbps). I get no cell service at my house outside of Boulder; I get strong cell service and LTE in my condo in town.
I realize that the typical speed I first got when using a computer was 2400 baud (actually – my first modem was 110 baud) – that was only 35 years ago. It’s remarkable the difference between 110 baud and 811.02 Mbps over 35 years, but it’s even more dramatic that within a week I’ve used the same devices and applications at 1Mbps, 20Mbps, 800Mbps, and then get stuck in a place where you are happy when things spike to 20 Kbps.
Richard Florida talks about the power of the world being spiky. It’s interesting to ponder in the context of Internet connectivity.
I thought this was a powerful and clever video about the risks to the free and open Internet. It’s worth a watch with an appropriate cynical and concerned view.
I was happy to see Google launch their Take Action site last week about a Free and Open Internet. I’m a supporter and strongly encourage your support as well.
Vint Cerf (one of the actual creators of the Internet) talks more about the need to keep the Internet free and open.