Net Neutrality, Monopolies, and Innovation: Deciphering Ted Cruz

US Senator Ted Cruz posted a baffling tweet last week:

The media response to this tweet was mostly confusion. The Oatmeal drew a cartoon attempting to explain net neutrality to Cruz in The Onion’s usual bombastic style, and a bunch of other blogs have reacted with either confusion or dismay. The underlying theme of many of these seems to be, “what the hell does that even mean?” Columnists often seem to interpret Cruz’s comments as completely detached from reality, either due to ignorance or cynicism.

Is this true? Or is Cruz making an actual argument, even a bad one, with this tweet? At first glance, it certainly seems to be the former. Obamacare and net neutrality, superficially, have very little in common. Obamacare concerns a service delivery industry essential for the survival and quality of life of millions of people, while net neutrality one concerns an infrastructural system that is essential for a handful of important things and a lot more unimportant things, such as cat videos. Obamacare imposes controls to ensure that everybody has access to health care, while net neutrality imposes controls to make sure that internet providers can’t privilege their own content on the internet. Perhaps the thing that unites them the most is as cartoonist Matt Bors pointed out, that they are both good things.

But for all the silliness of his comment, I don’t think Cruz was just spouting random Republican gibberish. His social media staff are probably too well-paid for that. In order to understand what the comparison actually meant, you need to look at some other Republican talking points to see how it fits into general American right-wing narratives. Republican discussion of Obamacare is a good place to start. Consider this Wall Street Journal article about Obamacare:

“Of the many unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act, perhaps the least noticed is its threat to innovation. Although most discussions center on the law’s more immediate effects on hiring, insurance rates and access to doctors and care, attention should also be paid to its impact on U.S. research and development and health-care technology. “

I’m not going to address that article in detail, because I don’t know very much about health care innovation. If you do, I’m sure you can pick the article apart. But when you consider that basic understanding about innovation being vulnerable to government interference and apply it to the issue of net neutrality, the parallel between the two in Republican discourse instantly becomes clear. Here’s a statement on net neutrality by Republican Speaker John Boehner:

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Obama administration continues to disregard the people’s will and push for more mandates on our economy.   An open, vibrant Internet is essential to a growing economy, and net neutrality is a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Now we can see what Ted Cruz was actually getting at. To him and other Republicans, Obamacare and net neutrality are similar because they are both liberal-supported government interventions into a business sector that thrives on innovation. What Boehner was saying with his tweet, then, was that just as Obamacare will hurt the health care industry’s ability to innovate, so will net neutrality hurt the telecommunications industry’s ability to innovate.

So then the question becomes: Is this actually true? Will government enforcement of net neutrality harm the telecoms’ ability to innovate? The evidence suggests it’s pretty unlikely.

The problem with Cruz’s view can be summed up in just three words: Monopolies don’t innovate.

This is obvious when you give the matter any thought. Why would a monopoly innovate? Innovation is expensive. It requires research and development labs, uncertain pilot projects, legal wrangling, labour negotiations, and all kinds of difficult and expensive stuff. There is a slight incentive for monopolies to innovate on the supply side to keep their own costs down, of course, but if you want them to work on innovations that could benefit the consumer, then you’ll have to appeal to the goodness of their heart. I’ll leave it up to you whether that’s a viable strategy.

And of course internet service providers, like any other provider of infrastructure, are monopolies. In order for ISPs to compete in any meaningful way, there would have to be duplicate internet infrastructure connected to most houses. Maybe one day that will be possible with wireless internet, but as things currently stand, ISP competition would require a lot more dug-up streets and front lawns in order to lay completely superfluous cables. With the exception of completely new transmission technologies such as Google Fiber, it simply makes no sense to do that.

So if monopolies don’t innovate and ISPs are monopolies, then any first-year philosophy student can deduce that ISPs don’t innovate. And, for the most part, that is true. That’s why we need to have regulations, to make sure that ISPs and other natural monopolies still act in the best interests of their customers, including by innovating. In fact, net neutrality is completely essential for innovation of a different sort. Many of the most exciting innovations we have seen in the past ten years have been introduced by websites. Netflix, for example, has completely changed the way many people watch TV and movies. But, as we have already seen, the Internet Service Providers, who also frequently happen to own cable companies, have been hostile to Netflix; charging it additional fees for access to the network and even throttling its service to get it to pay more. Infrastructureal monopolies are not only reluctant to innovate themselves; they are also both willing and able to block any other innovation that disrupts their business model.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, and I’m not the first person to make these points. But there are a few broader takeaway messages. Firstly: Don’t be blinded by the word “innovation”. The word has lost a lot of meaning lately, and is just as likely to describe new methods of price-gouging or labour exploitation as is is to describe a better mouse trap. Secondly, it’s important to go beyond mere mockery when somebody like Ted Cruz says something like ridiculous like “net neutrality is obamacare for the internet”. There are often hidden dog-whistle messages in statements like that which need to be answered. And finally, this is just further evidence of why we should be working towards a public internet: It would mean the end of lobbyists paying people like Cruz to say things like “Net neutrality is obamacare for the internet”. Maybe net neutrality, like Obamacare, doesn’t go far enough. Maybe in both cases we need a public option.

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Of Giraffes and Trade Deals: Why the TTIP might be bad for innovation

If you get excited about the politics of regulation and international trade (and who doesn’t?!), then you’ve probably heard by now about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, also known as TTIP; a trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. The general consensus about TTIP, which I am inclined to agree with, is that it is a Bad Thing, due to the fact that it would weaken labour and environmental protections, expand internet surveillance, and impose a little clause called Investor State Dispute Resolution which would allow foreign private companies to sue governments for lost profits due to regulation.

I’m going to write here about the effect of this treaty and others like it on technological innovation and transitions. A few have already looked on how these kind of beyond-the-border regulatory harmonisation treaties empower patent trolls, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I’m going to look at one of the central justifications for the treaty, namely the idea that regulatory harmonisation will create jobs and prosperity. I went to a panel discussion about the TTIP last week, where the treaty’s one supporter; argued that differences in standards and regulations between countries cost money, and that a lot more money could be made if companies didn’t need to devote resources to meeting these mismatched regulations when selling worldwide. That sounds like a pretty common-sense argument, and even if you dislike the TTIP more generally, you might agree that that is a silver lining (Although the math suggests it’s a pretty small one). I want to argue that even if regulatory harmonisation does save money, it could still be a bad thing.

But before I do so, I need to address how we think about technological progress, using a biological analogy. Technological development is often imagined as an evolutionary process, roughly analogous to the biological evolution of organisms. But in at least some popular and political discourse, this is based on a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian model of evolution. These diagrams describe the difference between the two:

Darwinian vs. Lamarckian evolution: According to Lamarck, the giraffes strive to grow taller. According to Darwin, the shorter ones simply starve to death.

According to Lamackian evolution, creatures grow stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better through intentional striving. The classic example is that giraffes started with short necks, but by reaching to get higher and higher leaves, they forced blood into their necks, causing them to grow longer. These gains were passed on to the next generation, which grew in turn until giraffes became the long-necked creatures we know today.The popular model of technological development is quite similar: The willful exertion of engineers’ and entrepreneurs’ energies supposedly leads to products getting better over time, while new and superior products are developed.

Today, however, we know that evolution is a more complicated process. The giraffes’ necks got longer because the short-necked giraffes can’t reach their food, and therefore starve. It gets more complicated than that, however. In most species, the gene pool is too big to allow even a beneficial mutation to survive very long-it will simply be diluted. Furthermore, the fossil record does not usually show slow, gradual changes-species seem to evolve in short, rapid bursts. So biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed punctuated equilibrium. The gist of the idea is that occasionally, a small population of a species gets separated and isolated in a new environment, where the small gene pool allows rapid adaptation. In the case of the giraffe, then, giraffes evolved when a handful of short-necked giraffe-like ancestor species got lost in a place with a lot of tall trees, and had to adapt quickly.

When you look closely at it, techological evolution is much more like Darwininan evolution than Lamarckian evolution. It’s full of false starts, while supposedly antiquated technologies fight to compete with new ones new ones. We can even speak to some extent about a technological ‘gene pool’: New technological ideas have to survive in a larger market full of established players who may resist new ideas, even if they have major advantages over the status quo.

And so the natural conclusion is that, just like in biology, technologies rely not just on variability in the gene pool (created by engineers and entrepreneurs working on diverse ideas), but also variation in selection environments, to be a driver of change. So where does variation in technological selection environments come from? There are a few places. The basic physical environment is one; it’s unlikely that Mexican engineers would have developed the snowmobile, for example. Another one is culture. It’s been argued, for example, that Scottish Presbyterian values might have had an impact on that country’s shipbuilding industry in the 19th century. We could list a few more. But an obvious one is regulation. If one country has different regulations from another governing technology, then its engineers will develop different innovations, while its entrepreneurs will fund different technological models. The result is greater technological diversity, which allows us more freedom in selecting the best option.

There are concrete examples of this. A great one is California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. In 1990, to deal with increasing pollution, the state required all car makers wishing to sell cars there to produce and market a certain percentage of zero emission vehicles. The mandate was changed over the years due to lobbying and a series of court cases, but it did successfully lead to the development of some electric and hybrid vehicles, and probably played at least a small role in the current promise of companies like Tesla. The TTIP, or some future beyond-the-border trade deal like it, could lead to these kinds of regulations being challenged, creating a globally homogeneous regulatory environment and therefore far less technological diversity.

Columnist Thomas Friedman has become famous in part for declaring that now, in the neoliberal era,  “The world is Flat”. The TTIP essentially follows that logic by proposing to flatten all the different regulatory frameworks that shape technology around the world. But even if you ignore all the economic, social, and environmental objections to globalisation, however, a flat world is not necessarily a good thing. Topography creates diversity in cultures, policies, and economies. And these differences can be a big generator of change. So even if you take its proponents completely at their word, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may very well still be a Bad Thing.

Stop being cynical about technology!

Google Project Wing Drone Delivery 1

Google’s Project Wing. From weburbanist.com.

I’m going to start this post with a simple premise: Any sustainable future we ever manage to achieve will look, to our eyes, like science fiction.

That probably sounds like a pretty straightforward thesis. It’s nearly a cliche now to point out that our present-day society, with smartphones and electric cars and an international space station would look a lot like science fiction to anybody living in the 1880s, or even the 1980s. And anybody who has done any serious thinking about sustainability knows that we will have to make some further massive changes in order to attain it.  It follows that a future society; especially one in which we have solved such a fundamental problem as sustainability, will look bizarre and futuristic to us. But whether or not they accept this in princple, people often seem to have trouble applying it to the case of specific proposed technologies. Case in point: the vision of Drone Delivery.

I wrote about PrimeAir, one possible manifestation of drone delivery, a while ago, when the project was first announced a bit less than a year ago. Back then, I argued that the plan was somewhat plausible, with some definite sustainability benefits. I still hold that view. But today I want to use PrimeAir and other proposed systems like it to make a more general point. The kneejerk mockery and more sober dismissals to which PrimeAir was subjected were often based largely on the fact that PrimeAir looked like something out of a science fiction novel. We don’t live in a science fiction novel, so how could this idea possibly have any viability? Prominent (and slightly obnoxious) youtube atheist Thunderf00t’s dismissal of Solar Roadways falls into a similar trap: He points out the astronomical cost of making enough LEDs to supply all the solar road panels, while utterly failing to conisder that the promise of such a technology might make people find ways to dramatically reduce the price of LEDs.

Since I last wrote about it, the idea of drone delivery looks just a little bit more plausible. Google has recently been testing fixed-wing delivery drones by making deliveries to cattle farmers in the Australian outback, and parcel delivery giant DHL is now using a quad-copter to make actual deliveries to the North Sea island of Juist. So actual drone deliveries are now being made. True, these experimental projects are mainly being conducted in rural areas, and only in a purely experimental context. But the basic premise has been proven. And if it’s only viable in rural areas, so what? That just means it’s great news for people who live in rural areas. Drone delivery isn’t guaranteed to become a reality yet. It could, for example, suffer from the Hindenburg Effect if one of these drones has a bad crash in the next few years. But it is certainly within the realm of future possibility.

The history of technology shows that people are not very good at accurately assessing what is within the realm of future possibility. Newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, routinely predicted that the horse would continue to have an important economic role in the future. Sure, they conceded, cars might be useful for a few things. But they’re next to useless on country roads, they can’t pull a plow, and you can’t ride them into battle. So the horse is here to stay. These writers failed to predict that country roads would get paved, that tractors would be invented, and that cavalry would be made obsolete by machine guns. And therein lies the problem: The future is a complicated thing. Millions of things will change between now and even ten years from now, making new things possible and old things obsolete. To rule out something like drone delivery, you’d have to account for all of them. And that’s something you simply can’t do.

I maintain that there is a way to get around this limitation, although it is a very inexact science. My research suggests that you can assess the plausibility of a new technology by asking a few simple questions about it. I’ll list them below.

1. Is it physically possible? Does it work? If it doesn’t, then it’s obviously a non-starter. For some things such as a space elevator, the answer to this question is uncertain. For others, like cold fusion, it’s a definite no. But for drone delivery, we have to say yes. Drones have proven to be within the realm of physical possibility.

2. Can it attain cultural legitimacy? Cultural legitimacy refers to the general perception that a new technology, or a new way of doing things, is acceptable according to cultural standards. That means that it has to be perceived as safe, generally beneficial, respectable,  and not too threatening to the things people value. Nuclear power plants have struggled with cultural legitimacy. The segue failed on the respectability point. Delivery drones could reasonably tick this box, but only if they deal with the concerns about surveillance and the displacement of human workers.

3. Is there a viable niche? Virtually no technology arrives on the market in a sufficiently refined state that it can compete directly with the dominant way of doing things. New technologies are “hopeful monstrosities“, and to move beyond the laboratory, they usually need some specific, narrow application that they’re really good at. The people working on a radical new technology can use this niche as a place to refine their technology, and gradually make it more effective, efficient, and attractive, eventually allowing it to take over larger markets. Solar panels, for example, found a useful niche in space. And drone delivery might have one in delivering to remote places such as the Australian Outback and the Island of Juist

4. Does it have sufficient practical advantages that it could compete? Even once a new technology has matured within a niche, there has to be a good reason for people to make the switch to a new way of doing things. In simple terms, that means that it has to be better than the alternative. Cars were able to supplant horses in part because they are faster. To be viable, drone delivery will have to be either more convenient, or cheaper than human delivery. Or both.

5. What would be necessary to accommodate it? New technologies need new infrastructures, new regulations, new financial arrangements, and new cultures. Not all of these things have to fall in place right away. But in order for something to go from a mere technology to a system, it will eventually have to start changing society around itself. The accommodation of commercial flight, for example, required an airport system, a whole new regulatory apparatus, and for people to be willing to incorporate flight into their daily lives. Drone delivery would need new kinds of warehousing, new aviation laws, and probably new ways of picking up packages as they arrive at your house. The question is, how likely are these changes to occur?

6. Who, or what, stands in its way? And how powerful are they? Some people don’t want the world to change. Every new way of doing things is going to come up against vested interests, and these vested interests need to be assessed before you can declare a new technology plausible. Napster, for example, failed, because the powerful recording industry objected. In the case of drone delivery, we can expect delivery companies, labour unions, and conventional retail stores to kick up a fuss. Can Amazon or Google win a political battle against them?

This post isn’t really about drone delivery. Your answers to the above questions might be different than mine, and that’s fine. You might also suggest a slightly different list of questions. But ultimately, this kind of framework is what we need to be able to assess new technologies effectively. Assessing future technologies based on present-day capabilities and parameters, or simply looking at a futuristic-looking proposal and saying “That looks stupid. Never gonna happen”, is not a very sound way of considering future change. Nor is it a very effective way of encouraging sustainability. If we don’t make at least a few big technological bets, then we will almost certainly destroy the planet. We need to be critical, but not cynical: We need enough enthusiasm that we can endorse promising technological visions, and help them become reality. We need to be willing to risk the embarrassment of being wrong about the promise new innovations. Change always seems impossible, until it happens.

Why e-bikes make me nervous

A few years ago, while riding my bike along the Don Valley cycle paths (a gorgeous urban cycle route that any cyclist in the area should check out), I was, to my confusion, passed by a man who couldn’t have been younger than 60 riding a rickety old bicycle without even pedalling that hard! Furious at this affront to my honour as a cyclist, I gave chase. Keeping pace with him for a few minutes was just about all I could manage. Frustrated and confused, I eventually noticed the high-tech looking plastic box sitting on the frame of the man’s bike. I had been racing with somebody who had the extra benefit of an electric motor. This was my first encounter with the increasingly popular phenomenon of the e-bike.

In principle, e-bikes are a fantastic development. Cycling is an excellent means of alternative transport: It is sometimes faster than cars, it is certainly healthier and more sustainable, and switching to cycling might even make you happier. But cycling does involve a certain amount of privilege. To use a bicycle as a useful way of getting around, you have to be reasonably able-bodied and fit, and you have to live in a city where the distances and grades are manageable. E-bikes eliminate some of these requirements; allowing people to use bicycles who may not otherwise be physically capable of doing so. And even if the argument can be made that e-bikes are not, strictly speaking, active transport, their status as very light-weight electric vehicles means that their contribution to climate change will be minuscule, even compared to that of an electric car.

The problem, however, emerges with the fact that very few technologies remain static. E-bikes are a relatively new development, and like most other new technologies, we can expect them to change considerably as they become more popular, and as the people who make them have more money to pay engineers and inventors to improve them. E-bikes currently exist as a kind of bricolage combination of cell phone batteries and bicycle technology, but they will evolve. And what they evolve into may force us to rethink what actually constitutes a bicycle.

Notice how it still has pedals.

This has, in fact, already happened in the case of motorcycles. A brief glance at wikipedia demonstrates that motorcycles are about as old as cars. These early motorcycles were literally motor-cycles: cycles with motors on them. Attach a motor and an extra stabilizing wheel to a penny-farthing, and voila! You’ve got a motorized vehicle. Motorcycles thus have a completely separate genaeology from that of the car, which was initially conceived as a horseless carriage. If you are at all familiar with e-bikes, then this should start to sound familiar.

1910 FN

A 1910 Fabrique Nationale motorcycle.

To make a long history short, motorcycles continued to look like bicycles for some time, and as bicycles became more sophisticated, so too did motorcycles. Gradually, the pedals disappeared, to be replaced with a stronger engine which in turn required a sturdier frame. Motorcycles began to diverge from their pedal-powered cousins. By the 1930s, motorcycles had taken on a distinct form of their own, with almost all signs of their pedal-powered history expunged in favour of more power, speed, and durability. And these, in turn, gave rise to the high-speed crotch-rockets that can often be seen in flagrant violation of speed limits today.

A 1920 Indian Powerplus.

A 1930 “Squariel” motorcycle. By now, almost all signs of its bicycle ancestry are gone.

This is a very crude history, mostly culled from wikipedia, so you shouldn’t take it as authoritative. My expertise is cars, trains and (occasional) aircraft; not motorcycles. But you only have to look at the pictures to see the clear trend: The metaphor of biological evolution is actually a very good one to describe the development of motorcycles and many other technologies besides: A mutation (innovation) caused one small population (motor bicycles) to diverge from a parent species (pedal-powered bicycles), at which point it was subjected to a different set of selection pressures (a different user base), and gradually diverged to become something completely different.

As with biological evolution, the question of when a new species actually emerged is a purely subjective one-a crucial consideration when we consider the future of e-bikes. At this stage, there is no reason why e-bikes should not be allowed in the bike paths and bike lanes that make cycling a safe and enjoyable means of transport for so many people. We could justifably be accused of ableism or age discrimination if we did not allow them to use these spaces. But e-bikes, like motorcycles before them, will almost certainly evolve into something distinct from bicycles. They could become faster and dangerous for the slower cyclists around them. But at their point their riders may not take kindly to being pushed off of the bike paths they have become accustomed to using. Indeed, e-bike technology will likely evolve based on the assumption that they will be used in these spaces. The possible outcome could be that what was once bike paths will become a kind of second-tier road, dominated by electric motorcycles on which pedal cyclists will be, once again marginalized.

This might not happen. Technological development is impossible to predict. But we do need to acknowledge that, one way or another, the technologies we use today will change into something else. And as they do so, the social practices and political structures that have built up around them might not change with them, or at least might not change in a way that resolves the problems caused by changing technology. Laws and habits are much harder to modify than bicycle frames. That means that when we think about how to integrate e-bikes and other new technologies into our society, we need to consider not only how they are, but also how they will be.