It was a few days ago, but after linking to this article on TNL.net, and now this one, I got to thinking a wee bit. During my lifetime, we have seen a massive deregulation spree, the birth of the home computer market, and the acceleration of communications technology to the point where it is now cheaper to “speak” to someone across the world than it can sometimes be to speak to someone across town. But as with all advances in technology such as home viewing, the prospect of improving the Human condition or situation in future is being threatened. Not by an enemy with ill intent, but rather by an element of stupidity, thoughtlessness, or carelessness within our own ranks.
One problem, essentially, is that on the rare occasions when a pretense is even made that the powers that be give a shit what the people think, they make damned sure that the people do not have adequate information to assess the situation and make an informed decision.
An example of this is the persistent belief that customers in the information technology market are somehow being served with the best possible products money can buy. This is not the case. With one company able to control the market to such an extent that a program, a format, a hardware device, or even a protocol, is not available to the end user without their explicit consent, how can it possibly be? And this brings me to one of the many things we have not had since around the time of my birth that we seriously, desperately need in order to change the media market to better serve us all. The information technology, or IT, market, is one of the few I can think of that has never actually been regulated in any sense of the word. Oh sure, Mickeysoft was put on trial for violating anti-trust laws in the late 1990s, but that was a textbook example of too little, too late. When one wants to break up a monopoly, one should do it before it would take a minimum of ten years for the market they have dominated to recover from all of the damage that they have done.
Contrary to what Republic___s (or Rethuglicans as some refer to them) would like you to believe, regulating a market is a good thing. A good simile for the situation is different forms of fights between two men. An unregulated market is basically like a street fight. Even the winner will likely end up seriously damaged in the fight, with the victory becoming truly Pyrrhic in nature. Conversely, an overregulated market is like a boxing match in which neither of the boxers are allowed to even make contact, receive no truly helpful feedback in terms of how they have performed, and thus wind up no better nor worse from having fought the fight. In a society where an increasing number of people are struggling to allocate a diminishing amount of resources, neither of these extremes are going to bring good results.
In a properly regulated market, the authorities watch the market from the shadows, carefully assessing it to ensure competition thrives up to a point. Then, when the competition starts to show signs of becoming destructive, it steps in to prevent trouble. You can see examples of this in a boxing match. When the two fighters are punching each other in clean, fair ways that make their martial skill the deciding factor, the referee simply keeps watch. When one fighter gets another stuck against the ropes and continually hits him, or holds him and starts biting him, the referee steps in and pulls them apart. If, at some point the IT market had been regulated to a degree concurrent with a licensed boxing match, the regulator would have stepped in and told Microsoft that imposing a tax on all computers sold that goes into their pocket or specially programming Windows to crash when DR-DOS was detected (to name but two of the nastiest examples) was not on.
No matter where we go in the IT world, whether it is in operating systems, hardware configuration, applications, or information channelling, insidious monopolies and trusts are popping up all over the place. Writing about such folks as Fudgebook is a difficult thing for me, so I will work up to it. Let us take the morons at Diggnation, or Digg, or whatever the hell they want to call themselves, as an example of just how bad misinformation can get. At one point in the high definition disc format war, Toshiba made an announcement that they were going to allow producers of pornographic material to release programming on their format. This prompted Digg’s hosts to declare that the format war was over, with calls like “bye, bye Blu-ray”, and such. Spoken in manners that, if directly addressed to my face, would get a person punched so hard they would wake up wondering where the last twenty years have gone. It took maybe one or two years, less than a quarter of the time the videocassette format war lasted, for Blu-ray Disc to pound HD-DVD’s butthole so hard that Toshiba practically begged Sony to stop. Horrible metaphors aside, this is an example of why the Fairness Doctrine not only needs to be formally enshrined in law, but very strictly enforced.
You see, it is one thing when one company, or a small number of companies, own the overwhelming majority of the media. What a lot of folks do not seem to know or care about is that the very backbone on which their networks run is the property of the government. The electricity system that powers televisions, computers, telephones, and all of the other bits and pieces? That was all put in place by the government. If you live out in the country, the government even instituted special programs in order to ensure you had electricity. Of the world’s population in 2009, 1.456 billion people did not have electricity. 83 percent of those people lived in rural areas. Oh, and the roads on which delivery trucks run? Yep, put in place using government money. The manner in which signals are broadcast to televisions, the standards that the signals follow, and even the sizes and shapes of the screens? All things that were worked out and determined by government employees.
So when some asshole in a private company tells us that the bandwidth his company is acting as a gatekeeper over are “his pipes” or “my pipes” or the like, that is what we need a Fairness Doctrine mandating that people who know better be given time to explain to the world that those pipes would not exist had they not been built by someone in the government.
The Fairness Doctrine has implications both simple and powerful, that apply to everyone. Want to get on television and proclaim that there are no autistic adults, Jenny McCarthy? With a Fairness Doctrine, your arse would be hurting so much after Anthony Attwood, Isabelle Hénault, and Simon Baron-Cohen got through with it that merely contemplating sitting down would bring tears to your eyes. This is also a legal change that would have great implications for the IT industry. Every statement made in favour of a particular entity or proposed change in favour of a particular idea would have its opponents getting time on the air to speak up about what they think. And this is the most important point: the Fairness Doctrine should even be expanded so that every point of view in an issue gets a chance to be heard. How many issues facing our world today do you know of where there are only two ideas concerning what to do or who should do what? Even all of the arguments about how nations with two-party systems, America or Australia for example, should run their affairs have a myriad of different people with different ideas all vying for attention.
On a similar token, the Internet cannot have a viable future unless there are rules put in place to delegate who owns what, how much of which pie each entity can own, and especially importantly, which elements of the pie are owned by whom.
That last part of the statement might seem confusing to some. Contrary to popular belief, it is not trail-blazing private companies that lay out the infrastructure that the Internet uses. It is not big conglomerates that put wires into pipes and then put those pipes into the ground. As James Tolkan says so well at one point in Top Gun, you (Edward Whitacre) do not own “that plane”, the taxpayers do. The taxpayers, as represented by the government, loaned the cable companies and other such entities hundreds of millions of dollars to put in the cables that move data from one place to another. That is, hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money. So there you have your answer concerning who owns the basic infrastructure of a medium, service, or system: whomever in Odin’s beard paid the money it took to put that basic infrastructure in. And in this case, that whomever is the people who paid the tax money that the governments gave to the companies that did the physical work to put them in. This is not rocket science, boys and girls. The people who build cars, computers, or wristwatches in factories do not own those cars, computers, or wristwatches. The people who pay the money that allows the factories to operate, to make those cars, computers, or wristwatches (for example) own them.
And when the government effectively owns a utility or piece of infrastructure, that means everyone who has agreed to contribute to that government and/or live by its laws owns that utility or piece of infrastructure. And most importantly, they all have an equal share in those items.
Unfortunately, both the government and the people seem to have lost sight of the fact that the media is also a public resource. Television, for example, was not designed from the get-go to be a medium where stupid normalistic propaganda was broken up by stupid normalistic commercials. When the first prototypes were shown to members of the government, those members reported back that the device had massive potential as an educational and emergency communications tool. The government commissioned scientists to develop a standard for the signals, and how they best be broadcast in a manner that reaches every home in the country. Without that initiative on the government’s part, the cable television companies, the commercial broadcasters, and the film studios that make content for broadcasting, would have nothing.
What we need for the future can be broken down into a few parts. All media, irrespective of whether it is electronic, analogue, or what have you, must have a governing body to regulate what private sellers can or cannot do within that market. And the power of that governing body must be limited only by the will of the people. Implementing this is going to take a long, long time. It is going to require an educational campaign to make sure that the people understand why this is being done. The first generation that this is done under, the slack-jawed yokel generation as I will call them, is going to have the most difficult time understanding it. So the most effort has to be expended on getting them to understand.
Infrastructure, whether that be the cables that transport television signals and data to households or the wiring that transports electricity to and fro, is going to need to have a body of ownership in control. For much of the past thirty years, we have enjoyed the effects of private ownership of these utilities. The experience has been nothing short of a disaster. In the privatisation drive of the 1980s, not a thought was given to how private companies would act on the open market. Some thought has to be given to the fact that worker wages in constant dollars have been in decline since the 1980s, and if there is one thing experience has shown we cannot count on from oversized private corporations, it is that.
This also means that we need to put a stop to trendmongering and path dependency, by the way. At the rate home media is improving in terms of infrastructure and standards, there is not a hope in hell that online “podcasts” or downloads can ever catch up to what can be delivered on a small shiny disc (or RAM chip, or cartridge, or…). Digital copy videos might seem really, really cool to some idiots out there (I have met some of them). Having watched the Fox film Predators both on Blu-ray Disc and as a digital copy that was provided with same, I can tell you without blinking that the latter is so inferior it would be funny if the matter were not so serious. When a man holds up the Japanese sword known as the Katana in one shot, do you want it to resemble the smoothly curved blade traditionally associated with the Katana, or a series of uniformly-coloured step-ladder pixel blocks? Because I can assure you that downloads and digital copies as a rule do not resemble the former. What we, those who give a shit about quality (and therefore count in these matters), would most want is government intervention to ensure that when a format or medium only offers a markedly inferior quality of experience (DVD-Video) to a viable alternative (Blu-ray Disc), the former is put out to pasture quickly and cleanly, rather than waiting for the market to maybe do it.
And as much as I hate to say it, the entire economic structure of the market(s) needs to change. One of the main reasons that the Mickeysoft company has foreclosed the route to market for alternate operating system programmers and yet at the same time helped keep the Apple corporation in the IT market is simple economics. Setting the market up so that nobody could bring certain products to market without their consent meant that the entire IT market basically existed to feed this one company. That is a bad thing, by the way. But at the same time, were there a total absence of competition, the Department Of Justice would have been able to come down upon that one company like the weight of a planet. In 1930, the Supreme Court, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, ruled that the monopoly known as U.S. Steel was not in violation of anti-trust laws as long as competition existed, regardless of how minimal that competition might be. That is the real reason why Microsoft bailed Apple out in 1997 with about a hundred and fifty million dollars as a loan. Because if Apple had gone out of business in 1997, the outcome of the anti-trust lawsuit that came to a head in 1999 would have been very, very different.
This means we need to change the definition of competition in terms of quantity. Having two companies that provide hardware systems, operating system software, and application software is not competition. It does not even qualify as minimal competition in my view. I think the effects of the software and home computer market having never had any significant regulation are very instructive. In the twenty years since the Microsoft-Commodore-Apple three way dissolved into a Microsoft-Apple duopoly, not only has the home computer and software market remained for all intents and purposes a monopoly, the information services markets on the Internet have been one monopoly after another. We have effectively one search engine, one service for the exchange of home videos, one “social network” that happens to be run by a fascist pig posing as a stereotype, and so on. This is not a good thing. Think of any singular task that you currently perform using a computer. Try to think of the names of five different companies that make products that you would use to perform that task. And when I say “would use”, I mean products that you would actually use even if you had to pay a lot of money for them. Some of the licensing fees for software in the early days of the market would make your head spin.
I could go on for hours on this topic, but I am going to cut it short for the time being. Not because I am out of ideas, but because I am seriously getting exhausted in terms of trying to get out a decent string of words on this subject. We will probably revisit this subject very soon. In the meantime, I look forward to boring you senseless soon.
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