The Fall of Joi Ito

Back in 2003 I got into a blog tussle with Joi Ito, the disgraced former director of the MIT Media Lab who was forced to resign from the Lab and a number of corporate boards over ethical lapses related to Jeffrey Epstein. I was fairly amazed that Ito was hired by the Media Lab in the first place.

It seems like a job for a futurist, a technologist, or an intellectual, and Ito is none of those things. But he is well-connected, which is great for fundraising if nothing else.

Emergent Democracy

I’m not going to rehash the issues at MIT because they’ve been well covered by Ronan Farrow, Andrew Orlowski, and Evgeny Morozov. I’d like to share a post I wrote about Ito’s ideas about something he called “emergent democracy”, my reaction to them, and Ito’s reaction to my commentary. This is about schadenfreude, in other words.

Ito was one of the first to jump aboard the blog train in the days when we still called blogs “weblogs”. He tried to put together an essay mashing up the ideas Steven Johnson laid out in his 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software with Howard Rheingold’s 1993 musings about the Internet in The Virtual Community.

In essence, Ito claimed that the Internet could, given the creation of new tools, revolutionize the ways societies govern themselves. Instead of the musty old top-down, command-and-control model of representative democracy, the Internet could expand the circle of participation in governmental decision-making and usher in a new era of direct democracy.

Since [1993, Rheingold] has been criticized as being naive about his views. This is because the tools and protocols of the Internet have not yet evolved enough to allow the emergence of Internet democracy to create a higher-level order. As these tools evolve we are on the verge of an awakening of the Internet. This awakening will facilitate a political model enabled by technology to support those basic attributes of democracy which have eroded as power has become concentrated within corporations and governments. It is possible that new technologies may enable a higher-level order, which in turn will enable a form of emergent democracy able to manage complex issues and support, change or replace our current representative democracy. It is also possible that new technologies will empower terrorists or totalitarian regimes. These tools will have the ability to either enhance or deteriorate democracy and we must do what is possible to influence the development of the tools for better democracy.

Emergent Democracy, Joi Ito, 2003.

Mixed Results

To Ito’s and Rheingold’s credit, they didn’t see a future that was all peaches and cream. But it was fairly obvious even in those days that the popularization of the Internet was going to bring forth both good and bad results.

We can learn obscure subjects quickly, we can shop at the world’s largest store without leaving our desks, and we can learn how to fix things. But we also have Trump in the White House and a networked terror cult known as ISIS tearing it up in the Middle East.

It wasn’t either/or, it was both/and: new conveniences and new threats at the same time. Ito didn’t anticipate this, but it was always the most likely future. He also found himself unable to complete the essay, so he turned it over to one of his Wellbert friends, Jon Lebkowsky, to finish.

My Criticism

I addressed an early draft of Emergent Democracy in this post, Emergence Fantasies. It appeared to me that Ito was effectively touting a form of government like the California initiative process that would be informed by blog posts and effectively controlled by a blogger elite. The elite bar was pretty low among the blogs in 2003, so this didn’t look like progress to me.

The larger problem was the essential incoherence of Ito’s reasoning. Well-connected as he is socially, Ito is no intellectual. He also lacks a reasonable understanding of the ways legislative bodies work, at least according to my frame of reference as someone who’s been working with them for twenty years or so.

The emergence thing is also suspect. A the time, it was a fixation among the crowd that thinks of Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Nassim Taleb as great thinkers, but it’s little more than trivia about the behavior of animal groups. Ant colonies are far from grass-roots democracies in any case, and they’ve fascinated political thinkers for thousands of years. I’d be happy to read a book on the biochemistry of ant colonies, but Emergence is not it.

So I said this:

Emergent democracy apparently differs from representative democracy by virtue of being unmediated, and is claimed by the author to offer superior solutions to complex social problems because governments don’t scale, or something. Emergent democracy belief requires us to abandon notions of intellectual property and corporations, apparently because such old-fashioned constructs would prevent democratic ants from figuring out where to bury their dead partners, I think. One thing that is clear is that weblogs are an essential tool for bringing emergent democracy to its full development, and another is that the cross-blog debate on the liberation of Iraq is a really cool example of the kind of advanced discourse that will solve all these problems we’ve had over the years as soon as we evolve our tools to the ant colony level.

Emergence fantasies, me, 2003.

The conversation continued on Ito’s blog under a post ironically titled Can we control our lust for power? The answer to that question was obviously “no”.

The Black List

Ito was not amused, so he black-listed me:

Mr. Bennett has a very dismissive and insulting way of engaging and is a good example of “noise” when we talk about the “signal to noise ratio”. Adam has recently taken over the fight for me on my blog. My Bennett filter is now officially on so I won’t link to his site or engage directly with the fellow any more. At moments he seems to have a point, but it’s very tiring engaging with him and I would recommend others from wasting as much time as I have.

So that’s Joi Ito for you: a man who loves Jeffrey Epstein so much that he’s willing to lie to his bosses to keep him in the Media Lab social network but can’t take honest criticism. His fall from grace was long overdue, and I’m proud to have such enemies.

Is Blogging Journalism?

I said on Facebook the other day that tech blogging is more like “infotainment” than journalism. The confusion around this subject is behind the reaction to the Michael Arrington VC fund and Arianna Huffington’s desire for editorial control over TechCrunch. Here’s a quote from Robert Scoble that should clarify the issue:

Several years ago Arrington and I were headed to some conference and I asked him about how he sees himself. Did he consider himself a blogger or a journalist, I asked. His answer stuck with me all this time: “I’m an entertainer.”

You can say the same thing about John Dvorak (as I have) and any number of other media figures who blog about technology.

I hope this helps with the general understanding.

Explaining the Price Gap

This is old news to those of you who read the other sources of broadband politics news on the new-fangled world wide computernet, but the esteemed Saul Hansell (a sometime reader of this blog) has released the second part of his analysis of American broadband, addressing the pricing issue. Broadband is cheaper in other countries due to subsidies and differences in demographics, but also because of unbundling, the practice of requiring carriers to offer wholesale access to their customers:

Unbundling can be seen as a slightly disguised form of price regulation. Profits dropped. Many of the new entrants have found it difficult to build sustainable businesses, while margins for the incumbent phone companies have been squeezed as well.

It’s not exactly clear, however, that this approach is in the public’s long-term interest. Phone companies have less incentive to invest and upgrade their networks if they are going to be forced to share their networks.

Some argue that this is the main reason that there is little investment in bringing fiber to homes in Europe. “Investing in fiber is a huge risk,” Kalyan Dasgupta, a London-based consultant with LECG, wrote me in an e-mail, “and the prospect of taking that risk alone, but having to ’share’ the rewards with other players, is not a prospect that most rational businesses would consider.”

Britain, which has been the biggest proponent of line sharing, has decided to deregulate the wholesale price BT can charge for fiber, so long as it doesn’t favor its own brand of Internet service.

Like any form of price control, unbundling produces short-term gains in access diversity at the expense of long-term investment. Adopting this approach ultimately requires the government to bear the cost of infrastructure improvements, as it ceases to be a rational use of investor dollars to build out enhancements that don’t produce substantial returns in a non-monopoly market. Many of the folks seeking net neutrality regard broadband as a utility, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat it that way, that’s that it becomes.

Just as our electric utility networks include less-efficient generating plants that belch excessive amounts of CO2 into the air because the regulators won’t approve rate hikes to pay replacement costs, so too will price-capping broadband stifle innovation in transport networks.

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Debunking the Broadband Gap

Today we learn, via Saul Hansell at Bits Blog, that the US isn’t as far behind the Rest of the World with broadband as was previously thought:

Even without any change in government policies, Internet speeds in the United States are getting faster. Verizon is wiring half its territory with its FiOS service, which strings fiber optic cable to people’s homes. FiOS now offers 50 Mbps service and has the capacity to offer much faster speeds. As of the end of 2008, 4.1 million homes in the United States had fiber service, which puts the United States right behind Japan, which has brought fiber directly to 8.2 million homes, according to the Fiber to the Home Council. Much of what is called fiber broadband in Korea, Sweden and until recently Japan, only brings the fiber to the basement of apartment buildings or street-corner switch boxes.

Actual download speeds are more important that raw signaling rates: The United States has an average speed of 5.2 Mbps, Japan is 16.7 Mbps, Sweden was 8.8 Mbps, and Korea averaged 7.2 Mbps. There’s a gap alright, but it’s not nearly as large as we’ve been lead to believe.

In fact, the gap is entirely consistent with population density and the extent of government subsidies.

I’ll see you at eComm

I’ll be speaking at the eComm2009: Emerging Communications Conference in San Francisco next week:

The world’s leading-edge telecom, Internet communications and mobile innovation event built to both showcase and accelerate innovation; and to explore radical new opportunities – together.

eComm deals with the Telco 2.0 world in which telephony is software and networks are multi-purpose and agile. A lot of great minds and influential movers and shakers will be converging in this space, including Martin Geddes, Doc Searls, Brough Turner, Brad Templeton, and Rick Whitt, so I highly recommend it.

Brough is moderating my panel, called Spectrum 2.0, on the move to release more unlicensed spectrum. I suspect we’ll touch on the 802.11y-style spectrum sharing etiquettes since Peter Ecclesine is on the panel, and the White Spaces issue since Whitt will be there as well.

Welcome Brett Glass

The following post is from our new co-blogger, Brett Glass. Brett and I first crossed paths when we were working on the “Skywalker” token-ring project at Texas Instruments in the early 80s. Brett was part of the team in Houston doing the chipset, and I worked on a team on Austin doing a terminal server application for it. We both spoke at an ITIF event in Washington, DC, last spring on network management. He’s been a valuable commenter here for a while, and I’m very happy to have him contributing posts as well. Here’s his bio: Continue reading “Welcome Brett Glass”

Virgin Media serves the people, not the pirates

The Register broke a story today about the plan by the UK’s cable company, Virgin Media, to dump neutrality and target BitTorrent users

The UK’s second largest ISP, Virgin Media, will next year introduce network monitoring technology to specifically target and restrict BitTorrent traffic, its boss has told The Register.

The move will represent a major policy shift for the cable monopoly and is likely to anger advocates of “net neutrality”, who say all internet traffic should be treated equally. Virgin Media currently temporarily throttles the bandwidth of its heaviest downloaders across all applications at peak times, rather than targeting and “shaping” specific types of traffic.

Virgin Media’s CEO Neil Berkett has previously described net neutrality as “a load of bollocks*,” a sentiment that I can relate to if not specifically endorse.

UPDATE: Wired Blogs reports Virgin is denying the veracity of El Reg’s story, but read the world’s finest tech pub tomorrow for the real story. In the meantime, a quick perusal of Virgin’s traffic policy indicates that they already reserve extensive traffic shaping powers.

Blogger Tom Evslin has jumped on the story with some instant analysis. The problem this story causes for American Liberals is cognitive dissonance: Britain is a virtuous European nation with a National Health Service, a leftwing government, and a commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, yet they permit more traffic shaping than the FCC will allow Comcast; this sort of contradiction causes my friends on the left to drink heavily, or to blog obsessively.

*American translation: BS.

This blog is an INTJ

Via Andy Sullivan, I found a service that analyzes and types blog content, Typealyzer. Here’s what it says about my blog:

The long-range thinking and individualistic type. They are especially good at looking at almost anything and figuring out a way of improving it – often with a highly creative and imaginative touch. They are intellectually curious and daring, but might be pshysically hesitant to try new things.

The Scientists enjoy theoretical work that allows them to use their strong minds and bold creativity. Since they tend to be so abstract and theoretical in their communication they often have a problem communcating their visions to other people and need to learn patience and use conrete examples. Since they are extremly good at concentrating they often have no trouble working alone.

Sounds about right, but they do need some spell-checking.

Technology Liberation Front is the same type, but Harold Feld’s Wetmachine post on the FCC’s cable inquiry is an INTP:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Again, about right.

UPDATE: Harold’s Tales of the Sausage Factory is, in general, INTJ.

Obama transition team member Susan Crawford is ENTJ:

The direct and assertive type. They are especially attuned to the big picture and how to get things done. They are talented strategic planners, but might come off as insensitive to others needs and appear arrogant. They like to be where the action is and like making bold and sweeping changes in complex situations.

The Executives are happy when their work let them learn and improve themselves and how things work around them. Not beeing very shy about expressing their ideas and often very outgoing they often make excellent public speakers.

That public speaker thing is obviously correct; I met her when we were both speaking on the future of broadband at Kevin Werbach’s Supernova. Kevin, the other Obama FCC transitioner, is INTP.

Thirty Profiles

Dave Burstein of DSL Prime has posted profiles of 30 FCC candidates to his web site, including one transition team member:

Susan Crawford, now teaching at Michigan, also has enormous respect from her peers and would bring international perspective from her role at ICANN setting world Internet policy

The selection of Crawford to join Kevin Werbach on the FCC transition team has already gotten some of my colleagues on the deregulatory side pretty excited, as she has the image of being a fierce advocate of a highly-regulated Internet. And indeed, she has written some strong stuff in favor of the “stupid network” construct that demands all packets be treated as equals inside the network. The critics are missing something that’s very important, however: both Werbach and Crawford are “Internet people” rather than “telecom people” and that’s a very important thing. While we may not like Crawford’s willingness to embrace a neutral routing mandate in the past, the more interesting question is how she comes down on a couple of issues that trump neutral routing, network management and multi-service routing.

We all know by now that the network management exception is more powerful than Powell’s “Four Freedoms” where the rubber meets the road, but we lack any clear guidance to ISPs as to how their management practices will be evaluated. Clarification of the rules is as much a benefit to carriers as it is to consumers. The one way to ensure that we all lose is to keep lumbering along in the murk of uncertain authority and secret rules. Internet people are going to ask the right questions to their candidates, and anybody who can satisfy both Werbach and Crawford will have to be a good choice. Check Werbach’s web site for his papers. Unfotunately, the most interesting of them is not yet in print, “The Centripetal Network: How the Internet Holds Itself Together, and the Forces Tearing it Apart”, UC Davis Law Review, forthcoming 2008. Perhaps he’ll post a draft.

The question of multi-service routing is also very important. Crawford has written and testified to the effect that the Internet is the first global, digital, multi-service network, which is substantially correct. The Internet is not fully multi-service today, however, and can’t be unless it exposes multiple service levels at the end points for applications to use easily. The generic public Internet has a single transport service which has to meet the needs of diverse applications today, which is not really an achievable goal in the peer-to-peer world.
Continue reading “Thirty Profiles”

AT&T’s Dubious Behavior

You may not have noticed in the crush of events, but AT&T announced a new broadband service option last week, up to 18 Mb/s DSL:

AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) today announced it will launch AT&T U-verseSM High Speed Internet Max 18 on Nov. 9, offering speeds of up to 18 Mbps downstream. Exclusively available for AT&T U-verse TV customers, Max 18 is the fastest high speed Internet package available from the nation’s leading provider of broadband services.

Apparently this is simply a pricing option for existing U-Verse TV customers that allows them to use more of their pipe for downloading when they aren’t using it for TV. The general data rate of the AT&T pipe is 25 Mb/s without pair bonding, of which 2 – 16 Mb/s is used for TV. Under the old plan, Internet downloads were capped at 12 Mb/s, which generally left enough for two HDTV streams, except when it didn’t, and under those circumstances AT&T borrowed from Internet capacity to make the TV keep looking fairly good. AT&T should be able to offer a 25 Mb/s download tier without changing any hardware, but they don’t.

Generally speaking, we’re all in favor of faster downloads whenever possible, but this announcement is troubling for one very big reason: the only way you can get this service is to buy AT&T’s TV service. This bundling sets the giant of the telcos apart from competitors Verizon, Comcast, and Qwest and raises concerns that should have the consumer groups who’ve promoted the net neutrality agenda hopping mad.

The two aspects of network operation that deserve regulatory scrutiny are disclosure and anti-competitive practices, and this behavior falls squarely in the anti-competitive nexus. The other providers of triple- and quad-play services will gladly sell all tiers of Internet service to anyone in the service areas regardless of which other services they choose to buy. They typically discount Internet service for TV and phone customers, but it’s certainly available without purchasing the other services, and for less than it would cost to buy them as well.

This mandatory bundling is unfortunately consistent with AT&T’s role as the black sheep of net neutrality. It was their CEO’s remarks, after all, that set off the current controversy back in 2005: Ed Whiteacre said Google and Vonage weren’t going to “use his pipes for free.” This got Google engaged in a regulatory program and unleashed a massive infusion of cash into the debate over the regulation of Internet access services, not to mention an army of Google-friendly advocates such as Larry Lessig and Tim Wu’s Free Press organization, the muscle behind the Save the Internet blog. And when the FCC overstepped its authority in and slapped Comcast on the wrist, AT&T insisted the cable company should accept its fate silently and take one for the team instead of challenging the unlawful order in court. Their gall is breathtaking.

The consumer advocates have been strangely silent about this clearly anti-competitive bundling. Why should I have to buy AT&T’s TV service to get the top tier of their Internet access service? For years I bought Internet access from Comcast and TV from DirecTV, and was very pleased with the result. I would probably still do that if DirecTV had not ended their relationship with TiVo and tried to force their sub-standard DVR on me. And if I choose to do so today, I can buy the highest tier Comcast offers in my neighborhood without signing up for their TV service, and at a fairly reasonable price.

So why is AT&T trying to gouge the consumer, and why is the net neutrality movement silent about it? Consumer’s Union is all up in arms about cable companies converting analog customers to digital along with the rest of the country in February, a painfully silly campaign that argues for unfair regulation. Why not address a real issue instead?