What’s in Store for Tech in 2014

We’re just a week into 2014 and already CES is in full swing with a new range of gadget swag, Florida State has won the BCS Championship, and the year’s first tech policy controversy has broken out over AT&T’s plan to offer “Sponsored Data” to smart phones that won’t count against users’ data caps. On the controversy side, a few interest groups and their friendly bloggers have taken the lash to AT&T for violating their version of Internet norms, but others are adopting a more wait and see approach.

The essence of the Sponsored Data controversy is, like that of the net neutrality controversy, a debate over the role that the norms and practices of the historical Internet should play in the network ecosystems of the future. Once upon a time, the Internet was a closed system only accessible to the research community, military contractors, and a few friends. In those days, access to the Internet was controlled first by DARPA and then by the National Science Foundation, both of which charged members a flat annual fee for connecting. ARPANET designer Larry Roberts has said that the flat rate billing concept was an important stimulus to adoption because users only had to think about the network’s value once a year. Not only was the user community elite and the billing model as simple as it could possibly be, network traffic and applications were highly uniform, mainly skewing toward data-intensive file transfers and light interactive use by remote terminal sessions. End user computers had limited power, were usually shared, and always stationary; in fact, most of the systems on the Internet until the mid-80s were too large to move without a truck.

After the NSF opened the Internet up to commercial use in 1991, these norms began to change, first gradually until online service providers like AOL and Netcom made Internet connections, and then much more quickly. Even without the smartphones and mobile broadband networks that lead the current wave of technology innovation, the Internet of today is radically different from the Internet that existed 30 years ago, just after TCP/IP was installed on ARPANET.

One of the things that changed the Internet after it was opened to the public was the Web. The Web made it trivially easy to publish and comment, immediately changing the nature of newspapers in particular and journalism in general. The Web had a less visible effect that is becoming more important now that smartphones are replacing the desktop computer as the primary screen: It added some new plumbing to the Internet that simplified program-to-program communication across the Internet. This feature consists of application programming interfaces (API)  to protocols like SOAP and data formats like XML, and together these things made it easy to develop the apps that dispense with the Web user interface in favor of more precise forms of interaction. Smartphone apps rely on methods of data exchange that can accomplish meaningful things with or without human involvement.

These new devices and modes of interaction have also escaped the moorings that tied the old computers and their users to fixed locations in space. With mobile devices we get pervasive, enabling networks, and as networks become pervasive they can facilitate ever more kinds of interactions. Want to buy a neat gadget you saw at CES? You can use the old Internet to shop, order, and pay for it, but for now the delivery is made by truck. Someday the New Internet will deliver it to your doorstep courtesy of an unmanned drone that’s guided to that doorstep by wireless networks, or by a driver-less truck.

Networks are changing, devices are changing, and applications are changing. At what point are we free to discard the norms and practices created for the first generation of a developmental arc that’s now in its fifth generation or beyond? Perhaps there’s no time like the present for the Internet.

We’re also at a fork in the road regarding the public switched telephone network, but for a different reason. The PSTN has nearly stopped running. All of its meaningful functions are better provided by the the networks that run the Internet, and we’ve come to think of interpersonal communication in much broader terms than we did in the heyday of the PSTN. In the policy discussions about the phaseout of the PSTN – the “IP Transition” – there’s often an expressed wish to carry the PSTN over to the Internet in as many details as possible. This preserves a great deal of the PSTN’s regulatory apparatus, which is attractive because preservation of the status quo answers difficult questions about goals and requirements. But importing the status quo does an injustice to the opportunities that new modes of communication create, potentially stunting their growth and reducing their potential social benefits.

So how do public policy analysts and advocates react to the challenges and opportunities afforded by rapidly developing communication networks and the interactions they enable?

One approach is to try and distill values from the traditions of Internet and PSTN regulation and reapply them to the emerging networks, as Public Knowledge and other advocacy groups are trying to do. As apparently reasonable as this approach may be, it runs the risk of being self-serving. People who’ve devoted their professional careers to preserving and protecting features of traditional networks are loath to discard their skills on the hope that the new world will afford them with greater personal opportunities. The IP Transition discourse also tends to overlook the fact that the Internet itself has changed and will change some more. We can’t simply discard PSTN norms in favor of Internet norms because that’s simply trading one form of obsolescence for another.

What we can do, however, is begin to think about goals and requirements for a new generation of networks and the interactions they enable in advance of their maturity. We know, for example, that we’ve made several regulatory and conceptual errors with the networks of the past. We’ve always assumed that each new network, from the postal system to the railroad, telegraph, telephone, Interstate Highway, cable TV, cellular telephone and Internet, would become stable and predictable in short order and then would persist for several generations (if not forever.)

This meant policy makers could sit on the sidelines waiting for a monopoly to assert itself, and once it did they could leap into action to polish its rough edges and set to ensuring that it changed as little as possible. The most serious criticism an advocate can make against a new business practice in today’s networks is that it goes against tradition. This is Nilay Patel’s complaint in The Verge about Sponsored Data:

AT&T today announced a new “Sponsored Data” program that lets developers and brands pay to deliver content to your mobile device outside of your data caps. It sounds great for consumers on its face — you’ll be able to get more stuff without paying for it! — but in reality it’s a huge blow to the free and vibrant market of the internet economy, and the first step towards a new era of carrier control.

The first step towards a new era says it all: this is a departure from tradition, and that’s enough to say it must be stopped in its tracks. Whoa.

When did tech policy analysis come to favor tradition over innovation? Isn’t the technology industry supposed to be about disruption of the most radical kind? That’s certainly the theme of Larry Downes’ and Paul Nunes’ new book, Big Bang Disruption,  which argues that businesses cannot rest on their laurels for decades at a time while they extract value from past glories. Rather, innovators must now take the lead in the race to disrupt their own products lest they be overcome by others eager to dethrone the old majesties.

So how do policy makers play a complementary role in bringing new technologies to market, accelerating change, and leveraging technology opportunities to enhance quality of life and to increase social benefits?

That’s the question we’ll be asking to a broad group of innovators, academics, and policy thinkers this year. Stay tuned.

  • Jason daniels

    Stay tuned indeed. I came across your site from #Oaklandvoices. I’m probably more aligned with the progressives you are slapping down on Twitter, but I nonetheless found this article very thoughtful.

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