At Fresh Hot Type, the after party for the Fresh Media Festival on Oct. 24th, local media arts group W2 provided a letterpress with which partygoers could experiment. The idea was that as the DJs spun in the background, participants could creatively express themselves by using the letterpress, ink and paper. Not satisfied with what seemed like the natural limits of the medium, participants soon began writing words and expressions on both their own and each other's bodies, and acting out the words on the dance floor.
Big telecom companies like Telus like to scare policy makers by suggesting any open Internet requirements for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will lead to "unintended consequences."
I, however, have taken to arguing just the opposite -- that letting ISPs become gatekeepers and regulators of our Internet usage has both intended and unintended negative consequences for innovation, online choice, and free expression. Clearly there are negative consequences to allowing an ISP to slow access to a radically democratic and innovative file sharing service like bittorent, which is still very much in an embryonic stage of development. Most major ISPs are already slowing access to bittorent, and this limits our online choice of services and content. It limits individuals and companies that would innovate with this technology, and it stifles those who would have liked to express themselves through its applications.
But now I think I may have got it all wrong. What we want most from the Internet is actually just that -- unintended consequences. The original architects of the Internet didn't expect and couldn't even have imagined an Internet that would include bittorrent, Twitter, Skype, Google, Yelp, The Tyee etc. They simply produced a neutral network where users could freely innovate and connect with one another. The best part about the Internet -- the user ingenuity, grassroots innovation, and open collaboration -- came not from the Internet's architects or ISPs, but from what Jonahan Zittrain calls the "generativity" of the Internet.
According to Zittrain, generativity refers to:
"...a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences... Generativity pairs an input consisting of unfiltered contributions from diverse people and groups, who may or may not be working in concert, with the output of unanticipated change. For the inputs, how much the system facilitates audience contribution is a function of both technological design and of social behavior."
We can flesh out generativity further in future columns -- but in basic terms, a generative platform is one that is open, accessible, useful, flexible and easy to master.
A generative world
The participants at the Fresh Hot Type party were able to generate new ways of interacting with the letterpress because we provided it as an open platform and didn't squash their inventiveness. Like everyone else, we took joy in the generativity of the letterpress. Dancing body canvasses was the positive -- yet unintended -- consequence of the letterpress, in the context of a dance party.
The explosion of innovation and collaboration unleashed by the open Internet is the creative expression that the Internet's generative platform has provided us. The big telecom companies did not initially intend to provide access to these unsanctioned services when they began selling access to the Internet.
It's reasonable to assume that talk about the need to avoid the unintended consequences of the open Internet is coming only from ISPs who are pretending to care about open innovation. What they're really talking about -- and hoping to avoid -- is innovative content and services that come from users instead of rigid old telecom companies.
From the ground up, online innovation is the unintended consequence that ISPs would like to avoid. After all, these are the very services that are succeeding at the expense of ISP TV and phone assets.
Forward to openness
On Oct. 22nd, the CRTC took an important step in the right direction by putting forward open Internet ("traffic management") guidelines. Combined with the Liberals' announcement of "Net Neutrality" as official party policy, this is a clear sign of positive momentum for those of us in favour of an open media system.
However, as it stands right now, ISPs have not yet been told to stop throttling access to the open Internet. Furthermore, under the current CRTC guidelines, the onus falls on the consumer to file a complaint and to prove that an ISP is unjustly throttling traffic. It is unfair to force consumers to go head to head over and over again with some of the most powerful businesses in the country.
It's time for Industry Minister Tony Clement and the Conservative party to join the other major parties by demanding the CRTC conduct regular compliance audits of ISP traffic management practices. If Clement does the right thing here, we could have a truly open Internet before we know it.
Citizens can send Tony Clement a letter in seconds at http://saveournet.ca.
Long live unintended consequences.
Read more: Media