(Reaction from the A/V presentation at MMS 201, Arellano University School of Law, Taft Ave. cor. Menlo St. Pasay City, Philippines, played on 27 August 2015)
In the video was Prof. Yochai Benkler of the Yale Law School discussing the implications of the constraints on the structuring the way on how we produce and exchange information.
Prof. Benkler is so much concerned in informing us the stakes involved in the communications structure and the organization of information, knowledge and cultural production. He divided the discussion into four sub-topics for us to be able to better understand his point:
- Models of communication
- Moment of opportunity
- The stakes of communication structure
- A layered view of the state of play
Different models of communication: from broadcast, to telephone, to the internet
There has been a prior discussion on these matters in the author’s reaction paper on the video by Prof. Zittrain (see Reaction Paper: “Internet Technologies”).
In addition to the comparative discussions, Prof. Benkler showed an illustration of the cycle of communication. It starts with the stimulus, to its conversion into some intelligent form of messaging, its transmission to and reception by the recipient, and then finally completing the cycle back with another stimulus. This reminded the author of the “water cycle” way back the elementary science years. Water is first evaporated in the atmosphere, condensed, then falls back to earth through precipitation to repeat the cycle once more.
After hearing the first part of the discussion, the author observed that the trending discussion of technology (when the video was taped) is from a simple system, controlled at end points, to complex distributed system that are free at the end points. Right now, vast information is being shared in the internet and it is almost so unrestricted that it overwhelms one’s capacity to absorb all of the information. Many enterprises are not so happy with this trend where they drew their profits. These enterprises are now pushing this recent trend that tends to go back to the concept of the older “broadcast” model, where there is more control to the content and thus more favorable to their economic agenda.
A moment of opportunity: “past” forward or back to the “future”
The improvements in communication technology are based on a 150-year old trend of commercialization and information production. Those who build the communication infrastructure were earlier propelled by the profits they can generate out of the opportunity. In other words, communication means business. But today, we come to realize that the economic aspect isn’t everything. The necessity of communication is slowly swallowing up economic considerations.
The author, however, disagrees with Prof. Benkler’s statement that “…the one thing that cannot be reduced is the human creativity…”. With due respect, not all persons are born with creative talents that are useful in the society. Some are born with creative talents to suppress another creative talent. That is the very reason why communication technology is unstable now. Will the big enterprises hire creative talents to ensure “open source” technology? Or will they hire creative talents to ensure their profits are secured and paid by those who can afford to pay.
Nonetheless, the statement is still true in the emergence of at least two phenomena: (1) the increasing role of non-market information producers, and (2) the emergence of large scale common-based peer production. In the former, academic centers and institutions tend to disseminate information, whether for profit or not, for the benefit of the academe. But then again, the author had the opportunity to observe that some academic and scientific publications nowadays are somewhat restricting access only to those who can pay for the subscription fees. While these trends reduced publication costs, there is still a question whether these organizations are for promotion of openness or not. Peer-to-peer (or P2P) production is an efficient way of collaborating with other information sources and then building the knowledge database later. The only problem with this scheme is that we rely on the presumption that all contributed pieces of information are correct and reliable. If the presumption fails, then the integrity of the system fails as well.
This is where we reach a crossroad. We are given the opportunity to move forward with new or old technology. This opportunity must be exercised with great caution to decide how the next 150 years of communication technology will be mould and crafted.
The stakes of communications structure and the organization of information knowledge and cultural production
The question is “why do we need to care?” The author’s answer: “because it involves our most cherished freedom: the right to free speech among others”.
Speech will be a useless exercise if it does not permeate the bounds of communication. If it is only a one way process, such as pointing your flashlight in the clear skies, it doesn’t do anything good. If it is the only kind of speech granted for exercise, then there is no freedom to speak of. To the author, speech which does not end up in a channel of communication is no speech at all.
In a political discourse, it is said that he who controls the pipe, controls the content. The author agrees. Telecommunication companies, for example, have anything to say about SMS, voice call or mobile internet. In the internet, the degree of flexibility of internet providers will determine the amount information users can communicate, subject to government regulations. Relevant example is the issue of “data cap” in the mobile market. For a given plan, a mobile internet user cannot access bytes of information exceeding their allowances without being charged additional fees.
In the cultural discourse, the issue is autonomy. The author likewise raise the question of “who should design the window to view the world?”. Should it be some enterprise? the government? or some other independent group? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. For as long as the issues are resolved, whoever they might be is irrelevant. The author adheres with a principle in solving engineering math problems that: as long as the solution leads to the correct answer, it doesn’t matter. The solution is deemed correct. So long as the general issues on hunger, poverty and injustice are solved, it may be tolerated.
Innovation should dig its way to show that improvements in the communication technology will not violate property rights. If innovation would mean an open access to end users, each and every end user must do their part to agree and mutually conform with the norms. Otherwise, there will be certain gaps in the distributed system where certain pieces of information are not permitted to be transmitted or received.
A layered view of the state of play: the content, the logical, and the physical layers
Prof. Benkler discussed the various layers of communication technology and how they are interrelated to each other. The content layer (information, movie shows, property rights) is connected to the physical layer (satellite, DSL and cable internet and the devices like TV, mobile devices and PCs) by means of the logical layer (i.e. internet protocols). In Prof. Benkler’s illustration, only a portion of content layer is allowed free access throughout. This is so because economic considerations regulate the flow of information and communication to and fro certain areas of the system.
For the physical layer, our present technology is into developing open wireless networks. In the Philippines, this may be through a national or municipal broadband network. The author agrees to the idea. Just like the government or any of its branch or political subdivision are maintaining roads, drainage, public utilities and other public services, the necessity of providing access to the internet is now more demanding than ever. This, to the author, is the better idea than adopting a distributed wireless network; provided of course, government procurement of the service is done in accordance with law and the price and terms are the most advantageous to the government. As to the devices, the author still believes that such must remain to follow the functionality of a PC. It must remain as “open source” equipment that will never restrict the contents. The author, however, disagrees on the proposal that devices must be built with discretion to allow or regulate certain contents, for it defeats the very purpose of free and open communication over the internet.
The problem of controlling or regulating the content is more real than apparent. Once an unrestricted content is brought into the physical layer, the degree of control will be almost nil. The proposed solution was to equip the devices like PCs to recognize and control to a certain extent the content to be enjoyed by the end users in the same way (cable) TVs work. But how about those contents that people are very much willing to share: like social media posts? personal videos? event photos? Is it not an infringement of the right to free speech as long as the contents are not offensive? The author believes that we must strike a balance between these conflicting interests.
The author joins Dr. Benkler in advocating for “open source” technologies. As long as the medium of communication is the internet, there must be no boundary or restriction on how people send or receive information from one point to the other. The author also believes that the distributed system should not always be taken as the result of the evolution of the “centralized system”. Sometimes, we have to accept that they are just two independent systems incompatible with each other.
The economic aspect of communication technology must fail at some point. The use of technology must not always be dictated by the laws of economics but by justice, fairness and equity. Thus, each technology user must resist any “enclosure movement” and start claiming this new “public domain” called the information and communications technology.