What Do We Save When We Save the Internet?

We cannot champion Network Neutrality without admitting that the Internet is no Utopia.
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Think about regret as if it were sin. Some regrets are mild, but acute. The regret associated with choosing the wrong supermarket checkout lane, or buying an outfit that you notice goes on sale the next week—these seem woeful. They chafe, but their pains are pin pricks that soon subside. These are venial regrets.

Regret is more severe when it steeps in sorrow rather than in misadventure, when it becomes chronic—mortal rather than venial. But counter-intuitively, mortal regrets are less noticeable than venial ones, because they burn slow and low instead of hot and fast: the regret of overwork and its deleterious effects on family. The regret of sloth in the face of opportunity. The regret of acquiescence to one’s own temperament. 

Mortal regrets are tender, and touched inadvertently they explode with affective shrapnel. Venial regrets shout, “alas!” but mortal regrets whisper, “if only.”

***

“We believe that a free and open Internet can bring about a better world,” write the authors of the Declaration of Internet Freedom. Its supporters rise up to decry the supposedly imminent demise of this Internet thanks to FCC policies poised to damage Network Neutrality, the notion of common carriage applied to data networks.

Its zealots paint digital Guernicas, lamenting any change in communication policy as atrocity. “If we all want to protect universal access to the communications networks that we all depend on to connect with ideas, information, and each other,” write the admins of Reddit in a blog post patriotically entitled Only YOU Can Protect Net Neutrality, “then we must stand up for our rights to connect and communicate.”

This is one part of the story. It’s a caricature of that story, to be sure—universal access to ideas hardly exists thanks to the Internet, and the business of technology has helped create the most unequal society in a century. But it is nevertheless a part of the story. It’s why you can read these words right now. I’d be a hypocrite to deny it.

***

Imagine the “loss” of the Internet as we know it. The party line alerts us to the consequences: declining speeds and rising costs of Netflix service, or the increased obstacles for a hypothetical, future YouTube or Skype—one that would have to compete for bandwidth with hard currency. An everyman scenario always comes later, as an aspiration: the church or small business that “gets the same treatment” as CNN or The New York Times

It would be nice to think that this battle is a David and Goliath story, but instead its probably just a Goliath story. The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. The church and small business have already mostly lost the battle for viability and social influence—largely at the hands of the commercial Internet. To fear a “pay to play” Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.

Choosing one set of disreputable billionaire overlords over another hardly counts as freedom, even less than choosing one brand of shampoo over another does. If unfettered Netflix delivery speed and the unbridled rise of the next Zuckerberg” really do best exemplify the social advantage of common carriage online, then our commonest laments are also venial, not mortal ones. We’re choosing checkout lines, not foreclosing communal futures.

***

What is the Internet? As Evgeny Morozov argues, it may not exist except as a rhetorical gimmick. But if it does, it’s as much a thing we do as it is an infrastructure through which to do it. And that thing we do that is the Internet, it’s pockmarked with mortal regret:

You boot a browser and it loads the Yahoo! homepage because that’s what it’s done for fifteen years. You blink at it and type a search term into the Google search field in the chrome of the browser window instead.

Sitting in front of the television, you grasp your iPhone tight in your hand instead of your knitting or your whiskey or your rosary or your lover.

The shame of expecting an immediate reply to a text or a Gchat message after just having failed to provide one. The narcissism of urgency.

The pull-snap of a timeline update on a smartphone screen, the spin of its rotary gauge. The feeling of relief at the surge of new data—in Gmail, in Twitter, in Instagram, it doesn’t matter.

The gentle settling of disappointment that follows, like a down duvet sighing into the freshly made bed. This moment is just like the last, and the next.

You close Facebook and then open a new browser tab, in which you immediately navigate back to Facebook without thinking.

The hot fury of encountering yet another lowlife online. Of knowing how the argument ends (badly) but carrying it out anyway.

The sunburn of that fury hours later, the bleak shadow side of ha-ha “someone is wrong on the Internet” cartoon mockery in which you scowled through dinner, because you are a person and not a stick figure.

The comments, and reading them, and not reading them. Knowing that response and reaction responds and reacts to someone’s preferred idea rather than the ideas proffered. If you are a woman, knowing something much, much worse.

Notifications. Click me, read me, look at me, “like” me, buy me, contribute to me, respond to me, retweet me, for I am on the Internet.

Another day’s work lost to the vapors of reloads, updates, clicks, and comments. Realizing that you are hyperemployed by the cloud, that you are its unpaid intern. Wondering what you’d have accomplished if you had done anything else whatsoever. Knowing that tomorrow will be no different.

The weight and heat of your smartphone in your pocket, silently whimpering for you, a glass and metal kitten with a small, fragile body.

***

The Internet is a thing we do. I’m doing it right now. And as I write this in my home office serviced by Comcast Xfinity, I am experiencing inexplicable delays and failures in DNS resolution. Couldn’t this be an example of the kind of deliberate neglect the backbone operator Level 3 recently used to exemplify the stakes of Net Neutrality? Of course it could. Denialists are worse than critics. It’s disappointing when the thing you do doesn’t work right, and it’s disheartening to learn that it doesn’t work right because the infrastructure that undergirds it is subject to collusion and backroom dealing. Of course, it’s likewise disappointing to discover this truth about roads and schools and jobs. Yet of these matters we do not protest—in part because we believe the Internet might make them irrelevant.

Do we have such a “better world” thanks to the “free and open” Internet that we can feel 100% great about “saving” it? You’ll say “yes,” I know you will. Even to pose the question is considered obscene. You might even say so, posting angrily on multi-billion dollar services like Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. Such “discourse” is the very point! The system is working!

We like to think that the Internet is made of video streams and quips and cat photos, and it is. But it is also made of the waves of sorrow of a thousand million acts like the ones mentioned above, all spilling onto shore, erosive. You’ll try to tell me that these are incidental properties, mere exhaust, the necessary but piffling downsides of a force of greater good. But I don’t believe you anymore. The opposite is just as convincingly true: whatever virtue we drink online we squeeze from a bitter and ever-thickening rind of sorrow. 

The Internet is a thing we do. It might be righteous to hope to save it. Yet, righteousness is an oil that leaks from fundamentalist engines, machines oblivious to the flesh their gears butcher. Common carriage is sensical and reasonable. But there’s also something profoundly terrible about the status quo. And while it’s possible that limitations of network neutrality will only make that status quo worse, it’s also possible that some kind of calamity is necessary to remedy the ills of life online. 

So as you proceed with your protests, I wonder if you might also ask, quietly, to yourself even, what new growth might erupt if we let the Internet as we know it burn. Shouldn’t we at least ponder the question? Perhaps we’d be better off tolerating the venial regret of having lost something than suffering the mortal regret of enduring it.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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