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.

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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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