News Neutrality vs. the Not Neutral Net

We increasingly witness the corporate consolidation of broadcast (mass market) media channels. Obviously there is suddenly the greater prospect of a giant percentage of smaller or newer known information services coming under high levels of distress as their vehicles, going forward on remaining paths, may need costly re-engineering to go offroad, climb steep hills, or corner at high speeds without spinning out or crashing.

This re-engineering is, I suspect, a much more probable difficulty for information providers than is higher toll-road and customer pricing, because it forces them to focus on their own investors (however small or large) in order to cross the potential chasm between a neutral net and a non-neutral one.

But let’s also be real about it. The combination of bots, AI, search and ongoing smartphone evolution (hey, remember Personal Digital Assistants?!!!) means two other key things that cannot be ignored.

One, the cost of PDAs already is the most significant consumer-side factor in internet access. There is at least as much “bandwidth” for future cost and capability breakthroughs there as there is in today’s absurdly popular futureworld fan-thing, autonomous cars.

But note that the global market competition for rare earth elements, without which there are no smartphones, can get political, nasty, and highly constraining.

Two, as search is not limited to discovery of only marketed content, today’s news supermarkets can be disrupted in the same way that Amazon 2-hour delivery from search results disrupts legacy brick-and-mortar retail. Who needs to go to someone else’s “website” or tv channel when you can dynamically generate your own feed-n-read, screenshows, and dashboard, in near-real time??

But note: what is the obvious downside of the already-existing and increasing ability to “roll-your-own” news medium? The downside is, simply, that there’s no accounting for taste — unless accountability is solicited.

Private news is not necessarily any less useful and credible than public news, and commercial news can fulfill demand for either privately or publicly consumed content. But packaging can vary wildly, and in the marketplace for almost any packaged product, everyone already pays more for enhanced packaging (aka high-quality) than they do for ordinary or minimal packing — whether the product is mass-market or not. This in no way prevents bias from getting in front of everything else at every price point. Accountability should be a universally available feature!

So, what can we take from the above?

One, editing has an opportunity to go back to being, normally and by default, a paid profession. I know, this is a very retro idea, but on the other hand, you’re reading this on Medium, not in a random email rant or social media comment, because you presumed that quality matters.

Two, monolithic news operations have a chance to “monetize” access to unfiltered information by repurposing it and to seriously throttle access to whatever they collected for their own use — but a greater decision point is far more likely to be direct censorship allowed by government authority at points of information origin.

Three: let’s assume that media conglomerates will quickly use up most of the oxygen in today’s channel configurations. Should we assume that the continually dropping price/performance ratio of personal technology will NOT heavily disrupt them? OF COURSE we should assume such disruption will occur. We just don’t know when it will happen, but it is definitely to the financial advantage of a new tech enterprise to be the disrupter before some media company does it first to themselves.

And Four: the single most disruptive thing that can happen to the internet in the U.S. is a successful overhaul of the K-12-level education system. As a well-known product company had said in its advertising for many years, “an educated consumer is our best customer”. This one idea, which I have no pretense of detailing or prescribing here, is I think nearly self-evident as the dominant critical success factor of making the next-gen internet something more likely to be good and sufficiently open than to be bad and manipulatively elitist. We should probably spend most of our hand-wringing on cultivating two or three successive generations of people who usually prefer well crafted authentic information with accountability. Just imagine what future decisions about the internet such people would likely make. If we don’t know how to successfully educate, then why would we expect the internet in any form to give us what we’re afraid of losing through the end of net neutrality?

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Originally published at Medium on December 20, 2017.