Tech Tip Tuesday: The Cost of Hidden Complexity

net neutralityYou are at the movies, and just for fun, you are texting your friend sitting right next to you. It’s as if the message was going straight from your phone to theirs. But, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. We like to forget about it, because it really doesn’t matter, how many machines over how many miles your message will cross before arriving on your friend’s phone just inches away from you. You hit send, the message gets there. What difference could it possibly make?

Problem is, it really does make a difference. Legally it makes a difference whether you send a message over a telegraph wire or over a telephone wire or over a wireless handset for a landline or over the internet via email or over the internet via web site like Facebook or over the cellular SMS system, just as it makes a difference whether you send your private information via postcard or in an envelope, whether you shout your innermost thoughts in the public square or whisper to your one and only trusted confidant in a coal cellar at midnight. Not only does it matter legally, but such technical details control how easy or hard it is to steal your data, to eavesdrop on your conversations, to intercept your username and password so as to use them to do bad things and make it look like it was you who did them.

Perhaps, then, the single greatest tech tip one could give or take is to at all times keep at least part of your mind’s eye on the actual mechanics of what you are doing. It is worthwhile to better understand how the tools you use actually work. A computer is not a typewriter with a TV instead of paper. Your “smartphone” is really a computer, more powerful than you could have hoped to find a mere 20 years ago. We take our technological riches quite for granted and generally accept them as labeled.

One especially pernicious example of this can be seen with the so-called “net neutrality” controversy. Many internet enthusiasts feel the great value of the net is the democratizing power of giving most anyone the same powerful voice formerly afforded only to the rich. Freedom of the press means little when only the wealthy can run one. But the internet, and, more specifically, the World Wide Web, gives anyone with a dollar and a nearby internet cafe the chance to publish works that can instantly be seen by an amazingly diverse and far-flung audience worldwide. People who value this aspect of the internet have championed a cause they call “net neutrality“, but that term is completely meaningless unless one has a firm grasp on and clear picture of just what that means.

The internet is a network of networks. If that sentence makes your eyes glaze over just a bit, if you get a little dizzy just thinking about what the difference is between a giant network and network of networks, you are not alone, but it is an important difference, and without understanding that difference one cannot really appreciate the net neutrality debate.

One way to think about it is that a network of networks is like a neighborhood, with a network being like a single building. Some networks might be skyscrapers with dozens of floors and hundreds of offices; others might be little shacks with no more than a room with a hotplate and a shower. Each of these networks is autonomous and runs according to principles set by the inhabitants or owners.

But tying all these together into a community or municipality requires each autonomous system to abide by rules allowing for traffic between them. We have our mailboxes and sidewalks and streets and rules governing how they may be used, all in the service of letting these autonomous entities interact to enjoy the benefits of union (in the “E Pluribus Unum” sense) while also allowing the benefits of autonomy and even idiosyncrasy.

In the same way, a network is a system of computers hooked together to interact with each other, whether it be two machines in a middle-school student’s bedroom or all the machines in the biggest high-rise in any metropolitan city on the globe. The internet, by analogy, is the system of rules and agreements which lets all these different networks maintain their autonomy while also interacting with machines on countless other networks.

At the risk of oversimplifying, one of the core principles of the internet is that networks will pass data along and treat all such data the same. No one on the net is supposed to be able to refuse to pass my message along just because I happen to think Sarah Palin is a national embarrassment. But there are people who like to do exactly that, who would like to filter content and pass it along or not based on their own idiosyncratic rules. From a practical standpoint that would be like letting each building owner determine who can and can’t walk on the sidewalk or drive on the street in front of their home.

Opponents of net neutrality ask exactly for that; they want to treat the metaphorical roads and sidewalks that let onto and off of their property as an extension of their private property, and they invoke the sacred power of private property to support their efforts, as if their riches didn’t come from merchandise carried on interstate highways, state highways, county and city streets. Maybe a major cable company will decide not to pass through data from a video streaming company, or a GOP-controlled network will find ways to intercept or block progressive messages routed through its machines.

Perhaps most damning are those who, in service of quashing informed and intelligent conversation on the subject, say simply that the internet is a set of tubes, that it’s just data in pipes. These folks will then typically argue that they should be paid for letting data flow through their pipes or that they should have some say about what kinds of data can or can’t flow through their pipes.

robert linkBut it really isn’t pipes at all. It is instead a network of networks. It works because each separate network can run as it likes, but to be part of the Internet, to obtain the benefits of a network of networks, each individual cedes that small amount of sovereignty required to create the streets and sidewalks and mailboxes without which there is no community, only robber barons and serfs.

That, then, is the cost of hidden complexity: Those who appreciate the nuances will use their superior knowledge against those who don’t. Arm yourself, by learning all you can about how these increasingly ubiquitous and indispensable tools actually work.

Robert Link

Published by the LA Progressive on October 31, 2011
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About Robert Link

Robert Link is active with Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and is a member of the Beverly Hills Bar Association and the IP/Internet/New Media Section Executive Committee.