Bob Frankston: Information versus Telecom

by on May.07, 2011, under Uncategorized

(Original at Bob’s site)


In 1897 the British Copyright Commission issued a report. One of the observations is as salient today as it was then:

A limitation of supply by artificial causes, creates scarcity in order to create property. To limit that which is in its nature unlimited, and thereby to confer an exchangeable value on that which, without such interference, would be the gratuitous possession of mankind, is to create an artificial monopoly which has no warrant in the nature of things, which serves to produce scarcity where there ought to be abundance, and to confine to the few gifts which were intended for all.

There is no limited supply of letters of the alphabet or the bits we use to encode information. Yet we have created scarcity by adopting a property model in the form of spectrum allocation and by confining our ability to communicate to narrow pipes as if the very thoughts we communicate are freight to be tariffed by a government commission.

The telecommunications industry is based on this idea that there is a business in transporting meaning be it using the runners in ancient Greece, the telegraph of Napoleon’s era or today’s telecommunications providers with their scarce supply of “minutes”.

The big idea behind the Internet is that we can decouple the exchange of meaning, that is, what we communicate, from the representation or alphabet of bits, ones and zeros.

Thomas Kuhn has written about paradigm shifts – how changes in our understanding of the familiar change the world. We saw this happen in the 16th century. Copernicus looked at the same skies that mankind had observed for millennia but instead of seeing a solar system in which planetary motion was described in complex epicycles he saw planets orbiting around the sun. Nothing changed but our understanding and it is that understanding which gave Newton and others the insights that give us today’s world. Copernicus’ insight and Newton’s Calculus gave us the tools for a dispassionate understanding of the solar system.

As Gleick explains in his book, Information, Claude Shannon’s Information Science has given us a vital tool for understanding how we exchange information. The idea of measuring information in bits seems simple and sensible but understanding how the ideas apply to the real world turns out to be fraught with pitfalls.

James Gleick is a great writer who can translate arcane technical stories into exciting tales for a relatively wide audience. And his story of the rise of the concept of “Information” is exciting in itself.

We can use the science of information and our pragmatic experience with today’s Internet to formulate a policy that relies on markets rather than regulators. We can exchange bits over a common infrastructure just as we use common roads and sidewalks. Just as the road system emerges out of our local streets our networks emerge from our local efforts at networking.

Without the burden of the overhead of maintaining an infrastructure for each service we are free to innovate, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by this new commons.

Let’s not forget that the United States was founded on the idea of creating opportunity bolstered by the guarantee of freedom of speech. We must not cede our future to the misguided idea that we may run out of words.

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