Freedom to Connect: David Isenberg

So I’m here in Washington DC at David Isenberg’s Freedom to Connect conference. It’s a very different crowd to the one I usually run in, so it should be really interesting.

David Isenberg
Over the next two days we’re going to expand the discussion. Our planet is in danger of becoming hostile to life; not just about rising tides and flooding, but the carbon in the atmosphere could extinguish life on earth. So I believe that we can use the internet to conserve more atmospheric carbon than its infrastructure generates. And we can use the internet for global participation that transcends tribalism to end war.

This is a remarkable group from all around the world. We are innovators and activists, academics, investors, lawyers regulators, builders of networks, and somewhere in here there’s also a man of the cloth. Among us is or will soon be a son who brought his father, and a mother who brought her daughter. This is how it should be, because saving the internet should be a family affair.

Some of us are here because they don’t believe that the internet needs saving, or if it does, it needs saving from people like me. I welcome those who would be the minority view in the room, because too often we only talk to our friends. I’m under no illusions that minds will be changed, but hopefully a mutual understanding can be reached.

The story we’ll tell in the next two days is one of companies under the disruptive power of the internet, it’s a story we all wrote in one way or another, in blog or C or in cheque books or in wrinkles on our hands and faces. It’s a story we won’t find in the mainstream media because that would be the story of the media’s own impending destruction.

It’s the story of one telephone company that i worked for and loved and hated and tried to save, called AT&T. That AT&T doesn’t exist anymore. AT&T shaped me and made me who I am today, I’m half Bell-head and half net-head. AT&T had other Davids too, people who invented photovoltaics, the transistor, C, UNIX, DSL and the cable modem. It’s also a story of managers who didn’t understand technology so they sent consultants to Bell Labs rather than go themselves and display their own ignorance.

The corporate culture was so deeply rooted that their culture was unquestionable. Managers had to rise through 18 levels of management in 20 years. It’s the story of an executive who drove AT&T”s computer business to failure and kept getting promoted. It’s the story of failed businesses and partnerships and a cell-phone division that would have failed if the mothership hadn’t been so big.

It’s the story of competitors created by a President’s pen stroke, that were destroyed a few years later by the courts. It’s the story that competition would replace regulation, and that competition destroyed.

It’s the story of people struggling to be free. When every record label rejects DRM, or a third of all iPhones are unlocked this is a victory. Neo-econs say these are responses to market forces, but they are not, they are victories, our victories. The struggle to keep the net free is like the struggle to work a 40 hour week, or to end wars. If we want a free internet we need to take it and build it.

The story we’ll tell is the future of the internet. We are writing it, but we do not know how it will end.

[Holds up a bit of fibre cable.]

Three fibres can carry the entire US conventional telephony and have room left over. If every one of the 6.5 billion people had a telephone, and at the same moment they were all making a call, and all that traffic could be routed through this cable, a hundred fibres would still be dark. If this cable was coming down your street, if your house could have ten of these fibres coming into your house…

The problem we’ve been discussing, that Comcast, and net neutrality folks have been having has been completely miscast. We’ve been talking about how we manage scarcity, but we should be talking about how we create abundance.

But all this takes energy. Computing takes the same power as the entire airline industry, so we need to reduce the energy we use. We can do better, we can use the Internet to reduce travel, and manage energy, and we’ll talk about that on Tuesday.

how will the internet story end? Will a few of the smartest telephone companies, like BT or Verizon, who have the wisdom, foresight, courage and money to sponsor Freedom to Connect evolve to be the connectors of tomorrow? Or will the telcos create the internet in the image of Clear Channel, locking it down, ghettoising it? Or will they make it so invasive that no one creative of innovative goes there anymore. Or maybe new forms of organisation, Benkler-style, arise to build and operate a new infrastructure we must have.

Or will other countries show the way? Assuming that the US is capable of seeing what they put in front of us?

In any case, welcome to Freedom to Connect.

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