Life in the Age of Electronics

The dumbest networks

Found on the Internet: The best network is the dumbest network. But... it's not the most profitable...

So we won't see it.

That's the implied conclusion in David Isenberg and David Weinberger's online essay "The Paradox of the Best Network" (

A "dumb network" is a network that is optimized to move bits -- any kind of bits, all bits -- as fast as possible. "Only then is the network truly open to any and all services that want to use it, no matter how innovative or how unexpected. In the best network, the services live at the edges of the network and use the network to transport bits; they do not rely on any special characteristics of the network itself."

But, they argue, the simpler the network, the easier it is for any network operator to provide the service -- capacity grows, prices fall, all is good. Right? Except.

Telecom companies can't make money that way. (Witness the telecom carcasses along the road over the past two years: Northpoint, PSINet, CAIS/Ardent Communications, to name a few; and a number of companies like Global Crossing are teetering on the curb).

The telecom companies make money off of complicated, premium services that aren't versatile. So they have no incentive to develop the kind of networks that (a) serve the most people and (b) realize the possibilities of a well-networked world.

Isenberg and Weinberger argue that "[i]ncumbent communications company clout has forestalled delivery of a variety of radically simplified, extremely affordable technologies," like wireless and fiber optic networks.

It gets better: "Telephone companies are not the only institutions goaded by new network technology.  We can see from the reaction to today's Internet that the Paradox of the Best Network is not kind to the recording industry, to book publishers, or to any other group that makes its living by controlling access to content. These groups have already called in the lawyers and lobbyists to protect their current business models.  Nor will the new network be popular with any institution — economic, political or religious — that seeks to shield itself from conflicting cultures and ideas."

The apologists for our great economic system like to argue that yeah, capitalism might be rough, but the competitive spirit ensures that new technologies get developed and deployed. The paradox of the best network is just another example that this is a Big Lie.

Capitalism cannot make the most of new technologies. The above is just one more example. The best networks are not being built because they are too hard to make money from. An economic system that favors maximum profit over maximum satisfaction, maximum usability, maximum access, maximum information, etc. etc. is a bundle of chains on society, keeping it down.

Isenberg and Weinberger pose the obvious question: "But if the best network is also the cheapest and hardest to make money from, who will build it?"

The essay goes on to propose some ways to ensure the development of big, dumb networks. They plainly state that "Arguably, building the best network is a Public Good." But between the rock of telecom capitalism and the hard place of Enron-ized government -- here's where we need everyone's imagination and initiative.

What kind of society do we want? We have a world to win, And, well, nothing to lose but our chains.

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Another reason why capitalism sucks: Harold Russell, the disabled World War II vet and non-actor who won an Academy Award for his remarkable performance in William Weller's classic movie "The Best Years of Our Lives", died in January. He was 88. In 1992 he was forced to sell his Oscar -- he needed the money to pay for his sick wife's medical bills.

Jim Davis

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