You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Framing the Net

essay by Doc Searls

We’re always talking about something else. Regardless of the subject at hand, we have other subjects in mind that help us say what we mean. According to cognitive science, all of our thought and speech is metaphorical. That is, we understand everything in terms of something else.

For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we think and speak about life in terms of travel. In fact, it is almost impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life.

The embodied nature of our conceptual systems — our frames — is profound. Why do we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Why do we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? The answer is that we are diurnal animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they might say good is dark and bad is light.

Of course, one subject might have many metaphors, and it is easy to mix them. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).

Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.

Which brings us to the Internet.

Given the primacy of the conduit metaphor, it only makes sense that we speak of the the Internet as a “medium” through which “content” can be “uploaded,” “downloaded” and “delivered” to “consumer” through “pipes.” Dig deeper and we find transport language in TCP/IP (for Transmission Control Protocol/Internetworking Protocol), in “packets,” in the “transport layer,” in the File Transport Protocol (FTP) and in all the mail protocols.

Not surprisingly, those we call “carriers” frame the Net in terms of transport and property. They do that because they own “pipes” and sell use of them. In a 2005 Business Week interview, Ed Whiteacre, then the CEO of SBC (now AT&T) said of Google and other companies, “Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using.”

Another common frame for the Net — and especially the Web — is real estate. That’s why we say we have “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic.” We talk about going “on” the Net, and call it a “world,” a “sphere,” a “place,” a “space” and an “environment” with an “ecology.”

A third frame is publishing. This grows from Tim Berners-Lee’s founding concept of the Web as an assortment of documents, connected by hypertext. Today we have “pages” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate.” When Dave Winer, one of blogging’s inventors, improved its technology and practices with RSS — Really Simple Syndication — the Web became even more of a publishing platform.

Yet the Net is not a physical thing. It has no first costs. Its core protocols are barely encumbered by the concept of ownership. In fact, those who developed those protocols mostly operated on virtues which the open source community today characterizes as NEA:

1. Nobody owns it
2. Everybody can use it
3. Anybody can improve it

In the first two respects, the Net is like the periodic table. In the third respect the Net resembles only the free and open goods that grow in its own environment. Steve Larsen, CEO of the code source engine Krugle, estimates that the number of open source code bases now exceeds half a million.

Craig Burton characterizes the end-to-end architecture of the Net as a giant hollow sphere: the only geometric shape in which all “ends” are visible to all other ends. I’ve been calling this “the giant zero,” because one of the Net’s founding ideals is reducing toward zero the functional distance between any two people, or any two devices. Also the cost.

Unlike phone and cable systems, the Net was never meant to be understood, much less charged out, as minutes or channels. Those are mechanisms for organizing scarcity. The Net was built to support abundance. The closer it gets to zero in the middle, the more what it supports approaches the infinite.

The Net’s use value so far exceeds its sale value that it’s silly to subordinate the former to the frame of the latter. Yet that’s what the carriers do with pricing and provisioning policies that prevent far more business than they enable. This is a legacy of what Bob Frankston calls The Regulatorium.

“As we establish the principle of neutrality,” Bob writes, “we challenge the fundamental concept that the carriers own the transport for their own use in delivering services. We now create the services ourselves and it must be our infrastructure — not the carriers’ private asset.”

I’m not sure how we should frame that. But I am sure that we need to.

Doc Searls is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also co-author (with fellow Berkman Fellow David Weinberger and others) of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and one of the world’s best-known and widely read bloggers. His work as a journalist, speaker and advocate of the Internet led to a Google-O’Reilly Open Source Award for Best Communicator in 2005. He blogs here.

Comments 10

  1. Philip Sheldrake wrote:

    Much of the Internet governance debate, including but not limited to net neutrality, pivots around metaphors that are mistaken as analogies.

    In other words, when a comparison, possibly just semantic, is made between the characteristics of the Internet and real estate, many incorrectly infer that because this one characteristic has been compared, and usefully, then logically other characteristics of the comparison are ported over too.

    This is irrational. A case I think of where the asset of the metaphor has become a liability.

    Thanks for the perspective. I’m at the OECD Future of the Internet Economy summit in Seoul next month, and I will keep a close ear on proceedings to see how often this mistake crops up.

    Posted 16 May 2008 at 11:37 am
  2. pinny wrote:

    I love your post and I am more of a believer that the net is one of the better metaphors for g-d’s infinity and for that there is no term

    Posted 16 May 2008 at 11:46 am
  3. Mike Warot wrote:

    I’m not sure what a “first cost” is, but would be interested to know.
    I don’t see how the Open source mention ties in to discussion of the internet. It doesn’t flow well.
    The postal metaphor is perfect for the internet… each packet costs the same amount to deliver, orthogonal to the value it has to society. It’s up to the users to use it wisely.
    Charging by the maximum capacity, or per bit are the only two pricing models that are acceptable. Uniform rates applied uniformly to all should be our standard.
    Nobody should be forced to ride in the back of the bus just because they aren’t the majority (web, email, etc) and happen to be a different on the surface (bittorrent, irc, voip).
    Now, as with delivery, you can always pay for a faster route, at a premium. But again, uniform rates applied uniformly should be the rule.

    Posted 16 May 2008 at 12:00 pm
  4. Richard Bennett wrote:

    It’s OK to talk about the Internet in abstract and metaphorical terms for certain analytical purposes, such as assessing its impact on society and politics and that sort of thing, but when the discussion deals with physical realities such as pricing and regulation, the hand-waving approach isn’t good enough.

    Craig Burton is wrong. The distance between any two end-points connected to the Internet is not zero, it’s the sum of the delays in the best path that connects them. If the two hosts are on the same physical wire, the distance is small. If they’re on opposite sides of the globe and in poorly-connected areas, it’s large, and always will be.

    The end-to-end architecture has much less significance than is generally assumed at Berkman. The reality of the Internet’s architecture is that the TCP code running in endpoints is just as much part of the network infrastructure as the code that runs in the Cisco routers that constitute the network’s core. And as the vast majority of TCP code is supplied by one company – Microsoft – there is actually less network diversity in the end-points than in the core, at least for purposes of analyzing network traffic.

    It’s also incorrect to say that the Internet was “meant” for one pricing scheme rather than another, as it was designed around no pricing scheme at all. It was originally a research network meant to be used by a closed community of users who knew each other and could depend on social systems to control each others’ behavior.

    The Internet is physically a machine, a technology, and a device. Like all such things, we can expect it to change over time, to be improved, to evolve, and to change. So there’s very little value in romanticizing this machine as it was – or is thought to have been – in some early incarnation.

    Technology drives social change, and social needs drive technology. Our framing of the Internet should never become so romantic that we lose the ability to assess good and bad practices, or that we try to draw lines between them too dogmatically.

    Everybody has an interest in allowing the Internet to develop, and it’s simply the height of folly to assume it’s somehow reached the endpoint of perfection in any one of its modules at any particular time.

    Posted 16 May 2008 at 7:20 pm
  5. Doc Searls wrote:

    Mike, in a value chain the first item has the first cost.

    Richard, several points.

    First, the metaphors we use (and, being both necessary and unconscioius, can’t help using). For lawmaking, rulemaking and pursuing business opportunities, they could not matter more. Therefore discussion of them is more than hand-waving.

    Second, you make important points about the end points, the Net’s core and the risks of romanticizing ideals. I think it is important for us at Berkman to hear those points, even if we differ in perspective on them.

    Third, there is a direction I’m going here where I think our points of view can find convergence. That’s in finding more business for telcos and cablecos than they’ll squeeze out of current business models. I think that greenfields open as bandwidth increases, costs drop and restrictions on use decrease. There are many potential synergies beteween customer ends and carrier means here.

    I think we also agree on the virtues of competition. On the poles outside my house are two sources of fiber and one of hybrid fiber-coax. As a result I’m getting 20Mb symmetrical service from the best of those three.

    Got a plane to catch. Meanwhile, thanks to all for responding. I’ll be posting more on this and other subjects soon.

    Posted 18 May 2008 at 6:34 am
  6. David Martin wrote:

    Bravos, Doc! Excellent writing. Metaphors move the world, yours are particularly apt.

    Posted 19 May 2008 at 10:38 pm
  7. Nathan Ketsdever wrote:

    Interesting post. I’m a big fan of Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff.

    How exactly do you re-frame social networking overstretch?

    Posted 22 May 2008 at 2:43 pm
  8. Doc Searls wrote:

    Nathan, I’m not sure what you mean by “social networking overstretch,” but I am sure that the current social networking craze is something of a passing fad and an investment bubble. Maybe saying that is re-framing enough.

    Long ago, when asked for a quote about “Web 2.0,” I said “It’s what we’ll name the next crash.” Wel, Web 2.0 is becoming passé in the absence of a crash, but as framing went the quote wasn’t too bad.

    Posted 27 May 2008 at 7:46 am
  9. Howard Silverman wrote:

    Doc, A few notes in follow up to your Berkman@10 session, where I posited that hoary standby “the commons” as a heuristic, if not a framing, concept of ongoing relevance.

    As one session participant mentioned, a discussion of framing would seem to presuppose an acknowledgment of, perhaps agreement on, desired ends. I see that Kevin Werbach states connectivity as an end goal in his Publius piece. That would be one on my list as well: a broadly accessible connectivity.

    Connectivity (communication, “cheap talk”) is cited by Elinor Ostrom as a factor contributing to successful governance of CPRs (common pool resources, i.e. shared, rivalrous goods).

    Jonathan Zittrain’s 2×2 thinking on the future of the internet maps two similarities to the study of CPRs. First is his quest for models of successful governance in the “communitarian” quadrant, which mirrors a project to which Ostrom and others have dedicated decades of research: synthesizing the design principles whereby CPR institutions are found to successfully govern long-term resource use. Second is the scale at which he locates these models: Wikipedia, say, rather than the Internet as a whole. Similarly, the Maine lobster fishery, rather than the ocean as a whole, is a focus of CPR studies.

    George Lakoff has emphasized that the commons is “not yet part of the frame structure that most people use every day.” Nor, in Portland, Ore. (where I live), would a meetup of self-styled communitarians fill the space that otherwise serves as a hangout for a group of knitting enthusiasts.

    Still, amidst the rapid coevolution of the Net and its norms, we find that terms of relationality and sociality (e.g. reputation, identity) acquire fresh import. Reading the essays by David Weinberger and his respondents on the relative merits of tacit versus explicit governance – the two left-side quadrants on JZ’s matrix – I can’t help but smile. The discussion has come a long way since, say, Thatcher’s “no such thing as society.” Further exploration of that lower-left quadrant could add greatly to a variety of left-right, government-market debates. And perhaps, one day, to our framing as well.

    Posted 06 Jul 2008 at 5:19 pm
  10. Doc Searls wrote:

    Howard, thanks for following up, and for your excellent observations.

    It’s been interesting, over the past few weeks, to find that thinking about framing (and JZ’s quadrants) is beginning to help inform broader thinking — both inside the Berkman Center and out in the world — about Net Neutrality and related conundra. Especially as we take a Long View.

    The old left-vs.-right distinctions, and knee-jerkings, don’t quite work. But, as George Lakoff would be quick to point out, they do apply.

    Posted 12 Jul 2008 at 11:06 am