Remarks at US-Ignite’s Next Generation Application Summit, Chicago Cultural Center, June 24, 2013

Thanks for having me; thanks particularly to Daniel X. O’Neil for the kind introduction.

This is a milestone event, revealing some deep paradoxes – at a time when having ubiquitous high-speed Internet access is just like breathing for younger generations, we’re mostly older people. If a reporter landed here, he or she would find that most of us are speaking in jargon. We’re talking a lot about dedicated services and sandboxes for development that will work around the uneven quality of physical networks we now have in America. There’s a dream that at some point – AT SOME POINT – we’ll be ready, when those networks are built, to be the country where new ways of making a living are revealed – where the new uses of networks are developed.

It seems to me that we are at a very primitive time right now. We’re like the monks turning the pages of the first printed books.

We do get excited about very high-speed networks. This is not new. A man named Stephen Kern wrote a very thoughtful and well-received book – called The Culture of Time and Space – about space-transcending technologies that he claimed “eradicated” space and shrank time, thus creating “the vast extended present of simultaneity.” He was writing in 1918, about the telegraph, telephone, bicycle and automobile.

It was not at all obvious whom the telephone would serve and how. The people who developed it thought of the telephone as an improved telegraph, and thought of themselves as telegraph men. And Americans in the nineteenth century used the telegraph almost exclusively as a business tool.

Early telephone men often fought their residential customers over social conversations, saying social calls were frivolous and unnecessary. For example, a company announcement from 1881 complained, “The fact that subscribers have been free to use the wires as they pleased without incurring additional expense [i.e., by using flat rates] has led to the transmission of large numbers of communications of the most trivial character.”


It’s interesting that at that early point there was a great deal of focus on health care, as there is now. Physicians were notable among the early users of the telephone. The telephone allowed them to hear of emergencies quickly and to check in at their offices when they were away. Druggists typically had telephones, as well. But the telephone guys scrambled to figure out what the killer app would be. They offered sports results, train arrival times, wake-up calls, and night watchman call-ins.

It took decades – perhaps thirty years – for the telephone men to embrace the sociability of the telephone.

As Claude Fischer’s marvelous book “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone” makes clear, industry leaders long ignored telephone sociability. Social conversations did not fit their understanding of the technology:

“One problem was their view that women made most social calls and their conversations were not serious. That view, in turn, may have reflected a general close-mindedness toward people different from themselves. Many early telephone company officers dismissed immigrants, minorities, and farmers as people who could not use or perhaps could not
comprehend the telephone. The dissidents were the ones who suggested that such people were plausible customers.”

There was simply a dominant anti-conversation position that prevailed during the pre-World War I telephone industry. It really wasn’t until the late 1920s that things switched around. Telephone guys realized that the telephone was a “convenience, a comfort”; and so-called trivial social uses contributed to its value.

Same here – you’re all broadband men. And mostly men, not to point out the obvious.

My message for you today is that we are going through another, quite different, but equally enormous shift: Asian and Northern European countries are upgrading to fiber connectivity. One strand of fiber can convey not only 90,000 television channels but also potentially hundreds of thousands of lives being shared. Families, separated, having dinner together, screens bringing lives together. We don’t yet know what this will be like.

I think our habit of using devices as blockades, sort of like taking a puppy to a conference, will disappear. The transformative effect of fiber is as big a change to peoples’ lives as electrification, and as important as the advent of the Internet.  The kind of literacy we treasure will have something to do with images, not just text.

Listen to this: the introduction of gigabit networks will be as different from our current experience as the world was before electricity and afterwards; before telephone and afterwards. Before the Internet, and afterwards.

And so we’re focused on these earnest categories – health, education, public safety – but people who will drive the adoption of very high-capacity low-latency networks will be looking for presence and entertainment. And presence-based entertainment.

And yet we’re stuck with our world views.

I love the three-word introduction ceremony, even though it doesn’t really scale. It’s important; it’s something we do to be present to one another. One of you said “Life is good” as his three words. In many ways, the idea that “life is good” is right. The world is in good shape — in fact the best shape that that it’s ever been in. People are better fed these days, on average. We’ve got low infant mortality, child labor has become unacceptable, as has illiteracy and unsafe water. Goods are cheaper relative to incomes.

But. We’ve just learned that atmospheric carbon levels are higher than they’ve ever been in human history. Trust in government and other institutions is at historically low levels. Cynicism abounds; the honeybees are vanishing.

It’s a paradox. Better lives, but increasingly difficult challenges. And it does seem that we have become disconnected.

Nipun Mehta recently gave a graduation speech that really struck me – he said: “The average American adult reports having just one real friend that they can count on. Just one.  And for the first time in 30 years, mental health disabilities such as ADHD outrank physical ones among American children.”

So here’s our chance to support real-world ties with technology, because we’re getting closer to full-bandwidth communications. That’s presence. That’s the killer app. What we’re going to do, here in America, is combine presence, the thing people long for, with ingenuity – our undying entrepreneurial spirit, which is the envy of the world. (Just as our telephone system was when it was introduced.)

Because in South Korea, they’ve got better networks, better connectivity, but they’re not as innovative (really) as we are. Kids don’t really start new things there, because if they do Samsung will crush them.

But here, we may be able to figure out how to make authentic friendship possible over high-capacity networks. That’s what’s next. Presence; visual literacy; a new form of relating. Ingenuity is our comparative advantage as Americans.

What will it take to get there?

The first key is to be generous. Whatever it takes, we need at this juncture in our history to replicate the success of TCP/IP – which is given away, at no charge, to any computer that wants to speak Internet. It was pushed with great energy by the US Government. It became an instrument of our foreign policy. Everyone will think we have a hidden agenda, but it’s just a best practice for successful ecosystems. We need open standards that everyone adopts for new presence-based applications, so that developers can reliably write and users can reliably use. If we share this – even with people in foreign countries  – we will still do better. We did better with the first generation of the Internet, and we’ll do better with this next generation.

We need to be generous with assistance for people who want to build these networks, as well. And there are lots of heroes here – Jim Baller, community leaders, Lev Gonick, Blair Levin, John Tolva, innumerable others I don’t know yet. It really is a chicken and egg problem, and without local infrastructure we’ll never get the sandbox and the jealousy that will drive mayors to require that these networks be built for their citizens.

And without that we’ll never get the national policy – forwarded by local infrastructure banks and the availability of tax-exempt bonds not subject to private use rules- that will make gigabit networks standard everywhere – so that our fiber network is the envy of the world. Just like our phone network once was.

It’s a little odd, as someone I know said recently, that “we are all totally comfortable with the idea that “a house” just naturally comes with a water line, power line, sewer line and, in many places, a gas line.  Nobody imagines that these are some sort of huge impossible investments to make.  Yet there is this weird mental fog around running a physical fiber to your house.”

The second requirement is to be inclusive.

Kindness for all of us needs to be a way of life. The applications we build and the networks we forward need to be for everyone. We can’t do this alone – as a nation, as a democracy. Soldiers don’t leave anyone behind on a battlefield. We can’t afford to leave half of us behind when it comes to high-speed Internet access over fiber.

We need abundance, for everyone.

So, that’s the answer – as Nipun Mehta might say, we’re in the middle of a paradox of connection, and the good news is that we all, working together, can repair this.

Onward. Remember the telegraph guys, and don’t repeat their mistakes.

One thought on “Remarks at US-Ignite’s Next Generation Application Summit, Chicago Cultural Center, June 24, 2013

  1. […] Smart Chicago Collaborative was also proud to host a reception where internet advocate Susan Crawford spoke about the progress of communication technology – and how we can support real world ties with technology. […]

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