It’s fascinating to think about how we got the things we have. The answer is often counter-intuitive.
We got the internet because of the development of a set of open communication protocols, and the internet grew (in consumer terms) because of regulations that prevented the telcos from stopping it (known as “common carriage” requirements).
The combination of these things resulted in a crazy explosion of creativity and commerce.
From the outside, it’s hard to understand — I would venture to say that people’s basic mental model of systems is a closed and proprietary one. We understand what the App Store is and what our Verizon bill is, but it’s hard to understand what the Internet is. More or less by default, we assume that big systems are closed and commercial, or at least that’s how we can most easily imagine them.
So that’s why it is so frustratingly hard to advocate for open innovation. To explain that in certain cases — the internet as the biggest example — the biggest win for creativity and commerce is to create an open environment, not a controlled one.
In the 1990s, the issue was with the telephone companies — using regulation to ensure that the telephone network could be a platform for open innovation. This generally worked, and the commercial internet is what resulted.
In the 2000s, as we moved from narrow band internet to broadband, the issue was cable. In the US, there has been a long and drawn out battle over Net Neutrality, which would prevent wired broadband providers from discriminating against content they don’t own or see as competitive (e.g., Comcast restricting access to Netflix in order to promote its own Xfinity TV service).
Now, the biggest issue facing open innovation is wireless (aka spectrum, or “the airwaves”). Will we continue to sell exclusive licenses to the big wireless providers, or will we (wisely) make room for open innovation on the airwaves.
The above video is by Larry Lessig, from 2008, where he draws this connection.
The internet is a big, open system that we all enjoy and take for granted.
Nowadays, we most often connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, a technology that exists because of spectrum policies that explicitly allow the creation of new things without asking permission (aka “unlicensed spectrum”).
Then perhaps the clearest choice is this:
Do we want the future of the wireless internet to be more like our verizon wireless contract?, or more like wi-fi?