Functional Form

Avoiding side-effects since 2004.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tomorrow's Infrastructure

If this country were serious about maintaining an economic edge on the rest of the world for the next century, we would be taking economic stances that were less dogmatically free market centered. Many believe that we are successful because we have maintained a free market, and while that is true, the freeness of our markets is just one element in America's meteoric rise to power in the past century. We cannot forget the role of infrastructure. With highways, water systems, electricity, etc, America has allowed a high degree of regulation, and to great positive effect. These are the foundation upon which all further enterprise is built. Making certain guarantees about the availability and stability of such resources is critical to advancement. Now, as a new paradigm dawns, we are losing sight of the role of infrastructure in our current success, and we are failing to adapt our views about what should be considered necessary infrastructure in light of current realities. Because it has always been supplied at collective expense, the transportation network is taken for granted. Of course the road to my house isn't privately owned. Yet we have come to view communications as something that we must buy from owners, because providing it as infrastructure would be "infringing on the free market."

Yet with current digital radio technologies, it would be remarkably easy to network most major metropolitan areas in a federally-supported mesh network that would provide equality of communication at a reasonable public cost. Huge swaths of valuable radio frequencies are currently reserved for the highest bidder, a situation made necessary by fear of interfering signals turning the airwaves into unusable chaos. But scheduling airwaves in huge chunks via licensing is an outdated approach to the problem. Now ten customers in a café can all share the same narrow band to browse the Internet simultaneously with no interference. Digital technology has enabled more efficient means of sharing frequency than auctioning it on the open market. When the communicators are computers, they are smart enough to keep the peace among themselves.

Imagine: an America in which Internet connectivity is assumed anywhere. Information about our environment will be layered over our current reality, allowing unprecedented dynamism and freedom in human interaction. There's no more powerful accelerant to pour onto the economy. The efficient exchange of commodities relies on efficient dissemination of information. The more easily producers and consumers communicate, the better goods flow. And when consumers can communicate with other consumers without regard to time or space, the natural-selective processes touted by the free-marketists will also be amplified.

But the benefits don't stop with economics, at least not traditionally construed. Industrial capitalism has led us to view reality in terms of the exchange of commodities, the economy. But as we become more focused on the exchange of information, entirely new relationships with the world and metaphors therefor will develop. Just as the ubiquity of the automobile and freedom of transportation changed American culture drastically (albeit not necessarily positively), unabated flow of information is already changing us today. Like all paradigm shifts to come before it, the coming of the digital era offers a foundation for new solutions to a range of problems. And, also like other such shifts, it will undoubtedly bring replacements for the dilemmas it solves. But the solution to potential problems is not to cling to the laws of the universe that governed last century. We cannot stop the shift by denying it. We must embrace new technical possibilities, opening ourselves to new assumptions about how the world must work. Imagination must triumph over what we think we know.

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