Monday, March 31, 2008

The Music of Countervailing Stories

Susan Crawford is founder of OneWebDay, an ICANN board member, and a blogger. This is a partial transcript of her remarks. If you have any amendments, let me know.

Life is short. We might as well tackle some big questions while we're here. What makes a life significant? Life contains an inner ideal. There's some aspect that's intellectual and conscious. These ideals need to be joined to will. They have to be accompanied by action.

My father's life is drawing to a close. The ideal for him is to sit and listen to music. The ideal is pure human expression in music. As his body gives up on him and his brain decays, the music remains.

We spend a lot of time talking about network operators. The logic of it is constrained and controlled by companies we call network operators. There's inadequate competition. We're paying a lot for slow speeds. These companies aren't monopolies. This is an oligopoly. There are a few sellers acting with consideration for the industry as a whole. The prices themselves don't signal the ebb and flow of user desires. It's not a monopoly, but it's not competition. It's something in the middle.

Instead of ruinous price competition, there are lots and lots of ads showing us the differences among these operators. Oligopolists have power similar to monopolists, but there are few actors. What's the solution to this? Is it anti-trust? That would undermine the very fabric of the American economy. We have a lot of oligopolists. They're not working together to keep prices high. They're acting in deference and knowledge of how the entire industry is doing.

We get stuck on the idea of competition. We need to think differently. This is where music and John Kenneth Galbraith comes in. Galbraith suggests that in a oligopolist economy, restraints come from the retail level or consumers or users. You have oligopoly and then countervailing power. Let's look at the retailers. We've got an integrated market.

We need to find a way to make the user power aggregated, present, visible, organized in a way that would make restraints on the oligopoly real. If there were adequate power coming from users, we could draw them together. We can be as smart as we want to be, but without votes, we're nowhere. The Net neutrality movement isn't always connected to people who vote.

The source of countervailing power needs to be user stories, not gadgets or technology. The story of being enabled to further your life purpose can be connected to this policy debate. We need to simplify the message and make it as human as possible – as musical as possible.

John Kenneth Galbraith, our friend with the theory of countervailing power, always went to a new year's party. He always led the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

If I die tomorrow, I want to make sure I've talked to you about my efforts to bring these stories together via OneWebDay. The purpose of OneWebDay, which is Sept. 22, is to globalize a constituency that cares about the future of the Internet. It's a way for us to all tell stories and teach about our connection to this network. This constituency will provide the countervailing force.

I ask you today to do something to make the Web real for the community around you. That's my message. We need a countervailing force. Competition isn't going to do it.

Suw Charman also offers a transcript via Corante's Strange Attractor.

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