Net Worker

(Tale of the creation, affirmation, and rejuvenation of a prophetic PSA)

As a producer and animator during the early years of digital media, the Web enchanted my imagination at a Silicon Graphics (SGI) launch party for their Indy workstation.

The launch was held in July of 1993 on their Mountain View, CA campus. SGI was riding high on its success at bringing dinosaurs to virtual life in Jurassic Park. With the Indy, it promised to deliver that level of 3D computing to the desktop so they invited a group of Bay Area animators to preview its capability. We were eager to be amazed. 

After touting the Indy as the machine that would radically transform the scope of our creative lives, SGI founder and CEO, Jim Clark, introduced Marc Andreessen as his partner in a new Internet software venture. Though the Net had few public gateways at the time, everyone in the audience had online experience through the comp.graphics.animation Usenet group. All of us knew the limitations of a text-based tool in discussing ideas about a visual medium.

With an image of the Indy projecting above him, Andreessen told us that the photo we were seeing wasn't coming from a PowerPoint on his local computer. Instead the digital file was actually stored on another computer across the SGI campus and was being displayed in an application called, Mosaic, the first Web browser to incorporate multimedia elements.

Clark said that anyone connected to the Internet could type an address called a URL (Uniform Resource Locater) into Mosaic and view this photo on their personal computers. Andreessen then sent an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) message asking someone in a distant building to upload another image. Within seconds we saw a new photo and it felt like witnessing a miracle.

An Opportunity to Evangelize

To better navigate life as a single-parent, in 1995 I moved to Montana where I'd grown up. Enrolling my son in kindergarten, I discovered that the Helena School District and public libraries had just gotten connected to the Internet. As a devoted Web evangelist, this was thrilling news!  

From my childhood experience in Butte, Montana, I knew how remote the rest of the world can seem to a curious young person in a rural setting. Given my excitement about the scope of the future Web, it felt imperative to convey that vision. 

A Helena film arthouse, The Myrna Loy Center, had just received a donation of digital video equipment through the E.L.Wiegand Foundation, but no one at the Center was trained to use it. I'd taught production workshops at the Bay Area Video Coalition, including non-linear editing, so offered to do the same at the Myrna Loy. 

In formulating the PSA, I saw young people as the strongest motivators with the most at stake about getting online.  Barbara Ridgway, then principal at my son’s school, also happened to be the district technology advisor.  When I suggested involving Helena students in the project, she became an immediate supporter. In fact, the PSA would not have happened without her enthusiastic embrace. 

The school district chose the students. The Myrna Loy provided the equipment. I worked through the production process with the fifth grade performers for a few hours each week in October. A middle school student wanted to learn about editing and sound so he became my assistant editor and created the music track using Acid Loops.

The completed PSA aired on KTVH, a local NBC affiliate, and won a Montana Addy award for best local Public Service Announcement. Enthused about the capability of the new equipment, Arnie Malina, founder of the Myrna Loy, and its media director, Les Benedict, decided to hold a young people's media festival around animation and digital special effects. 

Meanwhile the first feature-length 3D computer animation, Toy Story, was stirring excitement about digital media. Having a past colleague at Pixar, I took a chance and contacted her about possibilities for Pixar to be involved with the festival.

Thanks to the renown of the Myrna Loy Center and much good will on the part of Pixar, a young animator who worked on Toy Story came all the way to Helena!

Colin Brady spent a week holding workshops and discussions about movie magic and craft. The festival closed with a screening party for family and friends of those involved with the PSA.

Fast forward seventeen years

The Internet continued to play a central role in my life as a webmaster, video producer, and educator. But the corrosive effects of money hungry "Social Media" began to weigh on all of us who believed in the humane potential of the Web. 

Mobile social media applications, in particular, precisely siloed audiences in order to better gorge on "consumer" surveillance data. They reduced the Internet to nothing more than a pipeline to profits.  

My response was to double down on advocating for an open Internet. As a reference to the optimism of the early Web, in 2009 I posted my PSA on YouTube so Net historians might discover it.



The view count on YouTube grew slowly. Very slowly. In the meantime, my interests expanded from bytes to bites as I got involved with the world of artisan cheesemaking. From food safety to direct marketing, my thoughts ignited with potential uses for the Web in small scale food production.  

Due in part to the reality of scarce to non-existent Internet access in rural areas, there wasn't much enthusiasm for online tools among these producers.  So I looked for ways to demonstrate capabilities such as live remote interaction.  

My favorite project may be a cheese tasting, curated via Skype by Gordon Edgar. Gordon is a past president of the American Cheese Society, a long-standing member of the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, a former hard-core punk rocker, and a deeply heartful human being. Details about the event are in this post: Spreading the Curd in Montana

Occupied with curds and whey, I seldom thought about checking the PSA on YouTube. When I did glance at it in early August of 2012, the view count had climbed to 1000 which pleasantly surprised me. 

Soon after, while driving around Butte, my phone started rapidly pinging. By the time I could pull over to check my email, the stream was constant. 

Moments after parking, I got a phone call from a New York number.  The person on the other end introduced himself as a writer with Vanity Fair, then asked for my reaction to going viral.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  

(A noteworthy coincidence is that one of the students in the PSA, Marnee Banks, knew what was happening with the video before I did.  She had become a television reporter and saw trending notices about it on the Associated Press.)

A quick check of my email confirmed that the pings were coming from comments on the PSA.  Views had topped 500,000 in a matter of hours and kept climbing past a million by the following day.

For the next few weeks, digital notoriety was both exhilarating and exhausting. When a reporter referred to me as an "Internet visionary" some friends joked that I'd become addicted to the attention.  But this was like living in the tornedo scene from the Wizard of Oz.  

What became clear almost immediately was that the story was no longer mine to tell.  Inaccurate variations in the coverage were a lesson in letting go.  And the onslaught of mercenaries was astounding, from offers to pump up views with bots to plagiarized versions showing up on other channels. A makeshift production company in Australia even made a copyright claim to YouTube that the PSA was theirs.  

Though the view count kept climbing through the next year, the viral mania was short lived.  Rather than trying to produce more hits, I explored the "content creator" aspect of YouTube.  At first I hesitated to "monetize" the PSA, but by the time the view count settled down to a trickle, it dawned on me that this would probably be my only opportunity to see how it worked. 

For me, the most gratifying outcome of going viral was experiencing the direct immediacy of this truly miraculous global communications network. Traffic came from all over the world with some surprising concentrations.  Thousands of people left comments and asked questions. Brazilians were definitely into the music track. My favorites, though, were from girls who were curious about the cat. 

On the other hand, I learned that navigating Google's mutable "monetization" schemes are a full time job. At first payments were based upon views. To keep viewers engaged, YouTube encouraged cranking out short pieces, three minutes or less, on a daily basis. This approach spawned a genre of snarky, quick cut, wise guy channels that achieved cult status with many dedicated subscribers. YouTube caught that drift and started paying channels by subscription counts rather than views. 

Monetization allowed Google to insert ads at any point in a production. So when ads started running longer than the actual video content, YouTube decided to strongly suggested doing pieces at least fifteen minutes in length. For those with scarce resources, it can be a grueling and tenuous way to earn a living. 

Not aspiring to be a competitive "Content Creator", I paid no attention to most of YouTube's recommendations. Over a three year period, my channel earned two hundred dollars before it was de-monetized for not having enough subscribers.   

Anti-Social Media Consumes the Web

With uncertainty on overdrive at YouTube, video producers began migrating to the emerging "influencer" model, creating revenue streams by touting brands. Facebook was aiming to be the platform of choice in this market. I, however, had misgivings about Facebook from the first time I saw it in 2006 and they have only grown stronger with good reason since then.

If I had to name just one thing about FB that raised more alarms for me than even Google, it is the black hole nature of its structure. The essential magic of the World Wide Web is its open, non-hierarchical architecture. It truly is all about sharing.  

Within Facebook, though, content can only be "shared" with others inside the application. It is a hyper-controlled environment in which sharing content serves as an automatic sorting mechanism, sifting an audience into a siloed framework, optimized for Facebook's "monetizing attention" business model.  

In a flagrant attempt to manipulate public perception, Zuckerberg conflated Facebook with the actual Internet through a project appropriately called Internet.org.  As Wired magazine explained in a 2018 article titled, What Happened to Facebook's Grand Plan to Wire the World?:

"...The work was presented as a humanitarian effort. Its name ended in dot-org, appropriating the suffix nonprofits use to signal their do-gooder status on the web...But from the start, critics were skeptical of Zuckerberg’s intentions...At one point, 67 human rights groups signed an open letter to Zuckerberg that accused Facebook of 'building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services'."

The "Internet" brand appropriation, however, did work. One of my most discouraging realizations about the future of the Net came when I heard a group of baby boomers, all with professional degrees, tell me they actually thought Facebook was the Internet. 

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the consequences of an unfettered "move fast and break things" development strategy were laid bare in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  For one fleeting moment, it seemed that Facebook and all "Social Media" would be dealt a reckoning for their shameless exploitation of what is essentially a public utility. Instead, after nothing more than a short-lived dip in its stock price, Facebook was back on top and beyond. 

Witnessing a brilliant, humane technology be highjacked by arrogant frat house greed was painful to all who loved the essence of the Net. It was this profound sense of disappointment that brought me to the Decentralized Web Summit in 2018.

Hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco, the summit was a chance to be around others who shared my discouragement, and even anger.  But it also afforded me the utter bliss of personally thanking Tim Berners Lee (Sir Tim) for creating the World Wide Web. 

His own distress about the corporatized Web was evident though not so much in what he said.  Instead he was channeling his anguish into re-engineering his original vision. 

Meanwhile, motivated by remorse and even unabashed fear, some of those who had coded the social media addiction engines were sounding alarms about their work. Foremost among them is Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist who now works on behalf of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris summarized the reality of challenging the Extractive Attention Economy with this sober truth: "Profiting from the problem, these platforms won’t change on their own."

An Unintended Advocate

I attended the Summit with a deepening dread that the humane potential of this most flexible and cooperative communication medium ever invented would soon be obliterated.  Echoing throughout the event, the phrase unintended consequences became code for the fear that Social Media's unconstrained "disruption" marketing was squandering a miracle. 

Beyond the comfort of being among others who shared my dread, the Summit helped me marshal my angst into a project called NettedWorld. Though certainly not a candidate for amplification on Facebook, it is my distilled hope that one more aggrieved voice might tip the scales toward redress. 

And then Corona happened. 



Less than two years after the Summit, an all-too-real disruption has netted the Web its most compelling demonstration and respect. Quite the unintended consequence.

From the onset of the pandemic, as schools and businesses jumped online, the term  "Digital Divide" began trending like a hot new hashtag, seldom mentioning the fact that this disparity was first identified during the Clinton administration. Since then, cascades of government programs have spent billions of dollars to resolve it. 

Yet the divide remains. In some cases, no different than in 1995. The reasons for this are at once complex yet glaringly obvious. A one word summation may be - monopoly.

Along with some emergency funding as a result of the pandemic, the current large scale fix is called The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).  Introduced about six months before Covid-19 first hit the US, the RDOF is awarding an unprecedented total of $20 billion over various implementation stages. 

RDOF is not likely to finally resolve the broadband deficits now laid bare.  One obvious reason is right in the name (Rural).  It does not address the urban reality of inadequate, cost-prohibitive service. Broadband Equity is an issue of enormous complexity, to say the least.  



Life at the Speed of Light

Then, let there be light.  (Through optical fiber)

Getting to broadband equity won't be easy but it can be done with three elements: A solid solution (universal fiber optic connection), a foundation in a demonstrated implementation plan (the 1936 Rural Electrification Act), and political will.  

Of the three, political will is the most crucial but problematic. In fact, it is at the core of why the digital divide is still an issue. 

Communications Law Professor, Susan Crawford, has written extensively about the reasons behind our repeated national failure to curb the monopolies that were allowed to flourish.  In the introduction to her book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, this paragraph offers a summary insight of the conditions that brought this about.
A gigantic company providing essential infrastructure for every American, a shifting media landscape, a deregulated environment, and a smoothly operating political campaign built on decades of steady effort that made it impossible for federal officials to reject the merger out of hand: the Comcast-NBCUniversal narrative offers a cautionary tale about what has happened to communications in America.
In similar in-depth fashion, her book, Fiber The Coming Tech Revolution - and Why America Might Miss It, makes a compelling case for why the US must rapidly deploy universal "Fiber to the Home (FTTH)" to remain competitive internationally.  Indeed, even all the marketed promise of wireless 5G is dependent upon strong fiber networks to deliver it.
Like electricity and telephones in the twentieth century, fiber is a precondition of sustained, broadly shared growth in the twenty-first...American democracy requires that...each community (and eventually the country as a whole) needs to reach the post-bandwidth era where people don't think about how much data they have but instead think about what they want to do with it. Without that first step, we'll become an underdeveloped nation - the huge middle portion of the United States - rimmed by two modestly developed coasts.
This graphic of global fiber adoption shows the US clearly in a laggard position. (Interesting to note that Germany is also struggling due to similar private monopoly issues.)

A Future Past Present Web

Soon after the Corona shut-down diverted all our interactions to the Internet, my PSA got revived on YouTube. A production company in NYC even inquired about licensing it as the backbone for a Web series. I said no, but their attention confirmed that its message is still worthwhile. I just had to discover how to best utilize it. 

My first impulse was to keep focused on what attracted me to the Decentralized Web conference. Media coverage and documentaries like the The Social Dilemma were beginning to expose the harms of gargantuan social media apps in the public mind. There is an audience already primed to respond and that is gratifying.  

But the reality of the Internet as an essential public utility is exactly the message I sought to convey in the PSA. Now the whole world had become a demonstration project of both the miraculous power and the cruel deprivation of being denied access to an on-ramp of the "Information Super Highway". This is the fundamental issue I am drawn to resolve.

As mentioned earlier, that deprivation, well-known as the "digital divide", is the result of an entrenched, multi-faceted dilemma. But I believe an informed public can steer the US toward humane change. Steady and intelligible reporting of RDOF contract fulfillment can promote citizen awareness and involvement. 

So I am launching a follow-up to the PSA, beginning with a revelation of current broadband access in Montana. Production will again involve young people but, given the long-term (ten year) evolution of RDOF fulfillment, this project will focus more on digital reporting than a one-time messaging effort. 

Working title for the project is On Ramp Equity (ORE). Initial elements are already surfacing and I'm eager to place them into active arrangement. More will unfold as I follow the light. 
 
A Footnote:
Sir Tim's first site is still on the Web. http://info.cern.ch/  He also formed the World Wide Web Consortium (w3c) which maintains w3schools.com offering free online training in Web programming. And his book, Weaving the Web, is a glimpse into his beautifully unaffected nature.