Nicholas Negroponte: Net Neutrality Doesn't Make Sense

Nicholas Negroponte: In the early 1990s it was clear that there was a new DNA for things that we thought were real like print or movies and we didn’t understand until roughly 1990 that actually the fundamental representation was digital and then you’d map that into a movie or a book or writing, you know, signs in the sky with smoke signals or carving something into metal or whatever.  But the fundamental element was digital and because it was digital the medium was not the message.  You can actually take any message and map it into media of one sort or another because the message was digital.  And then you started to realize that a lot of things that were previously physical were, in fact, potentially virtual and they lived in cyberspace and they lived in ways that are today taken for granted to be digital.  So the world of bits and atoms emerged where just how much of our lives was made of bits.  And most people don’t realize that the word bit didn’t even exist in 1949.  Nobody  knew – it hadn’t been invented as a word.

And so in the space of sixty plus years it’s gone to being sort of kind of the basic element. And we never thought of bits and atoms as related that you could convert something from one to the other and there was a transformation.  And now with some of the modern maker movement things where you do manufacturing at home and you transmit a part as bits and then it gets created, it’s just again part of that same chain that has to do with the mixture of bits and atoms and the transition from a world dominated by atoms to a world dominated by bits.  And country by country it happens at different speeds but it’s interesting to note that even the concept of a country is an atom’s concept.  It had an edge.  You could be inside it or outside it.  You stepped over a line and you were in another country.  Back – whether it was a river, whether it was a mountain, whether it was an arbitrary line running through the desert – it came from the world of atoms.  And so in some sense to argue that this country is more digital than that country is correct.  Korea, South Korea at least is far ahead of many other countries.  The United States is kind of in the middle.  And there’s some countries that for a variety of historical and regulatory reasons are behind.  It’s all temporary.  The whole world will be sort of on a somewhat equal basis within some short period of time.

The term net neutrality has a little bit of a pejorative ring.  How would you want something not to be neutral.  In other words, neutrality seems to be a feature of good.  And so yeah, you kind of want this to be net neutral.  But the truth is all bits are not created equal.  And people don’t appreciate that a book, a normal novel, is about a megabyte.  And yet a second of video is more than a megabyte.  So when you look at video for a couple of hours it’s the equivalent of hundreds of books.  And then if you have a pacemaker that transmits – this is an imaginary pacemaker now that communicates and monitors your health by sending data up to the Cloud.  Then a few bits of your heart data are, you know, a small fraction of a book.  So you have bits that represent your heart, bits that represent books and bits that represent video.

And so to argue that they’re all equal is crazy.  So how do you reconcile that and still say neutral in some sense where some aren’t charged and some are charged and so on.  What I can assure you on the topic is those of us who were there at the beginning of the Internet never imagined that Netflix would  represent 40 percent of it on Sunday afternoons.  It was just off the charts.  We just didn’t think that.  There is, to me, a certain morality in that because why the hell are you streaming video.  Maybe streaming should be illegal.  But the point being that all bits aren’t created equal and whether that resolves itself into net neutrality or not net neutrality is a separate story.

In the food department you could argue that genetics is their equivalent of bits and that you can create meat synthetically from the genes of meat.  In other words you can do artificial meat.  People are doing it at the moment.  So, you know, just a tiny sample of a pig can make tons and tons of pork.  That’s pretty amazing.  You don’t have to have the fields and the grass and the grazing and the water.  You can start doing this and it’s not artificial in the sense of it’s soybean made to look like turkey.  It’s actually genetically porterhouse steak.  And you can do that.  So as things like that come out of the labs and go into the world you can see a world that is nourished in a very different way than we do it today.  Generally people have given up on climate change as happening through restraint and regulation and sort of believe now the answer’s gonna be technical and that’s one of the technical solutions is to manufacture food.  And when people talk about genetically modified food being wrong, they’re nuts.  What are they thinking of?  All food should be genetically modified and will be more and more so.  And that’s again like arguing against digital libraries or electronic books.  Genetically modified food is the future and it’s a very important future.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte discusses what it means for the atomic world to turn digital.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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