Net Neutrality (& other such noise)

Net neutrality means that the network should be agnostic about the content of the packets. It shouldn’t care whether they contain fragments of emails, web pages, instant messages, music tracks, porn videos – whatever.

John Naughton, writing in The Observer (‘Is this the beginning of the end for the open internet?‘, 26.12.10), explains how the ‘thorny “net neutrality question” now poses a palpable threat to online democracy’. Mid-December 2010, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has the power to set the rules for internet use in the US, issued a ruling which can be understood to defend neutrality for fixed-line broadband, but not for mobile services. The proposed rules suggest mobile operators can introduce pay-per-service charges, which could mean, for example, Skype or Facebook being charged to get their content on to the networks. In other words, the content of these services would no longer be treated in a ‘neutral’ way. As Naughton puts it:

the FCC seems to have endorsed net neutrality for the past (fixed-line internet connections) while abandoning it for the future.

In itself the question of net neutrality merely marks out one of the latest battlegrounds of late capitalism. But I find it suggestive of something more compelling; as a question of what Michel Serres would term multiplicity. In his book Genesis, Serres offers a ‘new object for philosophy’. Not something new as it were, but new for our ways of thinking:

The multiple as such, unknown and little unified, is not an epistemological monster, but on the contrary the ordinary lot of situations, including that of the ordinary scholar, regular knowledge, everyday work, in short, our  common object […] We recognise it everywhere, yet reason still insists on ignoring it.

Typically we look for system, for principles, ‘we want elements, atoms, particles’. Against such totalising forces Serres considers multiplicity: ‘A lake at night, the sea, a white plain, background noise, the murmur of a crowd, time.’ At the time of his writing, in 1982, these remarks sat clearly within the tradition of poststructuralist, anti-foundationalist thinking. ‘We breathe background noise’, he writes.

Background noise is the ground of our perception, absolutely uninterrupted, it is our perennial sustenance, the element of the software of all our logic. It is the residue and the cesspool of our messages. No life without heat, no matter, neither; no warmth without air, no logos without noise, either. Noise is the basic element […] Noise is the background of information…

Like many such writers, Serres seems to call out to something never quite reached. But what of poststructuralist thinking today with our mundane cyborgs on the sidewalks tapping into all manner of noise? I don’t mean to make a simplistic equation that somehow this is all now poststructuralist living; a philosophy manifest. The Internet and mobile technologies are not de facto a radical exchange of new thinking. But I do feel our present conjuncture is both symptomatic of the underlying desires poststructuralists sought to identify and far more recognisable, ubiquitous even, relevant to many more constituents (see, for example, Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory, 2010, Polity Press). Taken in such ‘philosophical’ light, net neutrality takes on greater importance. It becomes a more pressing illustration of how we suck the life out of things; how we fail to hold onto neutrality, which, like natality, is surely where the heat is; the very grounds upon which we derive…

Serres writes the enigmatic line: ‘The multiple had been thought, perhaps, but it hadn’t been sounded’. What would he say today? Has the Internet, our vast ‘planetary’ wiring, offered some faint sounding? If so, do we really want to forgo its ‘noise’?


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