Suddenly, everyone is in the serendipity business. Facebook Places promises “serendipitous meet ups between users”. StumbledUpon reckons it will bring “serendipitous discovery” to iPhone users, and no less an authority on happy coincidences than Google’s CEO is talking about calculating and producing serendipity electronically. Well, after the last few weeks, my faith in the future of the Internet is genuinely shaken. Like many people, I am still trying to understand what the very real prospect of the end of net neutrality might mean.
I am from Liverpool, and therefore immediately associated with either football or the Beatles. I take great pleasure in both. The Liverpool of the late 1950s that gave birth to the Beatles was a famously fertile ground for music, and especially rock’n’roll (known as “Merseybeat”). There are a few possible explanations for this, but the most plausible is that the ships arriving from the US (Liverpool was the main transatlantic seaport) brought with them the rock’n’roll and blues records that were in the charts in the States.
It’s worth reflecting that these would have been “grey” imports, exchanged outside of commercial framework the copyright holders would have imagined for themselves, and facilitated by a global communications infrastructure that was barely aware of transporting them. This is how the teenaged Lennon and McCartney discovered their destinies.
The Internet offers possibilities for similar cultural and intellectual cross-pollination, only on a scale previously unimagined. But wouldn’t an Internet operated for the highest bidder be an Internet that exists almost entirely for the transmission of more and more intimate advertising? You don’t have to subscribe to the worldview of Ms Naomi Klein to consider this bleak. I’d recommend reading (for those who have not), The Affluent Society, -also a product of the late 50s- when considering just how felicitous these circumstances might be.
That’s why I believe in the importance of neutrality. I don’t think that neutrality need be cast as a left-versus-right, regulate-or-deregulate discussion and I am saddened when I read it characterised as such. I firmly agree with the Mozilla manifesto. The Internet is integral to modern life; the Internet is a global public resource. Its capacity to facilitate disruption has been a phenomenal engine of economic and (in some or other sense) cultural growth, granting us that great curse of “exciting times”. There would be nothing serendipitous about an early demise to this.