Pluralistic: 03 Jul 2021

Today's links

An illustration of three isolated buildings in an empty field, with fiber lines streaming towards them and a wifi icon hovering over them.

The future is symmetrical (permalink)

When Mitch Kapor articulated the principle that "architecture is politics" at the founding of EFF, he was charging technologists with the moral duty to contemplate the kinds of social interactions their technological decisions would facilitate – and prohibit.

At question was nothing less than the character of the networked society. Would the vast, pluripotent, general purpose, interconnected network serve as a glorified video-on-demand service, the world's greatest pornography distribution system, a giant high-tech mall?

Or could it be a public square, and if so, who would have the loudest voices in that square, who would be excluded from it, who will set its rules, and how will they be enforced?

As with its technical architecture, the political architecture of the net is a stack, encompassing everything from antitrust enforcement to spectrum allocation, protocol design to search-and-seizure laws, standards to top-level domain governance.

Among those many considerations is the absolutely vital question of service delivery itself. What kinds of wires or radio waves will carry your packets, who will own them, and how will they be configured?

For decades, a quiet war has been fought on this front, with two sides: the side that sees internet users as "mouse potatoes," destined to passively absorb information feeds compiled by their betters; and the "netizen" side that envisions a truly participatory network design.

This deep division has been with us since the internet's prehistory, at least since the fight over Usenet's alt.* hierarchy, flaring up again during the P2P wars, with ISPs insisting that users were violating their "agreements" by running "servers."

Above all, this fight was waged in the deployment of home internet service. The decision turn the already-monopolistic cable and phone operators into ISPs cast a long shadow. Both of these industries think of their customers as passive information consumers, not participants.

As an entertainment exec in William Gibson's 1992 novel Idoru describes her audience: "Best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth…no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections."

Contrast this with the other cyberpunk archetype, the console cowboy who doesn't merely surf the digital, but steers it – the active participant in the technological/media environment who is more than a recipient of others' crafted messages.

For a long time, Big Tech and Big Telco tried to have it both ways. AT&T promoted teleconferencing and remote family life conducted by videophones in its 1993 "You Will" marketing campaign. Youtube exhorted you to "broadcast yourself."

But AT&T also set data-caps, kicked users off for running servers, and engaged in every legal, semi-legal and outright illegal tactic imaginable to block high-speed fiber networks.

Youtube, meanwhile, blocked interoperability, leveraged vertical integration with Google search to exclude and starve competitors, and conspired with Big Content to create a "content moderation" system that's two parts Kafka, one part Keystone Kops.

While the questions raised by broad participation in networked society are thorny and complex, one question actually has a very simple and factual answer: "How should we connect our homes to the internet?" The answer: "Fiber."

There is no wireless that can substitute for fiber. Wireless – 5G, Starlink, whatever – shares the same spectrum. We can make spectrum use more efficient (by tightly transmitting the wireless signals so they don't interfere), but physics sets hard limits on wireless speeds.

Each strand of wire in a wired network, by contrast, is its own pocket universe, insulated from the next wire, with its own smaller, but exclusive, electromagnetic spectrum to use without interfering with any other wire on the other side of its insulation.

EFF's broadband comparison chart, showing the maximum speeds of 4G (100mb), DSL (170mb), 5G (10gb), cable (50gb) and fiber (100tb).

But copper wire also has hard limits that are set by physics. The fastest theoretical copper data throughput is an infinitesimal fraction of the fastest fiber speeds. Fiber is millions-to-hundreds-of-millions times faster than copper.

We should never run copper under another city street or along another pole. Any savings from maintaining 20th century network infrastructure will be eradicated by the cost of having to do twice the work to replace it with 21st century fiber in the foreseeable future.

Trying to wring performance gains out of copper in the age of fiber is like trying to improve the design of whale-oil lamps to stave off the expense of electrification. Sure, you don't want anyone sitting in the dark but even the very best whale-oil lamp is already obsolete.

But besides future-proofing, there's another reason to demand fiber over copper or wireless: symmetry. Our copper and (especially) wireless infrastructure is optimized for sending data to end-points, not getting data back. It's mouse-potato broadband.

(this is especially true of any satellite broadband, which typically relies upon copper lines for its "return path," and even when it doesn't, has much slower uplinks that downlinks)

By contrast, fiber tends to be symmetrical – providing the same download and upload speeds. It is participatory broadband, suited for a world of distance ed, remote work, telemedicine, and cultural and political participation for all.

Fiber is so obviously better than copper or wireless that America paltry fiber rollouts needed to be engineered – they never would have happened on their own. The most critical piece of anti-fiber engineering is US regulators' definition of broadband itself.

Since the dawn FCC interest in universal broadband, it adopted a technical definition of broadband that is asymmetrical, with far lower upload than download speeds. Despite lockdown and broadband-only connections to the outside world, Congress is set to continue this.

The latest iteration of the Democrats' broadband bill defines "broadband" as any connection that is 100mb down and 20mb up ("100/20"). Both of these speeds paltry to the point of uselessness, but the upload speed is genuinely terrible.

US broadband usage has grown 21%/year since the 1980s. 100/20 broadband is inadequate for today's applications – let alone tomorrow's (by contrast, fiber is fast enough to last through the entire 21st century's projected broadband demand and beyond, well into the 2100s).

Any wireless applications will also depend on fiber – your 5G devices have to be connected to something, and if that something is copper, your wireless speeds will never exceed copper's maximum speeds. Innovation in spectrum management requires fiber – it doesn't obviate it.

Today, the highest growth in broadband demand is in uploads, not downloads. People need fast uploads speeds to videoconference, to stream their games, to do remote work. The only way a 100/20 copper network's upload speeds can be improved is by connecting it with fiber.

Every dollar spent on copper rollout is a dollar we'll forfeit in a few years. It's true that cable monopolists will wring a few billions out of us if we keep making do with their old copper, but upgrading copper just makes the inevitable fiber transition costlier.

China is nearing its goal of connecting 1 billion people to fiber. In America, millions are stuck with copper infrastructure literally consisting of century-old wires wrapped in newspaper, dipped in tar, and draped over tree-banches.

Indeed, when it comes to America, monopoly carriers are slowing upload speeds – take Altice, the US's fourth-largest ISP, which slashed its upload speeds by 89% "in line with competitors' offerings."

America desperately needs a high-fiber diet:

But it has a major blockage: the American right, who have conducted history's greatest self-own by carrying water for telecoms monopolists, blocking municipal fiber:

It's darkly funny to see the people who demanded that "government stay out of my internet" now rail against monopoly social media's censorship, given that a government ISP would be bound by the First Amendment, unlike Facebook or Twitter.

Luckily, Congress isn't the only place where this debate is taking place. In California, Governor Newsom has unveiled an ambitious plan to connect every city and town to blazing-fast fiber, then help cities and counties get it to every home.

In tech circles, we use the term "read-only" to refer to blowhards who won't let you get a word-in edgewise (this being one of the more prominent and unfortunate technical archetypes).

The "consumer" envisioned by asymmetrical broadband futures is write-only – someone designed to have other peoples' ideas crammed into their eyeballs, for their passive absorption. A consumer, not a citizen.

As Gibson put it, it's a person who "can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."

Cyberpunk is a warning, not a suggestion.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago T-shirt design: “The Internet, a Series of Tubes”

#5yrsago Low income US households get $0.08/month in Fed housing subsidy; 0.1%ers get $1,236

#5yrsago Macedonia’s Colorful Revolutionaries defy the state by splashing paint on government buildings and monuments

#5yrsago One of the copyright’s scummiest trolls loses his law license

#1yrago Frederick Douglass's descendants read his July 4 speech

#1yrago Topple monuments…with science

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 263 words (8425 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Inside The Clock Tower
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Moral hazard and monopoly," on the need to break up big tech platforms

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla