Public Media, Public Education, and the Public Good: An Interview with Heather Chaplin (Part One)

Heather Chaplin is one of the good guys -- she wrote one of the best books about the place of video games in contemporary culture; she's doing journalism which challenges some of the preconceptions about youth and new technology that run through most mainstream coverage; and she's been doing consulting work with some leading foundations -- MacArthur, Ford, among them -- as they think through what needs to be done to reallign public institutions with the risks and opportunities of the digital age. Heather interviewed me recently for the Digital Media and Learning project website, talking about participatory culture and public engagement. She was nice enough to allow me to turn the microphone (or in this case, the keyboard) the other way to talk with her about her recently published white paper, National Public Lightpath: Documentation and Recommendations, which seeks to map some future directions for how the internet might serve the public good.

Here's part of the summary of the white paper:

It's hard to remember life before the Internet. In the span of two decades it has entirely reshaped the way we do business, gather information, shop, play, and socialize. It's all moved so quickly, it's been hard to even stop and think. But do for a minute. Stop. Think. In all our rush to buy books and shoes online, and to find our lost high school friends on Facebook, we have failed to consider one thing. What part of the Internet is going to be devoted to the public interest?"

In part one of this interview, Heather offers some frank and provocative comments about how the internet might better serve the public good and critiques the "libertarian" perspective on how the web should grow. In the second part, which will run later this week, she shares some thoughts about digital literacy and public education.

Your white paper opens with the provocative question, "what part of the Internet is going to be devoted to the public interest?" How would you answer that question?

It's actually a really hard question to answer, based on what your notion of "in the public interest" is. I mean, NPR and PBS have presences on the Internet. And I suppose you could argue that there are probably millions of sites out there that serve the general public good. So, if I were to play devil's advocate against myself, I suppose I would argue that the very nature of the Internet - the anyone-can-publish idea - is in itself a public good.

But here's the thing, I'm not really the libertarian type. I don't believe that things will necessarily just sort themselves out if left alone. When I talk about creating a piece of the Internet in the public interest, I'm really talking about both public ownership of the infrastructure and content created specifically to educate, enlighten and enrich in the interests of genuine literacy and civic engagement.

I think ownership of the infrastructure is important here. There is no inherent financial incentive to create something like NPL so there is no reason on earth for Verizon or AT&T to get involved. As it is they want to create a pay structure where people pay more for faster connections, which would in effect wipe out any chance for the "little guy" to compete with corporate players. People forget in this country that corporations despite their sunny logos and appealing products, are not our friends. They have a PROFIT MOTIVE. This means, as the phrase would imply, they're motivated by profit not the public good. In fact, they're legally set up so that they're breaking the law if they stop to consider the public good over profits.

I have a real bee in my bonnet about the way the Internet infrastructure belongs to these companies when it was created by tax payer dollars. It's the same with the pharmaceutical companies - they make billions off drugs, the research for which was done by public universities funded by public citizens like you and me.

But now I digress.

What was the original question? Ah yes, well, in reality, I FEAR no part of the Internet will be devoted to the public interest in any sort of "official" capacity. I HOPE, however, that we are able to build an infrastructure that would, at first, connect public media to the schools, for educational purposes, and then build out from there to people's houses, libraries, museums etc.

Your paper proposes what you are calling the National Public Lightpath. What specifically are you advocating?

NPL proposes creating a publicly-owned piece of the Internet that links together important institutions devoted to the public good, such as public media, the public schools systems, and, eventually, museums and libraries. Ideally, it would eventually spread so that people could plug into NPL at home as well, to , say, complete a homework assignment given at school.

What many people don't understand is how the Internet works - that there are different modes of connecting households and institutions. Some Internet connections, for example, are still run over copper wires, even though copper wires don't permit for very fast transmission. The reason? In the early 1990s, a couple of the big providers bought a lot of copper wire, and don't want to lose out on their investment. NPL advocates using high speed fiber optic cable, which in essence means the "pipes" to your house or school or whatever, would be fatter and thus capable of transmitting a greater amount of data at faster speeds. This is something Japan, Korea and many European countries already have. Many scientific universities are also connected on a network they own communaly called National LamdaRail, a non-profit set up specifically for that purpose. (NPL would build off of the National LamdaRail infastructure, as it already circles the country.) Fatter pipes gives you the ability to transmit vast amounts of data in real time. Imagine your kid in school learning biology by playing with 3-D molecular models being piped into the classroom from a university on the other side of the world - or engaging in peer-to-peer learning by sharing, in real time, virtual worlds they'd built with kids in other country. The possibilities are endless.

Your talk about "empowering an agency to oversee these efforts and become the steward of the internet in the public interest" speaks of a centralized model of public media which is precisely what the internet has in many ways sought to overthrow. Have we gone too far towards decentralization and if so, what areas do require governmental intervention to promote the public interest?

This is a great question. As I mentioned, I don't really go with the whole libertarian thing. I don't have a problem with a society deciding, you know what, education is really important and we're going to create a way to make sure that kids all over the country, no matter where they're from or what color they are get a top notch one. I do think the culture of the Internet is so gung-ho on this idea of "freedom" that they sometimes forget what that word even means. I would argue that the kid who isn't given the skills she needs to be a functioning and engaged part of her society because she wasn't given the critical thinking skills for independent thinking is not really free. That's more important to me that making sure that no agency anywhere ever gets to decide about anything. I'm sick to death of the post-deconstructionist idea that nothing has any inherent meaning, that everything is subjective, etc. It's led to a lot of very smart people adopting a hands off attitude that I think is very dangerous to our future.

You note that most of the key tools which now support public discourse are owned by companies that are "designed to serve shareholders -- not the public." In what ways are these systems being deployed in ways which hurt rather than facilitate the public good?

Well this goes back to my earlier rant. I just always think it's worth pointing out what an organization's goal is. The goal of a for-profit corporation is to earn profits. That is its legal responsibility. So, if making money happens to coincide with the public good, than fantastic, everybody wins. But what happens when it doesn't? Say, keeping drug prices so high that most people in the world can't afford to buy them? Or letting cars go out on the road known to be dangerous because a recall is more expensive then settling law suits?

In the case of the Internet, one needs look no farther than the issue of Net Neutrality. The providers want to be able to charge more for faster speeds. Sounds OK. But all you need to do is think about it for one minute and realize that that's the end of the wonderful, brilliant democracy of the Internet right there and then. Why are they doing this? It's certainly not for the public good; it's to make money. Which, again, is their mandate.

I don't have a problem particularly with a company making money - we live in a capitalist society - I just don't think we should kid ourselves about the implications. We've gone so far towards being market-worshipers, and we've come to view anyone who wants to see the government get involved in any way as being anti-"freedom," that I think we've gotten ourselves into a bit of a mess. With this mind set, we've handed over a vast amount of power to extremely large entities who dont' even nominally have our best interests at heart. This is a problem.

Heather Chaplin is a professor of journalism at The New School and author of the book, Smartbomb: The Quest for Art Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. She recently participated in a Ford Foundation grant looking at issues of the public interest in the next generation of the Internet. She also works with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on issues of digital literacy and journalism. She has been interviewed for and cited in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Businessweek, and The Believer and has appeared on shows such as Talk of the Nation, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, Details, and Salon. She is a regular contributor on game culture for All Things Considered.

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