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10 May 2006

The New Yorker's take on the Internet Neutrality dustup in Congress

"The New Yorker" magazine (founded 1925) may be a somewhat unfamiliar or obscure periodical outside the United States. (Arguably it's unfamiliar and obscure within the United States.) If you could eat Prestige, The New Yorker would weigh 1500 pounds / 682 kilograms. If magazines were blind dates, you would open your apartment door and find yourself about to go to dinner with Fred Astaire or Princess Grace of Monaco.

Each weekly issue begins with a column called "The Talk of the Town," which is candy-coating code for its lead editorial, traditionally written, unsigned, by the magazine's editor-in-chief. Then T of the T breaks up into a half-dozen short essays about This and That, written by different authors and staffers.

If English is your second lingo, but you want a model of Perfect American English vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and style -- if you want to write the way Fred Astaire dances -- then The New Yorker is THE periodical for you.

In fact, the standard American reference book on writing excellent English, "The Elements of Style," was co-authored by one of The New Yorker's stars of its Golden Age, E.B. White. This book, now in its gazillionth edition, is still the key to the Heavenly Clouds of written American English, and Vleeptron highly recommends it to everyone who wants to achieve the heights of clear English writing. (The other author, William Strunk Jr., was White's English professor at Cornell University, and originally wrote "The Elements" as a handout to his students in 1918.)

Here is The New Yorker's take on this Internet Neutrality dustup at this moment being screwed around with in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Vleeptron makes no Guarantees that The New Yorker's take is The Ultimate Non-Personal Truth.

But if The New Yorker says it, then Vleeptron guarantees it's perfectly spelled, perfectly punctuated, the grammar is perfect, the writing style can't be beat(en), and every Fact has been checked and double-checked and triple-checked.

You don't get guarantees like those on Fox News or CNN. They just scream louder than The New Yorker. And screaming is Not a Virtue of excellent writing.

Oh ... A.T. & T. is American Telephone & Telegraph, the telecom giant that grew out of Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone.

~ ~ ~

The New Yorker (weekly magazine USA)
newstand issue: 20 March 2006
posted on Web: 13 March 2006

The Talk of the Town



by James Surowiecki

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as a national telephone network spread across the United States, A.T. & T. adopted a policy of "tiered access" for businesses. Companies that paid an extra fee got better service: their customers’ calls went through immediately, were rarely disconnected, and sounded crystal-clear. Those who didn’t pony up had a harder time making calls out, and people calling them sometimes got an "all circuits busy" response. Over time, customers gravitated toward the higher-tier companies and away from the ones that were more difficult to reach. In effect, A.T. & T.’s policy turned it into a corporate kingmaker.

If you’ve never heard about this bit of business history, there’s a good reason: it never happened. Instead, A.T. & T. had to abide by a "common carriage" rule: it provided the same quality of service to all, and could not favor one customer over another. But, while "tiered access" never influenced the spread of the telephone network, it is becoming a major issue in the evolution of the Internet. Until recently, companies that provided Internet access followed a de-facto commoncarriage rule, usually called "network neutrality," which meant that all Web sites got equal treatment. Network neutrality was considered so fundamental to the success of the Net that Michael Powell, when he was chairman of the F.C.C., described it as one of the basic rules of "Internet freedom." In the past few months, though, companies like A.T. & T. and BellSouth have been trying to scuttle it. In the future, Web sites that pay extra to providers could receive what BellSouth recently called "special treatment," and those that don’t could end up in the slow lane. One day, BellSouth customers may find that, say, loads a lot faster than, and that the sites BellSouth favors just seem to run more smoothly. Tiered access will turn the providers into Internet gatekeepers.

The logic of the tiered-access approach is simple: broadband companies do the work of providing Internet access, so they should be able to charge what they can for it. Telecom executives say that the revenue from tiered access would let them invest more in adding bandwidth and improving download speeds, and argue that Web sites are parasites taking, as A.T. & T.’s chairman, Edward E. Whitacre, Jr., put it, a "free ride" on the pipes the broadband companies own. But these companies have pipes into people’s homes in the first place only because of a long history of government regulation, and people want to use those pipes only because of all the value the so-called parasites have created. And it’s that value which tiered access -- even if it does improve the Internet’s infrastructure -- will put in harm’s way. The Internet has become a remarkable fount of economic and social innovation largely because it’s been an archetypal level playing field, on which even sites with little or no money behind them -- blogs, say, or Wikipedia -- can become influential. If the Internet turns into a zone of tiered access, it will be harder for noncommercial sites or startup companies to compete with bigger firms.

Broadband providers insist that they have no plans to block access or degrade service to those who don’t pay a premium rate. But if some companies are getting better service, then all the others are getting worse service. Besides, there have already been examples of active discrimination. Last year, a rural telecom company in North Carolina blocked its users’ access to the Internet-based phone service Vonage, and in Canada the telecom company Telus blocked access to a Web site supporting the telecommunications workers’ union. Market forces will offer some check to this kind of interference -- if a particular provider goes too far, customers will take their business elsewhere -- but, in the world of broadband, market forces are weak, because most cities have only two major providers. More than ninety per cent of Americans get Internet service from either their local phone company or their local cable company, and A.T. & T.’s newly announced acquisition of BellSouth means that there will soon be only three major phone companies in the entire U.S.

Ultimately, Internet providers hope to manage the Internet the way a supermarket owner manages his store, charging companies "slotting fees" in exchange for better shelf space, or the way bookstores charge publishers extra in order to have books placed on tables at the front of the store. Up to this point, the Internet has been operated more or less like a public utility. All bits of data have been treated similarly, just as the highway system doesn’t allow trucks from some companies to go faster than others, and the electrical grid does not deliver reliable power to some customers and erratic service to others. We could write this principle into law, as a new bill sponsored by Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, proposes. But the bill’s chances of success are slim at best. Increasingly, it seems likely that the Net will end up looking less like the highway system and more like a collection of Safeways.

A collection of Safeways is not a terrible thing -- supermarkets in the U.S. do a good job of delivering food that people want, at a reasonable cost -- but it’s hardly what we’ve come to expect of the Internet. Decisions that once were made collectively by hundreds of millions of Internet users would now be shaped in large part by a handful of telecom executives. It used to be said that the Internet was all about "disintermediation." With the end of network neutrality, the middlemen are striking back.


Anonymous adam said...

I don't know that I still agree with all the style the New Yorker's editors seem to approve of these days. I remember reading "Brokeback Mountain" in its original form as a New Yorker fiction piece, and I didn't like it. It was hit-or-miss in the descriptions-- very wordy, albeit well-chosen words, and as a reader I found it a bit distracting, especially because the story was pretty simple at heart.

Recommendation for good new fiction: "Burning Babies" by Noah Cicero. The book's a collection of short stories told from the perspective of Monco, a young man living in Youngstown, Ohio. I haven't read a more real-sounding book about a writer's hometown except for Joyce's "Dubliners." "How To Handle a Crack Head" (Googlable) reads a lot like "Counterparts" in some ways. I think Joyce and Cicero would have a lot to complain about to each other re: the people they wrote about-- good thing they chose to vent onto the page.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

You are talking about The New Yorker's fiction.

I was talking exclusively about the New Yorker's non-fiction (news, opinion, essays).

You're right. The fiction sucks. Fiction, poetry and literature at The New Yorker have been an unmitigated disaster from the 1960s to the present, and the blame for turning TNY from a great showplace of American literature to the weenie trivial boring crap it has degenerated to goes chiefly to TNY's editor in those decades, William Shawn (father of the great actor/comic Wallace Shawn).

But now that I've clarified my original point, I stick to it. In its non-fiction pages, TNY is still the gold standard of American English writing style and mechanicals (grammar, spelling, punctuation), and in its journalism it's still the gold standard of accuracy and fact-checking.

I'm not suggesting that any aspiring writer or journalist might want to BECOME The New Yorker.

But whether English is your first or second lingo, TNY makes the best tutor/private school/model/template for acquiring excellence in the American dialect, and for acquiring excellence in factual accuracy.

They're not perfect, and they don't have any Magic which completely insulates them from being Human, with the species' penchant for "Errare Humanum Est." TNY has a howler of a non-fiction screwup which landed its author in libel court in a notorious Front Page scandal, and the nub of it was over something I had mastered as a copy boy: Getting your direct quotes correct. This lady -- considered the Champ of magazine journalism -- had to defend her apparently lifelong habit of taking quotes and morphing them any which-way she chose to suit her own Higher Understanding of what the interviewee had said. And TNY's famed editors had just trusted her and had no mechanism to detect, before they published her piece, that she was playing fast and loose with essentially factual material.

Well -- who would care and who would be shocked if The National Enquirer or The Weekly World News got caught screwing up with quotes and facts? If you're 13 and want to be a superb writer and journalist by the time you're 20, read every article in TNY every week. (But skip the fiction.)


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