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Net Neutrality’s Missing Persons

Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0

What’s missing from the net neutrality debate?

We’ve rehashed the timeless market-versus-state dilemma. We’ve been reminded, ad nauseum, about the perils which TV news personalities like to lump-in with consumer protection, market competitiveness, and economic growth.

But is that it?

If we understand that Internet users experience the world through their bodies, then the answer is, resoundingly, “No.” Largely, it is our bodies, our very persons, that have been missing.

If at first this doesn’t appear to be problematic, it is. We shouldn’t sacrifice our embodied, lived experience for the sake of broken-in political dilemmas already familiar to us (e.g., the tyranny of the White House and Capitol Hill, the market shares of the 1%, etc.).

Why we need to get back to our bodies is simple: our “phenomenological” experience with having worldly bodies inspires designers and engineers to innovate and to create. Our physical existence prompts artistic and scientific minds to capitalize where technology and human bodies mix.

So, designers and engineers, and the like, are students of the body-technology interaction. They study it, learn from it, and they use it to help create possibly many kinds of futures.

This is financially imperative for us to consider, too. Economist William Baumol reminds us that, since 1870, innovation has contributed virtually 90 percent of our current GDP.

Even popular on-line streaming services cache documentaries replete with messages about design saving automakers and shoe companies alike.

When dilemmas involving market and state surface (i.e., boundless profits against democratic control of certain commodities), we tend to forget a simple fact. That is, our bodies are always interacting with technology and other bodies, globally—a thing vital to the constant expansion of capitalism.

We forget, for better or worse, that this also is part of the way forward, both politically and economically.

Of course, absent our bodies, neither state nor market would exist. Surely, sans the human body, our technological artifacts would bear little significance out in nature.

But that’s not quite the issue at hand. The point is, leaving our corporeal existence out of the picture misses the mark—no matter if the debate centers on the Internet or something else.

Enacting public policy and regulating the economy to ensure that markets benefit us all maximally is certainly a good idea. But when we paint new problems with old colors, just like we’re doing with net neutrality, our corporeal existence – our embodied being – goes right by the wayside.

Meanwhile, designers and engineers (folks with access to capital) pioneer new markets by anticipating and creating interactive technology frontiers. They treat the human body not as distinct from what it encounters, but as “a new form of interface,” and a new “form of digital-material” altogether, as Florian Mueller notes.

Those currently building towards the future they want already question the usefulness of treating the body and technology as categorically distinct. In fact, Mueller, who has written on designing for active human bodies “in a digital-material world,” asks how interaction designers can support a much more phenomenological approach to the human body.

By asking such questions, this camp evidently seeks to contour the future a certain way. And it involves the Internet as much as our bodies. The theory they borrow from reveals much about their intentions, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for instance, is a major voice they listen to.

In stressing an increased attention to the body, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology prioritizes, in part, the significance of social consequences that result from a world filled with human bodies acting in that world, and on one another.

Right now, we should ask if only soft-minded skeptics will continue to relegate our bodily existences when public debates regarding the net reach a fever pitch.

If so, they – and anyone who joins them – will continually fail to anticipate the costs of ignoring the corporeal dimension needed to espouse best public policy options for all of us.

Instead, the dilemmas they sponsor will reflect a false representation of how the future presently gets made. And we will be reminded to worry about the easily controlled variables, but not the ones we wake up in every day.

Rather than reflect our participation in innovation and future-making (which involves our bodies, our consciousness, and the objects we encounter directly), the debates that envelop hot topics like net neutrality will continue to echo desires of control, leaving little room for, perhaps, a deeper expression of democracy.

As a result, we can expect to face dilemmas which continually pit industry and state against one another, forcing the public to rally behind a kind of decision. And the magnitude of our participation in future-making, and the possibility that we might just sleepwalk right through it, may never fully come to light.