Hallmark and the Small Business

Running a bit behind here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  But at least I’m getting this out in time for Christmas . . .

Countless Christmases

Countdown to Christmas logoI believe this is my fourth year of following the Hallmark channels’ gallery of Christmas romance movies (“Countdown to Christmas”).  Not that it’s humanly possible to see them all.  I believe Hallmark is introducing twenty-three new films this year; and that doesn’t take into account the similar plenitude of programs from the nine previous years of “Countdown.”  In this torrent of trysts, it would be easy for the more traditional fare to get lost entirely, from White Christmas to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the truly canonical video version of that story, I’m convinced).

And Hallmark is only the bellwether of an entire subgenre.  Netflix has its own array of seasonal video, so similar to the Hallmarks that you’d mistake one for the other if the branding were absent.  Subscribe to Amazon Prime instead of Netflix?  You can still find plenty of holiday fare, whether traditional flicks or newer Amazon productions.

The trend may be reaching some kind of limit.  The plots are starting to recur faster and faster.  Of course, that repetition makes these movies ripe for satire.  My children pointed me to a Christmas movie script allegedly written by a computer (“Someone Made a Bot Watch 1,000 Hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Write a Script”; here’s the original tweet from Keaton Patti).  I doubt this was really a bot at work; it’s too funny.

In any case, it turns out these plot generators are spawning as fast as the movies themselves.  For example, just at the top of my search results I found samples from WrongHands, E! Online, and The Odyssey Online.  Lots of articles remark on the phenomenon.  For example, here’s NPR’s snark-fest on the 2019 Christmas romance crop, Hallmark and otherwise.

Among other things, this mass of Christmas cheer does make the field a useful laboratory for looking at some tropes and storytelling points.  One could probably do a statistically valid survey with this large a universe of data.  Here, I’m just going to focus on one favorite trope:  the small business (or, as NPR labels it, the “adorable small business”).

Small Businesses Are Adorable

The Christmas Ornament coverSmall businesses, especially family businesses, frequently play a role in genre romance movies.  For example, in A Christmas Melody (2015), the heroine has just lost her clothing boutique and spends time in a cozy local coffee shop.  We also go from one small business to another in The Christmas Ornament (2013), where the heroine has been trying to keep her late husband’s bike shop open, but discovers her real passion is baking cookies (courtesy of a new romantic interest who has a Christmas tree shop).  The female lead in The Christmas Secret  (2014) has just been fired from her job, but gets a new one in a local bakery.  (There are a lot of bakers in these tales.  Christmas is cookie season.)

Sometimes the issue is the temptation to “sell out.”  For example, in Let It Snow (2013), the female lead is an executive assigned to overhaul a newly acquired family business, Snow Valley Lodge, into a modernized hipster paradise.  She sees the error of her ways, of course.

The trope isn’t confined to Christmas, or to Hallmark.  For instance, Coffee Shop (2014) gives us a shop that’s an important gathering place in the community, but financially troubled; her former boyfriend wants to bail her out by selling the property to a mall developer.

The sellout motif reaches a sort of reductio ad absurdum in this year’s Hallmark feature Merry and Bright.  Our heroine Cate is doing a good job of running her grandmother’s candy cane company, but candy canes aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.  The romantic interest, a “corporate recovery consultant,” proposes gaining a venture capitalist’s support by expanding the business into other Christmasy candy—chocolates and such.  That’s such a logical idea that it seemed this story would avoid the trope.  But no:  as she’s poised to sign the contract, Cate stops and declares that her grandmother founded a candy cane business, nothing else, and Cate’s determined to stick with it.

I sat there open-mouthed (since I had no chocolates to eat, alas) at the notion that manufacturing candy canes was virtuous, but expanding into chocolates was some kind of betrayal.  The resolution, in which Cate succeeds by interesting an investor in candy canes with new and innovative flavors, failed to convince me that her scruples made any kind of sense.

A Houston Press article from last year snarks up the trope:  “Oh, and every little book store or bakery or community theater can be turned into a resounding success with a little love.”

Variations

On the other hand, we do see some aversions of the trope.  A couple of examples from this year’s batch:

In Picture a Perfect Christmas, our heroine is a photographer who travels all around the world for her work.  She arrives in a small town for the holidays to look after her aging grandmother, and falls for a local guy.  But it’s kind of a relief to find that neither of them has to give up their careers, or found a small business.  It appears she can go right on globe-trotting and picture-taking; she’s just going to come home periodically to a new base of operations.  In fact, the guy and his semi-adopted nephew are going to join her on her next shoot, in Switzerland, a very sensible plan.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Tree bagging from Christmas Under the Stars

Christmas Under the Stars

The male main character in Christmas Under the Stars is fired abruptly (at Christmas!) from his soulless investment banking job, and ends up working in a little local Christmas tree lot that’s going to be razed for development.  He and the female main character save the lot from the bulldozer, as well as solving everyone’s other problems.  But the hero doesn’t become a career Christmas tree salesman; he goes back into finance—only this time it’s in a non-soulless company that specializes in ethical investing.  So an endearing and Christmasy local business is involved, but it isn’t the ultimate destination of either of the main characters.

The Purpose of a Business

What is it that these cute home-town businesses are supposed to have that makes them so adorable?

We have a widespread sense that a small operation is more likely to have integrity than a larger enterprise:  less likely to sell out, more dedicated to its original mission.  We tend to feel that a small business will have less discontinuity between its ostensible purposes—making coffee, selling books, offering Christmas trees—and the way it treats people in practice, along with the necessary purpose of making money.

The Incredibles (2004) shows a comically exaggerated version of this divide.  Bob Parr works for an insurance company, which is theoretically established to help its customers in times of difficulty.  Instead, the institution is so dedicated to denying customer claims that Bob practically has to use guerilla tactics to get a claim honored.  For someone with the heart of a superhero—a “helping profession” if there ever was one—this stultifying job is a pecular kind of hell.

To be sure, a business aims to make money, or it won’t last long.  But those who begin it, or join it, generally do so because they aspire to make an excellent product, or provide a useful service.  Not many lines of business are pure scams.  The trouble is that as the operation gets bigger and older, it seems often to develop a single-minded devotion to making more and more money, even at the expense of the excellence of the product or service.  A small enterprise, by contrast, where the owner may come into daily contact with the persons being served, is less likely to be seduced by that particular temptation.  It’s easier to keep focus on a product that pleases and benefits people—like cookies.

It's A Wonderful Life housewarming sceneAn older Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), lives on that contrast.  The quirky and adorable Bailey Building and Loan helps people acquire their own homes, though it’s not as profitable as Mr. Potter’s cruel cost-cutting firm.

This idealization of small firms is easy for the cynic to sneer at.  Big business is the way of the world, sloppy sentiment aside.  But storytellers are tapping into a genuine issue here.

The Stumbling-Blocks of Largeness

We’re generally told that bigness allows for economies of scale that reduce prices and improve services.  To take an example at random, this article by Ken Doctor (12/6/19) states as obvious (even in a critique of mergers) that “McDonald’s can make burgers a lot more efficiently than mom-and-pop joints in every town can.”  But this truism needs closer examination.

First, not enough attention is paid to diseconomies of scale.  For example, mergers can result in ill-assorted pieces that don’t really work together, offsetting gains that might be achieved by volume discounts.  I’m acquainted with one large company, for example, that is still producing separate reports and maintaining separate books for a subsidiary it absorbed at least ten years ago.

A more direct issue with largeness is that as an organization grows, it seem to require more and more generalized policies and inflexible rules.  A firm of twenty-five people can make room for individualized exceptions; an organization of ten thousand, not so much.  The principle seems to hold true in any kind or organization, whether it’s a private business, a nonprofit, a government, or even a church.  Universal rules aren’t all bad; they can be a necessary bulwark against personal discrimination.  But as the system grows, we have more and more the sense of dealing with mindless machinery, rather than on a person-to-person basis.

Google Dragonfly graphicIt seems a company often starts with enthusiasm about a cool product; but as it grows, the bean-counters take over, and that original spark recedes in favor of merely finding ways to pump up the quarterly reports.  Google, for example, may (sadly) be in the process of making this transition.  The company started out with the innocent motto “Don’t be evil”; it’s now  in trouble for helping China with its totalitarian surveillance state via “Project Dragonfly” (though it seems to have backed away from that project as of July).  It may be significant that Google’s founders have just departed—perhaps signaling the end of that original enthusiasm for making things better.

Mergers and Their Discontents

In addition, as a business gets bigger, it tends to crowd out competitors; and an exclusive concentration on increased profits without a corresponding attention to fairness and decency gives rise to a deliberate drive for monopoly, or oligopoly (market power exercised by a few firms rather than only one).

As fewer and larger firms amass market power, the lack of competition results in higher prices, as well as worse customer service.  If the combination actually reduces costs, none of the benefits actually flow through to the customer.  In my field (telecommunications), I can think of no examples where a merger actually resulted in lower prices for consumers.  And it’s hard to think of any where customer service improved as a result; normally, customer service gets worse.  For an example from another field, the airlines, consider this aggrieved customer’s horror story.

A less obvious disadvantage is that mergers can result in a loss of institutional memory.  A merger frequently seeks to cut costs by dropping redundant staff.  Aside from the minor difficulty of people’s losing their jobs (which seems a common anxiety at Christmastime, right back to Scrooge’s threat to Cratchit about “losing your situation”), this means the people who knew the history may be gone.  More than once I’ve run into a company that can’t find records of what its own pre-merger components did in the past.

You might say that the legal version of the Hallmark preference for smallness is antitrust law, which is designed to keep large entities from abusing their market power in some of the ways mentioned above.  Some contemporary examples of how the antitrust laws are not currently being enforced can be found in a recent article (12/19/19) by Steven Pearlstein.

Bigness is not necessarily bad.  But problems such as these are the characteristic flaws of the large organization, against which one must constantly be on guard.  In the way that a particular profession may have its “occupational hazards”—say, the temptation of lawyers to fall into a barren legalism—an entity may, simply by its scale, be vulnerable to typical failure modes.  The sentimental attachment to small entities is not simply nostalgia; there’s something to it.

The Appeal of the Small Business

We know some of the disadvantages of the small business:  for instance, the local shops in the Hallmark romances are frequently on the verge of failing—reflecting, along with the narrative demand of drama, their more limited resources and hence vulnerability to problems, such as a business downturn.  But what are the advantages such stories play on?

The Christmas List posterFamiliarity.  The direct contact between businesspeople and customers allows for personal relationships.  We see it with George Bailey, making kind-hearted adjustments in payment schedules to help individual customers (a practice for which the hard-charging Potter rakes him over the coals).  An older Christmas romance, The Christmas List (1997), apparently not from Hallmark but fitting the mold, features a perfume saleswoman who know how to figure out the perfect scent for a customer—an unusual sort of personal connection, but a helpful one for the buyer.  If I recall correctly, the proprietor in Coffee Shop had a similar talent for determining the perfect drink for someone.  You can’t give that kind of personal attention when you’re a faceless cog in a call center working from a fixed script.

To be sure, it’s possible to have this sort of personal relationship in a large organization.  A number of the pharmacists at my local CVS, where I show up every couple of weeks for prescriptions, actually know my name.  But on the whole, the further away management is from the actual customers, the easier it is for them to regard customers solely in terms of ARPU—“average revenue per unit.”

Community.  Thus, there’s a certain warmth and welcome—classic Christmas themes—to the bar “where everybody knows your name.”  The local shop can actually engender a close-knit community (the current term seems to be “found family”) capable of mutual support and reassurance.  That was a theme in Coffee Shop; it was also at work in another recent non-Christmas romantic comedy, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman, 2019).

Tales of the Long Bow coverConcreteness.  While the intellect has its joys, there’s a particular satisfaction in making something with our hands:  a tangible product whose excellence can seen and felt by anyone.  The types of small businesses featured in the Christmas romances—bakeries, bookshops, farms—do this a lot.  By contrast, a large business often seems to end up dealing in abstractions.  Chapter Five of G.K. Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow (1924) contrasts the small farmer who actually raises pigs with the wheeler-dealer who merely trades in them.  You can read the passage here, though you really need the whole book to fully appreciate the force of Chesterton’s point.

One of the key developments in Pretty Woman (1990) is Edward’s transformation from a soulless transactional businessman to someone who can put his assets and expertise behind what is, in effect, a family business.  Initially, his method is to swoop in, acquire a company, split it up and sell off the pieces at a profit—like a stolen car at a “chop shop,” as Vivian pungently observes (see under “Not So Different” at the TV Tropes entry).  But he gets to know the father-and-son owners of the current target and their pride in building ships for the Navy.  And as Vivian softens his heart, Edward changes his mind:  he’s going to support them in building ships for a good cause.  He’s going to make something, not just move money around.

Putting ourselves into our work.  Along with the pride in building something concrete goes the sense that we’re contributing to the good in the world.  The work both expresses oneself and leaves something tangible behind.  Small-town construction company owner Jamie Houghton, in Christmas List (Hallmark 2016, not to be confused with “The Christmas List” above), at 1:47, speaks of “…creating something that means something to you—leaving a bit of yourself in the world.”  The satisfaction of this kind of work is something the Hallmarks are trying to bring back to our attention.  You can put yourself into work for a large organization, too, if the organization allows that much individuality; but it’s harder, for the reasons noted above.

These virtues are so out of fashion that they have an antique feel to us today.  That in itself makes them especially useful for a Christmas story.  As Hallmark incessantly tells us, Christmas looks backward—to traditions, to memories, to childhood.  Ultimately, of course, it looks back two thousand years to the original Christmas.

Small Businesses Help the Plot Thicken

Because of the features we’ve discussed above, the heroine’s bakery or bookshop can serve as a linchpin for the plot.  A financial crisis or other threat to the business, or a decision about how what road it’ll take in the future, gives the characters something to be concerned about.  How each person responds shows their real character.  The heroine’s unsatisfactory current or ex-boyfriend, for example, shows his true colors by endorsing the sellout   He has completely failed to understand the heroine, and thus disqualified himself.  Or the true romantic interest may take off in a similar big-business direction, leading to tension or a temporary rupture between the main characters; but he can change his mind and thus prove he’s really on her wavelength after all.

You've Got Mail, bookshop scene

You’ve Got Mail

There’s an interesting semi-aversion (outside the Hallmark orbit) in You’ve Got Mail (1998).  It’s Tom Hanks’ large bookstore that threatens Meg Ryan’s lovable community bookshop, “The Shop Around the Corner.”  In the end she loses the bookshop; the economic forces at hand are too great.  But as she wanders through Hanks’ larger establishment, she seems to come to terms with it, in a way.  The big-box store can also be a place where children encounter beloved books and people can congregate.  Maybe if the story had taken place at Christmastime, the ending would have been different . . .

Smallness and Christmas

It’s not exactly a new departure, even in economic circles, to observe that “small is beautiful.”  And, as we’ve seen, there are some significant reasons to value smallness and be careful about unlimited growth, even in economic circles.  But it makes sense that this motif keeps turning up in stories that appeal to our homelier sentiments too.

It’s also fitting that the trope comes up so frequently in Christmas stories.  Christmas, in itself, represents the triumph of the small over the large.  One poor couple, without even a home or an inn to have their baby, are ranged against Herod and all his soldiers, and behind them, the Roman Empire.  Yet the child has outlasted them all.  In the Christmas story we see the divine and universal focused down to an intensely personal scene.  Every other small personal triumph can find a home there—even a romance.

At Christmastime, prizing the small may be a cliché – but it’s no accident.

The Good King

I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings.  In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776.  Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?

Star Kingdoms

We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color:  Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families.  Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting.  Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.

But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too.  Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire.  (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.)  Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov.  Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.”  David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor.  Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders).  It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.

The Lure of Kingship

Aragorn with crownThere’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it.  I encountered this puzzlement directly.  As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King.  I asked myself why.  If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?

The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—

  • Kings are colorful. (So are princesses.)
  • Stability
  • Personal loyalty
  • Individual agency

The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.

Stability

It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together.  British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there.  (Literally, at least within my lifetime.)  This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society’s returning to monarchy.

Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye:  “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show.  We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!”  (ch. 40)

Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well.  It depends on who they are.  For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea.  When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.

Too much depends on getting the right monarch.  By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.

Personal Loyalty

Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution.  One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol:  the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.”  Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.

This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch.  Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy.  One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people.  But it’s easiest with an individual.  This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.

Individual Agency

The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved.  “Washington said today . . .”

In fact it’s always people who are acting.  But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on.  “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .”  In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person:  “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).

In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF:  “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”  A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power.  Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change:  “SF is the literature of changing the world.”  The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.

It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules.  We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions.  I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood.  And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.

But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous.  Too much depends on getting the right hero—or the right monarch.  It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good:  virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait.  Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power.  Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.

The Rule of Law

Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law:  “a government of laws, not of men,” in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams.  We can see this as far back as Aristotle:  “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens.  And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.”  (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)

No human being can be trusted with absolute authority.  This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone.  When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.

The Ideal of the Good King

Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence.  This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment).  (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince:  the leader we follow.  But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)

What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?

If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility.  A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master.  Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler.  For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.

The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own.  Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.

In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule:  a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.

Aragorn defers to FrodoIt’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn.  Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble.  The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.”  Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious:  “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:  ‘Praise them with great praise!’”  (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)

We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not:  Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.”  America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.

The Alternative

At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility.  Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.

The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown.  It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect:  Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election.  Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.

If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.

The Internet Strikes Back

Occasionally, science fiction can’t avoid being shaped by actual facts.  Usually these are scientific facts, but sometimes economic, social, and even legal factors play a role.  It’s illuminating to look at the recent court decision on “network neutrality,” or “Internet open access,” from a science fictioneer’s point of view.

The question of “net neutrality,” or whether Internet service providers (ISPs) such as telecommunications and cable companies can control what people send and receive over the Internet, has been in play since at least 1998.  The Internet first became accessible to the general public by dial-up service over the public switched telephone network in the mid-1990s (who can remember the once-familiar sound of a dial-up modem connecting?).  Since the telephone system was a common carrier like a railroad or the Postal Service, required to carry anyone’s traffic as long as it didn’t harm the network, there was initially no question of the carriers’ controlling anyone’s Internet communications.  But when people began shifting to “broadband” Internet service over cable systems, which had not traditionally been treated as common carriers, new questions arose.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried three times to establish some kind of rules of the road that would prevent ISPs from blocking or altering people’s Internet communications.  Third time lucky:  on June 14, 2016, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. upheld the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet Order.”  The decision was published as United States Telecom Association v. FCC, __ F. 3d ___ (D.C. Cir. June 14, 2016) (USTA).

 

The ISPs like to frame the dispute in terms of the FCC’s “regulating the Internet.”  Actually, it’s almost the reverse.  All the FCC rules do is prevent the ISPs from regulating the Internet—from controlling what individual users can see on the Web and what they say in messages.  It would be more accurate to say that FCC is setting up rules that foster a free market.  This is why the technology industry, except for carriers and their proxies, is generally in favor of net neutrality.

Like many other tech-driven changes explored in science fiction, our ability to use the Internet has far-reaching consequences.  The court observed:  “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”  (p. 26)

This particular change wasn’t often investigated by SF.  You can find early depictions of something like the Internet.  Characters in James H. Schmitz’s 1960s-1970s Federation of the Hub stories use a network presciently dubbed the “ComWeb,” both to communicate and to access information, as one commentator remarked, “on ‘Internet time.’”  The cyberpunk genre deals with world-wide networks—but I don’t recall a story where the neutrality issue played a role.  (On the other hand, I haven’t read all that much cyberpunk.)  Some stories show the Internet “waking up”—Internet as artificial intelligence:  for instance, Spider Robinson’s “Solace” in Callahan’s Legacy, “Webmind” in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake.  But that’s another matter entirely.  In most of these stories, the network is just there; control over it by the ISPs isn’t an issue.

But, like a science fiction thought-experiment, the net neutrality controversy shows some of the qualities a modern society needs in a communications system.  For example—

  • Transmission integrity—trustworthiness.  If the system arbitrarily changes the information passing through it, it won’t be very useful either for trade or for speech.  As the USTA court said:  “the Commission explained that ‘[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit “information of the user’s choosing,” “between or among points specified by the user,”’ without changing the form or content of that information.  2015 Open Internet Order, 30 FCC Rcd. at 5761 ¶ 361 (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 153(50)).”
  • Universality (which implies affordability).  This was a key feature of the original telephone monopoly—the “social contract” under which the Bell System was allowed a legislative monopoly in return for providing universal service at regulated rates.

Much of the battle over net neutrality revolves around visions of the kind of alternate futures that might result from different legal regimes.  The FCC’s rules, which act to clear a space for free action and competition, are designed to ward off certain kinds of problems that could develop in such alternate futures.

First among those problems is the economic dominance that can be gained through gatekeeper control of communications.  A cabal of ISPs that controlled all communications could prevent entry by competitors; “pick winners and losers,” deciding which new companies and products would succeed; and siphon off the profits from such new and innovative enterprises, right down to the level where a company that relies on communications can barely break even.  Thus, although the ISPs fully recover the network’s costs from end users’ payments (Americans pay more for lower speeds than in many developed countries), they also seek to be paid by the “edge providers” whose Web sites we visit, not only for those companies’ own Internet connections but also for the pure privilege of reaching the ISPs’ subscribers—in other words, to be paid three times for the same network.

In a free market, it’s essential to have a common medium in which trade can take place.  We analogize the Internet to the streets and roads of our transportation system; but if someone owned the only road leading to your home, and could bar certain traffic at will (including mail delivery), they’d have you over a barrel.

We do see examples of this kind of economic dominance by a few organizations in SF stories, though not usually in the communications realm.  In Dune, when the Spacing Guild joins the alliance against the Atreides family, the game is up—the Guild has a monopoly on interstellar travel.  In Heinlein’s Friday, the Shipstone company controls (stored) energy—and in Heinlein’s much more concise short story “Let There Be Light,” we see how entrenched interests can prevent disruptive innovation.  In a similar way, a cartel that controlled communications—without neutrality requirements—in our information-centric society could establish an economic oligarchy.  There are some fascinating stories to be written there . . .

It’s an illusion to think that in the absence of all regulation, we would have free independent individuals trading with each other on an equal basis.  What we’d have is warlords fighting over slices of a steadily shrinking pie.  One of the functions of the rule of law is to create a space in which a free market can exist—to establish the preconditions for free interaction by all economic players.  This is true of enforceable contract law in trade (just as similar principles require enforceable traffic laws on the roads).  A novel example of how legal protections create reliable conditions for trade is the notion of setting up well-policed areas where people who buy and sell online can meet to exchange their goods, without having to fear being robbed—an “Exchange Zone for Online Purchases.”

To gain the advantages of the Internet’s “flat distribution model,” in which even a small business can buy and sell worldwide without having to make major capital investments, one must be able to communicate freely and inexpensively.  The USTA court noted that “[a]ccording to the Commission [FCC], such rules encourage broadband deployment because they ‘preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet.’”  (p. 17, citing Verizon, 740 F.3d at 628)

But we also use the Internet to create pathways for speech—a central First Amendment interest.

Some ISPs—Verizon in an earlier case, Alamo Broadband in the USTA proceeding—have argued that their own First Amendment rights forbid any imposition of net neutrality rules.  Their position is that on the networks they control, they are the “speakers”—and they cannot be compelled (as a common carrier) to transmit any speech they don’t want to carry.  In other words, when you use your Verizon Internet account to read the latest article by your favorite columnist, it isn’t the columnist whose speech is protected by law:  it’s Verizon’s.  And when you e-mail your best friend your opinions on the upcoming election, it isn’t you speaking—it’s Verizon who can exercise “editorial control” over how your message comes out at the other end.  According to this argument, if you wrote “I love Obama” (or Trump, or Sanders, or Hitler), the ISP could substitute “I hate . . .”  It’s their speech.

Fortunately, the USTA court declined to accept this argument.  If the ISPs had prevailed, the results would have been ironic.  It would have been imperative to build a government-owned network at once, one that people could use to communicate without interference—because governments are forbidden by the First Amendment from controlling people’s speech.  And by the same token, the ISPs would have been forced to police every Web site they delivered to subscribers, from pornography to political opinions—since they would be the speakers.

This scenario sounds as absurd as some science-fictional extrapolations.  But in a world where tyrannies around the globe are doing their best to exercise exactly such speech control by acting as Internet gatekeepers, it’s not hard to imagine ISPs doing the same thing.  And it’s hard to say which would be worse.

 

In sum, the FCC and the court have taken the right path in this case.  The alternatives could make extremely interesting ideas for stories.  But unlike the thought-experiments of SF, this is a real-life experiment, with actual consequences.  It’s important that we get it right.