Internet as Utility

Last night was yet another gripping installment of The Internet Course. Maddie, Matt, and Meredith presented their research on cloud computing. Turns out, just like with Online Dating, the history of this phenomenon is much longer than you’d think. The group started with a RSA animated video featuring Stephen Fry explaining cloud computing:

The punchline is that the video is a commercial for Databarracks, a British company that provides cyberinfrastructure solutions for businesses. What’s fascinating about the video, however, is the way it frames the discussion of cloud computing around the idea of the internet as a utility. The five minute video does an excellent job of moving the conversation back to the late 19th and early 20th century to talk about how services like the delivery of water and electricity became essential elements to run a society—the definition of a utility. This opened up the broader discussion of thinking about cloud computing as a means to start conceptualizing the internet as a utility that is essential to the way we run our society, a utility. Given that, does it need to be regulated like water and electricity (Enron anyone?) to avoid it becoming a market-driven commodity? Susan Crawford, former Special Assistant to President Obama on Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, makes this point nicely in this interview:

We need a public option for internet access because internet access is just like electricity or a road grid. This is something that the private market doesn’t provide left to its own devices. What they’ll do is systematically provide extraordinarily expensive services for the richest people in America, leave out a huge percentage of the population and, in general, try to make their own profits at the expense of social good.

I love the idea of the cloud wrestled away from the buzzword culture of Silicon Valley and re-positioned as a basic utility we need to function as a society. What’s more, after the financial collapse in 2008 the lack of of any oversight and regulation in this space should be deeply alarming. If internet is bought and sold on the open market can we avoid the psuh for profit at the “expense of social good”? This is such a cool intervention into the cloud discussion I am used to hearing.

On top of that, the group brought in Douglas Parkhill’s 1966 book The Challenge of the Computer Utility which frames out a vision of how we might use a worldwide network to make financial transactions, pay bills, make purchases, and even do taxes. The very infrastructure that would not only become the internet three years later, but the vision of using it as a utility to manage the way we do business in the future. Thanks to this blog post I was able to grab a quote from Parkhill’s book, at least until I get my hands on it:

As time goes on we can expect that the local financial utilities will be interconnected to create a nationwide and eventually worldwide network that will permit a customer to make money-key transactions no matter where he travels. The range of services offered by the utility will also grow. Terminals, perhaps based on the expanded touch-tone scheme, will be made available to private homes, and these will be used not only for paying bills but also for preparing income-tax statements, making purchases, checking bank balances, maintaining up-to-the-second files on all household financial obligations and assets, and even consummating loans, buying insurance, and making stock-market investments.

It’s funny, when people talk about the cloud they immediately get technical and talk about server virtualization or refer to services like Google Docs, Netflix, Amazon Web Services, etc. All of which are examples of a broader move to a society increasingly dependent upon the internet as a public utility. That’s the cloud in a nutshell, and I love the way it refocuses the importance of issues like net neutrality and an open web!

I’m really loving these days, and I am guessing from his latest post Paul is feeling similarly. Students have been driving the conversation on every topic throughout the semester, the conversation we had about the cloud and my re-conceptualize of how to think about it as a utility is because of this group’s research. That’s awesome, and thank you!

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6 Responses to Internet as Utility

  1. Maha Bali says:

    hey Jim, very interesting blogpost. Had never thought of internet that way, and I know this is coming out of your students’ work, but it also made me think about reclaim.

    Now if the internet is a utility that offers a “public good” that should not be offered by corporations… “who” do we propose should offer it? Or am I asking the wrong question?

    I mean the idea of “google docs” as “public utility” sounds a little confusing to me. Half my life currently resides on google docs – what if they one day decide to make me pay for each document I make, or shut down for some absurd reason? (I wasn’t thinking too much about these things a month ago!)

  2. Lex says:

    Video was really cool. But to successfullly implement cloud computing we have to develop a proper inferstructure like Microsoft has done with Azure. It can’t become one of those fads either like 3DTV. It must have a utility to it, and this is where I see cloud computing really taking off

  3. Pat says:

    Thought you might like this – in the days before the cloud old nuclear bunkers turned into hosting spaces (

    So the internet is designed to withstand nuclear attack (well arpanet), then the internet ends up living in the bunkers we don’t need anymore because we don’t fear nuclear attack.

    I guess heartbleed is the new h-bomb

  4. Green Canoe says:

    It annoys me when I have to pay for internet access during a hotel stay, but the electricity and water and rolled into the bill. I’ve come to think of the ACCESS to the internet as a utility, and when I’m in a hotel that figures my electrical and water usage into their price point of services, they can roll in the internet access as well.

    I’ll pay extra for room service food, dry cleaning delivery, and also for a higher bandwidth connection, but the basics like water, lights, and internet connectivity should be part of the base price.


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