A Highway Code for the Internet?

» Every technological improvement, if it is supposed to improve human happiness, will also be an improvement in wisdom. « (Bertrand Russell)

A short time ago, I heard the following statement at an Informatics&Sustainability (Informatik&Nachhaltigkeit) event:

As more and more automobiles appeared in the public domain early in the last century, a highway code became necessary.

And then someone asked:

Do we want/need something like it for the internet?

At first sight, it sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? At least I would spontaneously answer: yes. Communication, too, must be regulated sensibly. On various levels, as, for example, the ISO-7 layer model outlines quite nicely. In former times, the national postal services had introduced and successfully realized communication models in the CCITT. That was in the good old times when we still had letters, postcards, parcels, telephone an telex. And it worked quite well, didn’t it?

🙂 To be sure, even at the time, there were such negative things as spams. But it was rather tedious to send someone a spam – you had to walk up to their letter box. Or else you had to buy a “bulk mail service”. It did cover a hundred per cent of the postal code area, but at least it was rather expensive!

Only when radio and TV technology made it possible to transport spams directly into the households without much of an effort, the dam was broken. And CCITT could not do anything about it. After all, this was about economic interests. And traditionally, economic interests have always justified everything.

Consequently, the call for some sort of “highway code“ on the internet seems to make sense to me.

But then comes the “but”:

The development of individual mobility, including a highway code, should, first and foremost, be a warning for us. Because, as I see it, it is an extremely good example for how, regardless of – or due to (?) – the extreme regulation mania displayed by the legislative body, technological progress (in this case individual mobility) was improved, but at the same time the common good was severely injured. Mind you, it all happened even though we have a compulsory driving licence, a complex system of punishments and penalties, including a system of minus-points and similar things.

And the damage that was done was not really noticed at all, because we “got used to it” in typical human fashion. Although said damage is massive and concerns many dimensions of our lives:

  • Just think of the massive soil sealing cars brought in their wake. How many square metres of ground were filled with concrete for streets and parking places? In modern semi-detached housing areas, we often find more ground covered by garages and car parking than for greenery. All in all, the landscape was destroyed.
  • Individual mobility, especially as we live it today, gave us extreme resource exploitation, gigantically wasteful habits and a massive amount of rubbish. It is the best example for a non-sustainable life-style.
  • Noise disturbance has reached unimaginable dimensions. There is hardly any place left where it is really quiet. Even in the “upscale housing areas”, there is still noise from motorways.
  • This development of public traffic cost us time. Many people spend several hours every day behind the wheels or their cars. Although they have a good job, they spend a lot of their time doing something otherwise only done by people in an extremely low income group. And they say they enjoy it and are prepared to give “their last shirt” for the car and even indebt themselves for the car.
  • But the worst of it is that this development costs us an immense bloodlet. In Germany alone, there were years with more than 20,000 fatal traffic accidents. Today, we still have more than 5,000 fatal traffic accidents – and the numbers increase again.

    World-wide, we have between 1 and 1.2 million estimated deaths caused by individual traffic each year (source). That is more than the victims of illness, wars and hunger. If you add up the last 60 years, you easily get a number higher than 50 million. That is about as many victims as WW-II cost. I will not even think about the really astronomical number you get when you count the people injured in traffic accidents.

Now the question is if a wise legislative body could have done better a hundred years ago and then during all those years?

I do not know. I do not even know if, in retrospect, we can say what should have been done differently all those years ago.

But I have a few ideas:

For example, I am sure it was a mistake to permit and even support the industry when it promoted the introduction and, above all, the sale of automobiles through sports. Motor sports and also the race courses, such as the Nürburgring were goal-oriented cooperative projects initiated by state and industry in order to promote the acceptance of the then still little-loved new technological product “car”. Thus, we were (almost genetically) pointed towards driving cars as an athletic activity where it is important to be faster than others.

Perhaps we should not have let it happen that the users of the competing means of transportation bike were publicly degraded as early as the first years of the economic miracle. I myself witnessed how my father, against his wishes, changed from using his bike to using his car for the less than two kilometers he had to go between our flat at Rosenaustr. 18 in Augsburg to the General Railway Office Building at Prinzregentenstr. near Augsburg Central Station. Simply because both the neighbors and his own wife thought it no longer appropriate to go by bike in his position.

In those days, going by bike was synonymous for “being poor”. To make matters worse, there was an overflow of cheap bikes from the stores. They all sparkled rather nicely, but unfortunately were not very reliable. And who wanted to be poor and additionally have to get annoyed all the time? But could or should we have resisted against the judgment “if you ride a bike, you belong to the poor” and the avalanche of cheap products at the time?

Perhaps we should have promoted the general welfare in individualized traffic by installing reasonable car-sharing regulations? Or maybe we could have made stricter laws and restrictions?

But how to limit the number of fatal traffic accidents? No law was sufficient (and that is still true today) to put a stop to all the ruthlessness and readiness to assume risk. It probably comes automatically as soon as you sit behind the wheel of an automobile.

Perhaps introducing an archaic mechanism, such as an obligatory blood-feud against “traffic killers“ might have diminished the number of deaths? But, of course, this kind of idea is polemics. I do not mean is seriously. And, naturally, “the end can never justify the means“.

Or maybe humans are just not fit to cope with the (imagined) omnipotence they have behind the wheel of their machines. We are talking humans for whom the (imagined) freedom and independence others cunningly made them believe they really want and for which they are actually prepared to jeopardize both their own and – which is worse – other person’s physical health. Neither do these humans care if they have to pay taxes, compulsory insurance and penalties. For their car, these humans made many sacrifices and sometimes even indebted themselves. And now they want to enjoy the intoxication and even accepts the potential death and injury of third parties.

In fact, to me it seems that this genetics of omnipotence is so deeply rooted that even cyclists sometimes act it out as soon as they mount their bikes. Nowadays – as I witness every day – even the female biker does it!

I am not sure if we would have been a success if we had tried to give the development of individualized traffic with all its terrible consequences other rules and laws a hundred years ago.

We might have avoided some of the damage if we had collectively developed a different attitude! Regulations, however, will certainly not make a difference.

Our present position is what it is. The damage has been done and the coming generations will either put things right or not. Evolution will put things right or not. It will go its way. What will come will be the right thing. No matter what. Even if it seems more like it works without purpose and in a chaotic way.

So what is my consequence with respect to the internet? Can we learn anything from the history of individualized mobility for internet data and knowledge networks?

As I see it, regulations will not help. Maybe developing an “ethical” awareness would be a better way. But how?


(Translated by EG)

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