Q2

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
So, tell me why this isn’t a repeat.

Benjamin Walker:
Look man, in the first story we talked to Dr. Q at MIT and he told me how America used to be all about the Serpentine Line, the first come first served queue.

Roman Mars:
This is where one line serves all the available registers, like the way the airline ticket counter used to be, or Wendy’s.

Benjamin Walker:
But when I asked him if the priority queue might be changing the American experience of waiting in line, he said that I was onto something.

Roman Mars:
A “priority line” is where you pay to get to the front of the line or you pay to get into an exclusive, shorter, faster-moving line.

Benjamin Walker:
All right, I think that’s good, right?

Roman Mars:
That is Benjamin Walker. To hear all about queue theory and design check out episode #49 of 99% Invisible. Benjamin Walker is queue obsessed! He also did a half-hour radio documentary on priority queues for the BBC.

Benjamin Walker:
I took a trip across the country and I visited highways, amusement parks, community colleges to see who was using these priority queues, and how they work. But the other thing I found out is that queues can actually help us understand all the fighting that’s going on over the Internet.

Roman Mars:
You mean like on a message board?

Benjamin Walker:
No. I’m talking about the “internet” internet. The wires and the pipes!

Roman Mars:
Where do we start?

Benjamin Walker:
We start with Netflix.

Neal Hunt:
Hi, I’m Neal Hunt. I’m the chief product officer at Netflix and I’ve been here for about nearly
thirteen years now, which is pretty scary. I’ve built a lot of the technology that we’ve used to field both the DVD service, and now the streaming service.

Benjamin Walker:
Neil’s accent has faded a bit, but you can hear he’s a Brit.

Neal Hunt:
Back thirteen years ago, I was incrementally more British speaking than I am today, and queue sort of comes naturally to a Brit as a word to use. In addition, it’s a computer science technology word too, so there’s sort of two motivations for that happening. And when I drafted the original specification for the thing, the “queue” was kind of the logical word to use, and it kind of slipped into product usage.

Roman Mars:
Americans generally don’t use the word “queue” when referring to an ordered list or a line.

Benjamin Walker:
Until Netflix.

Neal Hunt:
It was very clear to me, at least within months of using the word, that it probably was the wrong word for the US market. People see this word q-u-e-u-e, and they have no idea how to pronounce it. And I have heard way too many weird pronunciations of that word, from quay to Q-U, to all kinds of weird and wonderful things that it’s quite bizarre. And so, I have been lobbying for about a decade to change the word “queue” to a “list,” or something different. Unfortunately, the marketing department was very attached to the ownable queue word. Because it’s such an unusual word, it’s ownable from a brand perspective. And so we’ve been using queue ever since. Queue and Netflix are somewhat inextricably linked together I think, in the consumer’s mind here in the U.S.

Benjamin Walker:
You know, Neal, it seems that you might single-handedly be responsible for how many
Americans know this word today. I mean, because, I would say that you could make a case that because of Netflix that this word even as the understanding, recognition that’s out there today. And it seems like it really comes down to you.

Neal Hunt:
Well, I guess that’s possible. I have to say, there’s probably things that I’m more proud of introducing to the US consumer and the American public, but that’s possible that that’s one of them. So, there you go. Now, of course, most of our business is streaming. The queue is a much less relevant and much less important piece of how we do business.

Roman Mars:
Netflix’s future is not in DVDs.

Benjamin Walker:
But the queue is still central to Netflix’s existence because of Comcast.

Susan Crawford:
For 85% of Americans who want a high speed wired connection to their home in the next five years or so, their only choice will be their local cable incumbent. And in 22 of America’s 25 largest cities, that local incumbent is Comcast. So they’re the information provider, not just the Internet access provider, not just the entertainment provider, not just the sports, they are everything.

Benjamin Walker:
Susan Crawford is a law and public policy professor and writer. In her upcoming book
Captive Audience, she warns that Comcast is using its power in market domination to put companies like Netflix out of business.

Susan Crawford:
Let’s say I’m sick one day and I watch a whole bunch of episodes of “Mad Men” over my Netflix subscription. Then I wake up the next morning and my broadband bill is higher because I watched Netflix. That’s what Comcast is trying to put in place. This idea that any video from anybody other than them, is going to do nothing but make your broadband bill higher. It’s actually brutal because what it does is train consumers not to want to watch Netflix.

Roman Mars:
And this practice of treating Comcast’s own streaming video differently than the video from third parties like HBOGo, Hulu and Netflix, has been criticized publicly by the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, in particular, and net neutrality advocates, in general. The idea of “net neutrality” is that all data on the Internet is treated equally. At least all the data of a given type is treated equally, so all video should arrive to your computer or TV without any prioritization or discrimination based on where that video is coming from. And Susan Crawford may be able to watch “Mad Men” all day long, but her concern about the cable companies and net neutrality goes way beyond streaming video.

Susan Crawford:
Focusing on Netflix in some ways is a little misleading because it’s just an application like another. Imagine instead that what you were trying to do was a backup of all your files on your computer. You’d need a really good connection to allow you to do that. And if you’re a small business, you’ll be doing that every day. What if there was an actor or bully standing in the middle, who could charge whatever he wanted to for your ability to run your business? Any high bandwidth application is actually subject to this kind of highway robbery that Comcast is able to carry out.

Benjamin Walker:
What Susan Crawford wants us to understand is that if companies like Comcast succeed in cable-izing the Internet, then they’ll routinely use their power to single out a type of
service or a type of data, and prioritize some and discriminate against others, and this was not how the Internet was originally designed to function. It’s a totally different model.

Susan Crawford:
If you think of it this way, we have these two models that are clashing like planets. And one model’s definitely winning, the cable model. The other planet is the basic idea of telecommunications infrastructure, where everybody gets the same service at a reasonable price, and that allows all kinds of interesting things to happen. It’s what’s called “common carriage” or “universal service,” these basic ideas that everybody in society gets access to communications.

Roman Mars:
“Common carriers.” This is really what’s at the heart of the net neutrality debate. It’s the idea that access to telecommunications should be transparent, affordable, fair, and predictable.

Benjamin Walker:
Sort of like a good, old fashioned, queue.

Susan Crawford:
Queues are the essence of democracy in that they’re predictable. You can see when you’re going to get to the front of the line, no one gets special treatment, you’re all standing in line. In fact, you’re policing each other. If someone cuts in line, people get pretty irritated. The opposite of that, in a sense, is a system that’s only driven by money. Where people buy preference to get to their place in line or decide what services they get access to. What’s happened in communications is that what we used to think of as a basic affordance that everybody got at a reasonable price, has become more and more within the sphere of markets. The problem with attaching a market to a communications infrastructure issue is this idea of predictability, you know, knowing what you’re going to get and being treated just the same as everybody else, goes out the window.

Benjamin Walker:
Net neutrality advocates like Susan Crawford argue that cable companies like Comcast need to be policed and regulated because they don’t consider their networks part of America’s information infrastructure.

Roman Mars:
This is why we never had a telephone neutrality debate because the telephone was considered a vital component of America’s telecommunications.

Susan Crawford:
It used to be that all Americans had a telephone, and they could call anybody they
wanted to. That was our basic communications infrastructure. We subsidize the very
poorest Americans so that they could be sure to have a telephone line, and the telephone company had no say over what business you transacted using that line. As time went by, cable actors got into providing telephone service as well. Now Internet access. They don’t see themselves as providing a democratic public service function, and they have really held onto the right to just charge whatever they want for access to that wire and raise prices whenever they feel like it.

Benjamin Walker:
The cable companies argue that net neutrality regulations would be burdensome and
unnecessary. Market competition, they say, protects the American consumer. But Susan Crawford, who was part of Obama’s 2009 FCC transition team, says competition disappeared a long time ago.

Susan Crawford:
We used to think that competition between the telephone companies and the cable guys would protect Americans. And on that basis back in 2002, we deregulated the entire sector.
You know, no more federal oversight. Go ahead, charge whatever you want because competition will be the cop on the beat.

Roman Mars:
If you remember back over a decade ago, there used to be tons of Internet service providers. And it never really occurred to me why all those options went away, and a cable company became the only option for a lot of people when it comes to high-speed internet. And it all boils down to something fundamental in the internet infrastructure. The wires. The telephone companies had old copper wiring that couldn’t handle Internet network traffic and they just kind of gave up.

Susan Crawford:
The telephone companies realized it was just too expensive to dig up their old copper wires and replace them with fiber.

Roman Mars:
By contrast, all the cable companies have to do to upgrade the service they offer, is to update the electronics.

Susan Crawford:
Don’t have to take up the wire, just put new gear on the back of your wires.

Roman Mars:
Which is really cheap in comparison.

Susan Crawford:
That cost advantage on the cable side has been so great, that the telephone companies have simply dropped out.

Roman Mars:
And the cable companies won by default.

Susan Crawford:
Leaving us with absolutely no cop on the beat. We’ve got the worst of both worlds, neither competition nor oversight.

Benjamin Walker:
In the end, it’s more like the worst of three worlds because when we turn over the
future of the Internet to a cable company, Susan Crawford says we don’t even get a future.

Susan Crawford:
What this all amounts to is nothing more than just an entertainment service rather than something that produces new forms of making a living, new jobs, new ways of inventing valuable things for the rest of the world. We won’t have that sandbox to play with. Other countries will, but we won’t.

Roman Mars:
And America may have to get used to being at the back of the line.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Benjamin Walker from the radio program “Too Much Information” from WFMU with a little help from me, Roman Mars, and Sam Greenspan. We are a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architect in San Francisco.

Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook Design team, who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. My boy, Carver, always has something to say. What do you have to say, Carver?

Carver:
“My name is Carver Atomic Mars and this is the music I wrote for the radio show so I hope you like it.”

[MUSIC PLAYS]

Carver:
“That was my music Daddy played for your radio show. Do you like it? I think you might. Bye.”

Roman Mars:
Tinyletter.com, the simplest way to send an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at PRX.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook, I tweet @romanmars, but when I’m not at the post office — I’m always at the post office — you can find us occupying the space at 99percentinvisible.org.

Leave a Comment

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist