RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
So tell me why this isn’t a repeat.
BW: 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.
RM: This is where one line serves all the available registers, like the way the airline ticket counter used to be, or Wendy’s.
BW: 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.
RM: 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.
BW: All right, I think that’s good, right?
RM: That is Benjamin Walker. To hear all about queue theory and design check out episode 49 of 99% Invisible. Benjamin Walker Walker is queue obsessed! He also did a half hour radio documentary on priority queues for the BBC.
BW: 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.
RM: You mean like on a message board?
BW: No, I’m talking about the internet-internet. The wires and the pipes!
RM: Where do we start?
BW: We start with Netflix.
NH: 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.
BW: Neil’s accent has faded a bit but you can hear he’s a Brit.
NH: 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.
RM: Americans generally don’t use the word “queue” when referring to an ordered list or a line.
BW: Until Netflix.
NH: 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 that’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 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..
BW: 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.
NH: 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.
RM: Netflix’s future is not in DVDs….
BW: But the queue is still central to Netflix’s is existence because of Comcast.
SC: 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.
BW: 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.
SC: 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.
RM: In 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.
SC: 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 small business you’ll be doing that every day. What if there was an act or a 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.
BW: What Susan Crawford wants us to understand, is that if companies like Comcast succeed in cableizing and the Internet, then they’ll routinely use their power to single out a type of
service or a type of data. They’ll prioritize some, and discriminate against others, and this was not how the Internet was originally designed to function. It’s a totally different model.
SC: 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.
RM: “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.
BW: Sort of like a good, old fashioned, queue.
SC: 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.
BW: 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.
RM: This is why we never had a telephone neutrality debate; because the telephone was considered a vital component of America’s telecommunications.
SC: 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.
BW: 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.
SC: 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.”
RM: 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. They just kind of gave up.
SC: The telephone companies realized it was just too expensive to dig up their old copper wires and replace them with fiber.
RM: By contrast, all the cable companies have to do to upgrade the service they offer, is to update the electronics.
SC: Don’t have to take up the wire, just put new gear on the back your wires.
RM: Which is really cheap in comparison.
SC: That cost advantage on the cable side has been so great, that the telephone companies have simply dropped out.
RM: And the cable companies won by default.
SC: Leaving us with absolutely no cop on the beat. We’ve got the worst of both worlds, neither competition nor oversight.
BW: 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.
SC: 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.
RM: And America may have to get used to being at the back of the line.