“Innovation is always about the adjacent possible,” Blair Levin told me. “It’s about two things kind of combining in ways we had not thought. It’s not about great leaps, but it’s about that combination. I think we’re going to see that on devices in a variety of ways. And by the way, the power of broadband is the power of that adjacent possible, because it enables all kinds of collaboration that didn’t exist.”
You may have heard of Levin in his role as the head of the group at the Federal Communications Commission that created the National Broadband Plan. Levin was executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative, an effort to bring faster, more accessible Internet across every corner of the United States. The plan was released almost two years ago this month, with recommendations to Congress on how a more robust broadband could affect education, job growth, and innovation in areas like health care and research. Levin left the FCC in 2010 and now is a communications and society fellow at the Aspen Institute. He recently visited Cambridge to talk about national broadband and spectrum policy in a seminar at Harvard Law School.
I spoke with Levin about the implementation of the National Broadband Plan and his view that access is as much about our society’s values as it is about laying out the plumbing for a better internet across the country. Levin also shared his thoughts on how broadband is vital to sharing information within communities and its role in the future of journalism. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Think of it this way: A textbook is an example of low-performance knowledge exchange. You print up five million textbooks in Texas. You give all kids the same textbook. If it’s wrong, it takes five years to correct. There’s no way to assess whether it works. Think of a high-performance exchange analogue, which would be using a Kindle or iPad where you’re reading a history lesson. Maybe you don’t quite understand it — you click a link and you can watch a video. You click a link and you get a tutor. You click a link and you get a Facebook group talking about that chapter…That’s an example of high-performance knowledge exchange. We use knowledge to improve how we do everything that we do.
Having said that, the tools are fantastic. If you can figure out the business model, the tools for, as you say, collaboration are tremendous. And the access to things that used to take a reporter three months of dogged research to do but are now on a database where someone’s sitting at a terminal can find it in two minutes. Think about how Google search has changed the way we look for information. That’s what journalists used to do. There’s a lot of benefits to this — but unfortunately it’s the business model that’s at risk.
But I think that we constantly see what we might think of as applications or content, whether it be a Khan Academy or — I’m on the board of a nonprofit that’s creating software for social work, and I think there’s a lot of creativity and innovation in those spaces. I think on the people side, we still have a significant portion of the population that is not Internet-literate, device-literate. It’s not literate, actually — that’s part of the problem. That interestingly changes in a few years as the devices become oral devices — in other words, they don’t require typing. You can talk into them. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes, but I think we have some work to do there.
I think we’re falling behind, but I think instead of looking at it as a price problem, we ought to look at it as a value problem.
On the network side, we’re pretty far along, I think, in terms of the development of what I think of as first-generation broadband. And we’re about to get wireless what I would think of as first-generation broadband. Where we as a country are falling behind is thinking about bandwidth as a strategic input to certain kinds of new industries.
Broadband can contribute mightily to helping us understand the world, because it gives us access to information we wouldn’t have otherwise, but there still is that human element. And the problem is, if you don’t have that human element, you really miss the story.
Now on the access side, there’s approximately 20 million Americans who don’t have access to networks. There’s another 80 million who have access but don’t take it. There are a variety of different reasons — partly it’s an economic issue, and there are efforts being done to address that. Partly it’s a literacy problem, and there are some efforts there. I think we’re falling behind, but I think instead of looking at it as a price problem, we ought to look at it as a value problem.
Second, the power to collaborate is much greater — the ability of people in diverse locations to look at something and analyze it and come up with a conclusion about its meaning is very different than it once was. And so, you know, two heads can be better than one, three can be better, four can be better…So I think it enables collaboration between individuals, and that’s a good thing. The third thing is the whole data-, algorithm-based analysis. So when you are looking at government budgets, and looking at certain things which really are subject to large data sets, you can do things and analyze things faster, better…
I think that journalism, at it’s heart, is telling us the story of what’s going on, to try and tell us, “here’s something that’s important, here’s something that’s valuable.” Broadband can contribute mightily to helping us understand the world, because it gives us access to information we wouldn’t have otherwise, but there still is that human element. And the problem is, if you don’t have that human element, you really miss the story.