America's Federal Broadband Plan: Public Utility or Public Affectivity?

To hear FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tell it, there is no national, social, economic or educational divide which cannot be bridged by an enhanced broadband infrastructure. With the government's new National Broadband Plan (backed by $7.2 billion from the 2009 'stimulus' bill), private businesses are now receiving grants to improve America's broadband infrastructure to community 'anchor institutions' like public schools, hospitals and libraries. On, Genachowski explains that this expansion is needed to increase “opportunity”...“innovation.”...and provide a “platform for solutions to many of the major challenges facing our nation.” In contemplating what these exciting buzzwords actually mean within this context, I am struck by the fact that perhaps all of this utopian rhetoric infused within the discourse on broadband expansion might actually highlight an aspect of the digital divide which is wider and more impactful than the most talked about ones centering around race, rural communities and urban schools. This type of rhetoric is solidifying a shift in responsibility from the government acting in a role as regulator, to one in which they are a financially generous corporate facilitator, helping them to expand broadband access with very little regulatory framework guiding them towards doing so in the most equitable and efficient manner. With this in mind, the question becomes, what happens when the government's role shifts to that of regulating a public utility (which might have been broadband's future), to becoming a pitchman for a type of public affectivity?

Essentially what this rhetoric about potential is engendering is a feeling in the subject. A feeling of hope in broadband's ability to improve both individual and communal status through its inclusion in the 'anchor institutions.' The emphasis on community in this rhetoric invests transformative qualities in affective encounters with one's neighbor. Doing this shifts the focus from government responsibility to local community affective engagement centered around broadband access. This accomplishes two things, first, it reorients our affective interactions, and resulting physical impulses, toward consumptive capitalism. Sarah Ahmed notes the overlap between affect and capital when she writes that “emotions work as a form of capital” (120). And secondly, this hopeful rhetoric of potentiality promotes fear about being left out of the ever expanding broadband network. Amit Rai reminds just of this link when writing that “hope is another contagion of fear” (316). So what happens when digital divides are are filled-in with the rhetoric of affect? What unrecognized divides does this rhetoric conceal? Do we need the government at all, or are our local communities sources of salvation?

Ahmed, Sarah. “Affective Economies.” In Social Text. Vol. 22. No. 2. Summer 2004. pp. 117-139.

Rai, Amit S. “Here We Accrete Durations: Toward a Practice of Intervals in the Perceptual Mode of Power.” In Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death. Duke University Press: Durham. 2008.


This is an informative look at the rhetoric here of the government as rich beneficiary and it being our own fault if we don't work hard enough in our own communities to get broadband. It's a kind of win/win for the broadband providers. This also seems like a blanket proposal that attempts to solve financial issues in rural areas, but will education, industry, and further infrasturcture follow broadband and is this something this community even wants? This talk of anchor institutions implies a lot about infrastructures at a time when the government is simultaneously pulling infrastructure out of these same areas (thinking of the debate to close rural post offices, which often serve as community hubs in very rural areas). 

Likewise, the idea that broadband can only improve one's life is definitely an ideology we (as a society) don't seem to want to think too critically about. At least three of the posts in this first week address the fact that the decision to live outside of network access seems unfathomable. 

Frustrating consumers and capitalizing on emotion and anxiety is a traditional marketing tactic used to prod less profitable consumers into purchasing more expensive products and services.

I think we see a perfect example of this in the tiered packaging of broadband services and the practice of "throttling" where ISPs reduce a customer's upload and download speeds if a disproportionately large amount of bandwidth is being utilized. As our instruments of access multiply (smartphones, tablets, consoles, televisions...) our medium of access is becoming a bottleneck. We begin to realize our internet package isn't adequate anymore and begin justifying paying $20-30 more a month for a few minutes of convenience.


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