Saving the Net III: Understanding its Frames

by Doc Searls

Can we save what we don't understand? That's the challenge for those who wish to save the Net — both from those that don't understand it, and froin those that understand it too well, in wrong or inadequate ways.

I've written here before about this challenge. The first piece was called Saving the Net , and ran in June, 2003. The second had the same title, adding How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes. That ran in November, 2005.

The Net isn't flushed yet, but it's circling the drain.

One reason is this sad but challenging irony: While the Net is unlike anything that we've ever known, it is also enough like some things that we can't help understanding it in terms of those things. It is based on those understandings that we — as carriers, customers, citizens and lawmakers — would narrow its definitions and restict its uses.

One good current example is the current FCC rulemaking proposal that would "promote the eployment and ubiquitous availability of broadband services across the country" by auctioning spectrum to a single winner that would be required "to provide free, two-way broadband Internet service" that would also include "an 'always on' network-based filtering mechanism...that filters or blocks images and text that constitute obscenity or pornography..." As I pointed out in Time to school the FCC on what "free" really means, this proposal completely misunderstands what the Net is, how it works and what it is for. To the FCC, "broadband" is a form of broadcast: a frame with which the Commission has been familiar for many decades.

The purpose of this essay is to unpack some of the "frames" we use for understanding the Net, and to visit both the advantages and disadvantages of those frames. (For a shorter version of this paper see Framing The Net, my first contribution to the new, a project of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where I serve as a fellow.)

If we want to save the Net, we have to understand framing.

How frames work

We're always talking about something else. Regardless of the subject at hand, we have other subjects in mind that help us say what we mean.

So, for example, in The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008) Jonathan Zittrain introduces readers to one of the Internet's virtues: support for generativity by its inhabitants. Jonathan defines generativity as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences."[1] Opposing this, he says, is a counterrevolution that "would push mainstream users … to an applianced network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today's Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity — and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability."[2]

Jonathan calls the Net's creators "framers," and says they "did not design their network with visions of mainstream dominance," adding, "Instead, the very unexpectedness of its success is a critical ingredient" and that it "was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known, remaining outside the notice of those who would have insisted on more cautious structures had they only suspected how ubiquitous it would become."[3]

Were the Net's creators carpenters? Is success a recipe? Is the Net a species? If not, why does Jonathan say the Net has "framers," an "ingredient" and grows "organically"? The reason is that he is speaking metaphorically. He borrows the vocabulary of carpentry to speak about engineers and programmers, and the vocabularies of cooking and ecology to describe the Net's nature and growth. Thus, in a nearly literal way, Jonathan is himself a carpenter, scaffolding his case using metaphorical frames.

This is not unique. In fact it's necessary. According to cognitive science[4], all our thought and speech is metaphorical. The metaphorical nature of cognition means that we understand everything in terms of something else. Those "something elses" give us the vocabularies we speak in terms of.

For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That's why we "save," "waste," "spend," "lose," "throw away" and "invest" time. The concept of money is the primary frame we use when we think and talk about time.

Another example is life. When we say birth is "arrival," death is "departure," careers are "paths" and choices are "crossroads," we think and speak about life in terms of travel. In fact, it is almost impossible to avoid raiding the lexicons of money and travel when talking about time and life.

The metaphorical frames time is money and life is travel exist as neural structures inside our brains. These structures are built by our experiences in the world. Time and money are not only scarce in similar ways, but in in the ways we experience their scarcities. Likewise, we experience life as a journey. Being "stuck in a rut", "moving in the fast lane", "spinning out of control" or "reaching a dead end" actually feel like each of those conditions.

The embodied nature of our conceptual systems — our frames — is profound. Why do we say happy is "up" and sad is "down"? Why do we compare knowledge with "light" and ignorance with "dark"? The answer is that we are diurnal animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they might say good is dark and bad is light.

Humans are unique in their capacity to extend the sense of their bodies' boundaries far beyond the perimeters of their skin. Drivers speak of "my tires" and pilots of "my wings" as if these were extensions of their bodies. In a nearly literal sense, they are. By a process Michael Polanyi[5] calls indwelling, our senses extend beyond our bodies to inhabit our tools, our vehicles, our clothes — even our computers, phones and other devices. When we become skilled at using these things, they become parts of our larger selves. Thus we can experience "surfing" the Web, even if we're just being desk potatoes.

The transport frame

Of course, one subject might have many metaphors, and it is easy to mix them. In Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, 1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out[6] that ideas are framed in all the following ways: 1) fashion ("old hat," "in style," "in vogue"), 2) money ("wealth," "two cents worth, "treasure trove"), 3) resources ("mined a vein," "pool," "ran out of"), 4) products ("produced," "turning out," "generated"), 5) plants ("came to fruition," "in flower," "budding"), and 6) people ("gave birth to," "brainchild," "died off"). Yet none of those is as powerful or as commonly used as what Michael Reddy calls the Yet some metaphors inevitablyconduit metaphor.[7] When we say we need to "get an idea across," or "your reasons come through," or "put that idea into words," or "that sentence is carries little meaning," we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.

Given the primacy of the conduit metaphor, it only makes sense that we speak of the the Internet as a "medium" through which "content" can be "uploaded" and "downloaded." Much fun has been made of Senator Stevens' famous characterization of the Net as "…not a big truck. It's a series of tubes." But in fact the Senator was raiding the well-worn vocabulary of technologists everywhere. We find transport language in the Net's central protocol suite, called TCP/IP (for Transmission Control Protocol/Internetworking Protocol), in "packets," in the "transport layer," in the Stream Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP), in the Datagram Congestion Control Protocol (DCCP), in the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), and in all the mail protocols. In fact the concepts of mail and postal services are forms of conduits as well. All are essential to how we think and talk about the Net.

The transport frame has origins more deep and wide than networking alone. Today when we talk about moving "content" from "producers" to "consumers" down a "pipe" or along a "highway," we are leveraging the lexicons of shipping, transportation and container cargo, all of which are highly familiar to everyone in the civilized world. Since all metaphors borrow subconscious contexts, it is helpful for us to respect the natures of trucks, tubes and containers — and of their businesses.

In the cargo transport business, the contents of containers have long had "STC" or "Said To Contain" placards. Read the handling procedures in a steamship manual and you'll find more than a resemblance to the Net and its protocols. You'll find foundations for framing as old as civilization — and a modern shipping and handing system with a well-established stance of neutrality toward the contents of containers, their sources and destinations. Yet you will also find the assumption that carriers have a right to know something about what they're carrying, and to handle different goods in different ways.

So, in respect to the transport frame, selling Net Neutrality requires one of two approaches. One is to limit discussion to types of shipping that are relatively strict in their neutrality toward content. Mail is perhaps the best example. David Reed, one of the Net's founding scientists (he was a co-author of of the seminal paper End-to-End Arguments in System Design, used this metaphor to great effect when arguing on behalf of Net Neutrality at the FCC hearing hosted by the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School in March 2008. The other is to rely on a different frame. Either way the chance of getting transport framing out of everybody's minds is zero.

Fortunately, the transport frame is not the only one we use for the Net.

The place frame

Another common frame for the Net — and especially the Web — is real estate. That's why we say we have "sites" with "domains" and "locations" that we "architect," "design," "build" and "construct" for "visitors" or "traffic." When we talk about going "on" the Net, and call it a "world," a "sphere," a "place," a "space" and an "environment" with an "ecology," the frame is not just physical space, but anchored by our experience of physical space.

Thus we "browse" through "catalogs" and "inventories" of online "stores" that are no less real than brick & mortar establishments. Our "online" experience is understood in terms of phsyical world equivalents. Second Life and World of Warcraft work because they give us a sense of being in a real place, even if we know that place is virtual.

The publishing frame

A third frame for the Net and the Web is publishing. This grows from Tim Berners-Lee's original concept of the Web as an assortment of documents, connected by hypertext. Thus work on the Web involves "pages" that we "write," "author," "edit," "put up" and "post." Originally pages and sites were the same thing, but then blogging came along. Here was an activity that didn't require much, or any, architecture and design. You didn't need to "build" it. Instead it was a publishing system. Even "files," "folders" and "browsing" speak of our experiences in offices and libraries populated by documents.When

When Dave Winer, one of blogging's inventors, improved its technology and practices with RSS — Really Simple Syndication — the Web became even more of a publishing platform. Anybody who wrote a blog could now have the same experience in replication as a writer for a newspaper syndicate.

Blogging predated syndication, but it was syndication that began to give form to what Allen Searls was first to call The Live Web, in 2003. Speech, of course, has always been live, and publishing has long been experienced as a form of speech, to the degree that freedom of speech and press are understood as essentially the same. New verbs such as "tweet" (a post on Twitter) only add to the sense that publishing and speaking frame each other.

Recipes for mixed metaphors

There are other metaphors for the Net and the Web. For example, when we talk about "performing" for an "audience," and providing "an experience," we frame the Net as theater — or the breed of theater we call television.

But three primary frames continue to shape our understanding of the Net and the Web, as well as our arguments about it:

  1. Transport
  2. Place
  3. Publishing or speech

Not surprisingly, those we call "carriers" frame the Net in terms of transport, combined with the form of place we call property. They do that because they own "pipes" and sell use of them. Asked by Business Week in a 2005 interview to remark on "Internet upstarts like Google, MSN, Vonage, and others,"Ed Whiteacre, then the CEO of SBC (since re-branded as AT&T) replied,, in a November 2005 interview with BusinessWeek,

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Publishing and speech also happen (I almost wrote "take place") in a place. Both are also protected by the First Amendment, which says this: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

I have italicized the section of the text that should have most relevance to the Net, especially in respect to frames #2 and #3. So, is the the Net is primarily a place where publishing and speech take place? Or is it primarily a transport business? The legal and regulatorial regime in he U.S. — what Bob Frankston calls The Regulatorium — clearly believes the latter. Here is a section of the March 2005 decision in favor of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, et. al., in that group's suit against Brand X. Internet Services, et. al.:

The Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, defines two categories of entities relevant here. "Information service" providers--those "offering"; a capability for [processing] information via telecommunications, 47 U.S.C. § 153(20)--are subject to mandatory regulation by the Federal Communications Commission as common carriers under Title II of the Act. Conversely, telecommunications carriers--i.e., those "offering" telecommunications for a fee directly to the public "regardless of the facilities used," §153(46)--are not subject to mandatory Title II regulation. These two classifications originated in the late 1970's, as the Commission developed rules to regulate data-processing services offered over telephone wires. Regulated "telecommunications service" under the 1996 Act is the analog to "basic service" under the prior regime, the Computer II rules. Those rules defined such service as a "pure" or "transparent" transmission capability over a communications path enabling the consumer to transmit an ordinary-language message to another point without computer processing or storage of the information, such as via a telephone or a facsimile. Under the 1996 Act, "[i]nformation service" is the analog to "enhanced" service, defined by the Computer II rules as computer-processing applications that act on the subscriber's information, such as voice and data storage services, as well as "protocol conversion," i.e., the ability to communicate between networks that employ different data-transmission formats.

In the Declaratory Ruling under review, the Commission classified broadband cable modem service as an "information service" but not a "telecommunications service" under the 1996 Act, so that it is not subject to mandatory Title II common-carrier regulation. The Commission relied heavily on its Universal Service Report, which earlier classified "non-facilities-based" ISPs--those that do not own the transmission facilities they use to connect the end user to the Internet--solely as information-service providers. Because Internet access is a capability for manipulating and storing information, the Commission concluded, it was an "information service." However, the integrated nature of such access and the high-speed wire used to provide it led the Commission to conclude that cable companies providing it are not "telecommunications service" providers. Adopting the Universal Service Report's reasoning, the Commission held that cable companies offering broadband Internet access, like non-facilities-based ISPs, do not offer the end user telecommunications service, but merely use telecommunications to provide end users with cable modem service.

Note the absence of the place and publishing metaphors in the text. The regulatory context for all this is the Communications Acts of 1934, updated by the Telecommunications Act of 1966. The Act begins,

For the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States...

At the end of that same paragraph the Act creates the Federal Communications Commission, "for the purpose of securing a more effective execution of this policy by centralizing authority..."

The framing and language could hardly be more transportational. The word "Internet" occurs eleven times, all but one of which are under "SEC. 230. [47 U.S.C. 230] PROTECTION FOR PRIVATE BLOCKING AND SCREENING OF OFFENSIVE MATERIAL."

Speaking of offensive material, we also have Section 1464 (Broadcasting Obscene Language) in CHAPTER 71 - OBSCENITY of PART I - CRIMES of TITLE 18 - CRIMES AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE of the United States Code. Most of the sections (including 1464) in that chapter are named with transportational verbs: Mailing, Importation, Broadcasting, Distribution, Transfer.

Thanks to this framing, the FCC finds itself tasked by Congress with punish forms of speech it calls "obscene", "profane" or "indecent." For years policy was explained in a document titled "content.html" (since changed to "obscene.html"). Here we have a near-absolute victory of pipes over place.

The transport frame applies to far more than communications. As David Weinberger and I pointed out in The Cluetrain Manifesto, shipping is a powerful metaphorical frame for business as well:

During the Industrial Age, the movement of materials from production to consumption — from flax to linen and from ore to musket -- was a long and complicated process. Potentially vast markets had potentially vast distribution needs. The development of new transportation systems eased the burden, and global systems flourished. Even huge distances could be spanned so that products could be delivered efficiently. Inexorably, business began to understand itself through a peculiar new metaphor: Business is shipping. In this shipping metaphor -- still the heart and soul of business-as-usual — producers package content and move it through a channel, addressed for delivery down a distribution system.

The metaphor was effectively applied not just to the movement of physical goods, but also quickly applied to the packaging and delivery of marketing content. It’s no surprise that business came to think of marketing as simply the delivery of a different type of content to consumers. It was efficient to manage, one size could fit many, and the distribution channel — the new world of broadcast media — was more than ready to deliver. The symmetry was perfect. The production side of business ships interchangeable products and the marketing side ships interchangeable messages, both to the same market, the bigger and more homogeneous, the better.

The "value chain" is also transportational notion. We speak of "loading" goods into "channels" for "distribution" to "end users" or "consumers". We even talk about "delivering" services.

But markets were places long before the word "market" came also to serve as a synonym for demographics, appetites and other things that are not places at all. Yet the metaphors that come naturally to Wall Street are useful here. When we speak of "bulls", "bears" and "invisible hands" or when we say markets have "feelings," that they get "excited," have "fear" and "react" to news, we are not just saying markets are beings, but assuming that those beings live in places: "the financial world," "the street," "on the corner." Even "Wall Street" is locational. It is a real place that serves, by a process linguists call metonymy, for the whole stock market.

The place with no space

The Net is less adequately explained by its frames than anything we can name this side of the metaphysical.

It is not a physical thing. It has no first costs. Its core protocols are barely encumbered by the concept of ownership. In fact, those who developed those protocols mostly operated on virtues which today we characterize as NEA:

  1. Nobody owns it
  2. Everybody can use it
  3. Anybody can improve it

In the first two respects, the Net is like the stars, the atmosphere, the core of the Earth and the periodic table. In the third respect the Net resembles only the free and open goods that grow in its own environment.

It is a significant fact that the portfolio of open source products, protocols and standards — nearly all of which were born on the Net and developed by technologists collaborating on the Net — has grown beyond calculable dimensions. Steve Larsen, CEO of the code source engine Krugle, estimates that the current number of code bases exceeds half a million. All of these code bases are forms of building material. (It is no accident that software also has architects, designers, engineers, tools and structures.) The utility of these code bases is almost impossible to measure, but easy to observe. Start-ups and giant old companies alike are building more and more of their IT infrastructure with open source code, on top of the Internet. While there is still plenty of business in selling and servicing closed and proprietary code, the context has changed. That context is the Net and the abundance of free, open and practical goods that grow on it and increase its value as an environment.

Craig Burton characterizes the end-to-end architecture of the Net as a giant hollow sphere: the only geometric shape in which all "ends" are visible to all other ends. I've been calling this "the giant zero," because one of the Net's founding ideals is reducing toward zero the functional distance between any two people, or any two devices. The same goes for cost. Unlike phone and cable systems, the Net was never meant to be understood, much less charged out, as minutes or channels. Those things are mechanisms for measuring scarcity. The Net was built to support abundance. The closer it gets to zero in the middle, the more what it supports approaches the infinite.

Perhaps in the long run other things will be understood in terms of the Net. But before that happens, we need to finish adjusting to life in a place where where so much of what we experience has no precedent.

That life changes daily as new code, new standards, new practices, new devices, and new kinds of relationships — and ways of relating — enlarge the Net itself.

Meanwhile, we need to work with the frames we have. For that I believe the only helpful choice is to employ frames that subordinate the transport-framed Regulatorium to the fecund and productive dynamic of this spaceless place that supports an incalculable sum of personal, social, economic and other forms of activity. We start with place and publishing. If we do it well, the pipes will stay underground where they belong.


Barlow, John Perry. "Death from Above" Communications of the ACM and by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. January 1995:…

Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor Online:

Feldman, Jerome A. From Molecule to Metaphor. Cambridge: MIT Press

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2nd ed., 2001.

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Searls, Doc. "Saving the Net: How to get past the intellectual and political logjams that threaten Linux and the Net." Linux Journal, 20 July 2003:

Searls, Doc. "Saving the Net: Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes." Linux Journal, 16 November 2005:

Searls, Doc & Weinberger, David. "World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It for Something Else. 10 March 2003:

Steen, Francis F. "Cognitive Science: Philosophy, Linguistics, and Experimental Psychology." UCLA, 2005:

Zittrain, Jonathan, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale, 2008


[1] Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) p. 70

[2] Ibid., p. 8

[3] Ibid., pp. 7-8

[4] Many sources via the Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor Online:

[5] Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958)

[6] Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) p. 11-13.

[7] Ibid, p. 10.