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When broadband monopolies pushed out scrappy local ISPs, we all suffered

Over time, computers have become easier to use and the internet easier to access. It used to be that people needed special training to be able to use software on a machine. Now, small children can do it. Instead of a long, noisy process of connecting through dial-up, our devices can connect to the internet (and each other) instantly, without human intervention or even awareness. Mostly this is a good thing. More intuitive design means getting more people online and bringing more access to powerful tools for self-expression and community. It would be excruciating to try and use sophisticated online tools and platforms using old-school modems and routers. One advantage, though, of older technologies is that they forced us to think about what’s under the hood of the devices we use every day. The clicking, whirring, and beeping of old-school dial-up made it obvious that digital connections don’t just magically appear—they have to be built and maintained. The problem with seamless technology is that it’s easier for tech companies to control users when the underlying operations are hidden and mysterious. Demanding change starts with understanding how technology works, who owns it, and how it’s regulated.

It’s easy to ignore the physical components that make up the internet—after all, the cables and fiber responsible for online connectivity are literally out of sight, buried underground, and stretched under the sea. Terms such. as cloud computing and wireless connection make it seem like technology is effortless and abstract, operating only in the ether. But as researchers such as Tung-Hui Hu and Nicole Starosielski have argued, there are always literal, concrete materials involved in our digital technologies. When we pull back the curtain on the internet’s infrastructure, we expose different technical layers, such as cables and wire, towers and satellites. In addition to these technical features, digital infrastructure includes the legal frameworks and rules that govern online life. From the very first packet switches of the internet, policy debates have shaped who gets to go online and how much access costs. Urban gentrification doesn’t happen spontaneously; it requires local policymakers siding with developers over longtime residents. For an online parallel, we can think about cooperation between major communication companies and government regulators. Commercialization and inequality are key features of gentrification, and they also describe a transformation in who controls access to the internet.

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