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Posted at 1:04 PM ET, 12/27/2010

Separating alternative history from plain old history

By Ezra Klein

Jack Shafer's nightmarish alternative history in which the FCC decides to regulate the Internet in 1993 and stamps its jackboot down on the soft face of the new medium suffers, I think, from an unusual flaw: an insufficient familiarity with alternative histories.

The key to the genre is that there has to be some reason something didn't happen in order for you to construct a world in which it did. For instance: The reason the South didn't win the Civil War is that there were no time-traveling racists who supplied the South with AK-47s. The reason the Axis and the Allies didn't stop fighting in 1942 and enter into an uneasy alliance against a common enemy is that no aliens saw fit to invade that year.

The problem with Shafer's history is that the reason the FCC and Congress didn't regulate the Internet in the early '90s is that ... the FCC and Congress didn't want to regulate the internet in the early '90s. They could've done all of -- or at least most of -- the things Shafer accuses them of wanting to do. They just, well, didn't.

Which suggests that a more rigorous alternative history in which the FCC did assert control over the Internet in the early '90s would probably be rather boring. Commissioner Reed Hundt -- a high school friend of noted Internet-booster Al Gore -- would've probably just done what he did anyway, and decide to leave the Internet alone because he was listening to tech geeks who told him that's what he should do.

Alternative histories are interesting, but there needs to be a good reason they're different than our history. Shafer doesn't really offer one. Indeed, the fact that our regulators weren't as cartoonishly awful as Shafer suggests they wanted to be -- and, let's be fair, as they have been at other points in our history -- is a fact worth thinking about. It shouldn't just be shunted aside to make a point about how bad imaginary regulators could've been.

By Ezra Klein  | December 27, 2010; 1:04 PM ET
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It would have been more interesting if Shafer had examined why the a browser based web won out over the walled gardens of AOL and Compuserve. Especially since many of the arguments against Net Neutrality are thinly veiled arguments for a return to a model where the provider controls the content.

Posted by: jleaux | December 27, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

(1) Shafer wasn't attempting to write an alternative history, but counterfactual history. What he ends up producing is closer to alternative history than than counterfactual history, but you mix up the terminology. An alternative history is a form of fiction, and closer to science fiction than actually historical scholarship (see your examples related to aliens).

(2) You're right that "there needs to be a good reason [that the counterfactual history is] different than our history." A good counterfactual history imagines one single factor or event being different in order to assess its importance. A classic example is: What would have happened if southern Democrats hadn't walked out of the 1860 Democratic Convention? In that scenario, Stephen A. Douglas would have most likely been nominated as the consensus candidate, and become President instead of Lincoln. You can make further inferences from there. Even this fairly simple scenario requires a good deal of research and a lot of jumping to conclusions (Also, lots of questions: What would have to have changed for Southern Democrats not to have walked out? What sort of compromise would have satisfied all parties? In that case, what candidate would have emerged from the convention? Would the Democrats have attained the plurality of the vote united that they did divided?).

Shafer's analysis is bad counterfactual history because his narrative in "If The FCC Had Regulated the Internet" changes too many variables. Counterfactual history is always, always problematic, but Shafer basically engages in a form of non-historical fiction.

Posted by: belleinhell | December 27, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I can trace the exact moment we became free. It was when Chuck D testified before congress and compared free music online to a bag of M&M's spilled on the corner. Once they're spilled, he said, you can't get them back.

Rejoice, my friends, the M&M's have spilled.

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