The subject of Net Neutrality is a complex one. The plan to regulate internet service providers as public utilities, and impose new standards for internet speed and pricing, often confuses even public policy professionals. With the FCC set to vote on a proposal to create a public utility out of internet service providers in the coming days, this subject is becoming a more urgent one.
While the general public can be forgiven for not fully grasping all the complexities of the subject of Net Neutrality, web entrepreneurs should perhaps be well-versed enough on the subject to be able to avoid an embarrassing meltdown under the withering assault of a single follow-up question from a journalist. That standard is apparently too high for Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp. In an appearance on CNBC on Tuesday, the supposed Net Neutrality expert became paralyzed with confusion when reporter and host Rebecca Quick asked him one too many questions… which, by the way, was a grand total of two questions (at the 0:50 second mark):
Quick observed that the fundamental objection to plans that would impose federal regulation and mandates on internet providers rests on the claim that these expensive “pipes” required a significant amount of capital investment to construct. If you were to impose regulations on these companies, it would no longer be profitable to make those investments, and internet innovation will stagnate.
“It’s just not true,” Karp said. “It’s just been disproven.” He added that the busting of the “near-monopoly situation” that characterizes the current market for internet providers will foster even more competition.
“You have a monopoly because it’s really expensive to build the pipe,” Quick noted, “so you have not had multiple people who will build pipes to the door.”
With this question, Karp adopted an expression akin to that of Robert Oppenheimer witnessing the splitting of the atom over the Trinity test site. The look of exquisite awe and terror indicated the extent to which Karp was out of his depth, and he admitted as much after a series of “ums” and “ahs.”
“I confess, not my area of expertise,” Karp finally conceded. He was quickly rescued by the rest of the CNBC panel, but that was a display of kindness that was perhaps unwarranted. Of course, this was not Karp’s area of expertise. He is the creator of a successful online firm that utilizes the infrastructure that other massive, technologically sophisticated communications companies have developed and constructed. As such, his advocacy on this issue would obviously fail to reflect their concerns, but he should at least be able to summarize them with reasonable proficiency.
This episode exposes a real plague that is subtly eroding the standard of discourse in America: The value those who referee political discourse place on obstinacy.
The mark of a proficient debater is the ability to summarize the opposition’s arguments so that someone who holds those views would not take issue with the disputant’s characterization. Only then can an argument be refuted in a manner that is comprehensive enough so that minds open and compelling points might be internalized. Failing to charitably characterize your opponents’ views ensures that your argument will be quickly dismissed, but the artistry of argumentation is undervalued today. The slaying of straw men and the rejection of “false choices,” none of which resemble real choices, are the rhetorical weapons of choice for the modern debater.
Nothing is so highly valued as a zinger or a quip that “destroys” your adversary. And those characterizations are often bestowed on the debater post hoc and by arbiters who are already sympathetic to their position. They are not objective assessments of someone’s performance in a debate as they are efforts to legitimize their substandard presentation after the fact.
Some kudos is due to Karp for having the courage to admit his lack of expertise on the subject upon which he was asked to opine. The temptation to ramble on in an effort to hide his ignorance must have been alluring, and his decision to resist that enticement is laudable. But it would serve much of the political class well to relearn the simple lesson that one must understand the positions their opponents hold before they go about attacking them.