As a kid, I was obsessed with entropy. Partially because of my obsession with science and in particular all of the special properties of ice, most notably freezing as a local reversal of entropy. And partially because of the Young Wizards book series, in which the antagonist is a personification of entropy and the protagonist wizards are those actively working to aid in helping the universe maintain itself in an orderly way.

I recognize now that worrying about the heat death of the universe was a bit unusual for a ten year old; I was sort of a weird kid. But even now, I feel an ache in my chest when I think about the fact that no matter how hard we struggle, chaos will eventually win and all we can really do is work hard to maximize the order of our local systems.

Two recent exposures to entropy in literature have brought it to the top of my mind. The first is the Mars Trilogy, which is so painfully full of science that it makes me want to go back to college. In it, the economic system the Martians develop has an entropic component, in which low-entropy goods are considered more desirable than high-entropy goods. The second is a quote from Dragon Age: Inquisition, uttered by a relatively minor character in non-essential dialogue: “My life is a debt I intend to repay, however I can.”

I was raised with strong values of service. My father was fond of saying that my brother and I were his chance to change the world, which I have always carried with me as the best sort of burden. And small towns always have this pervading sense that resources are limited, that you have been invested in, and that you damn well better make something of yourself to pay it all back to the community.

But musing on entropy, I wonder if we can’t take those values a little farther, as implied by the science itself. That is, the creation of a human life is an exercise in entropic (and yes, I am using the term broadly here) reduction: immense calories are burned and heat is generated, raising the overall entropy of the universe, but the local result is this beautifully organized system, a human life.

If we imagine entropy as a giant economic system, this implies that we literally take on an entropic debt to the universe when we are born. Resources are expended and without them, we wouldn’t exist. And it is only through work – specifically anti-entropic work – that we repay that debt. Just like the wizards in those childhood books, we can work to promote life, minimize our entropic waste, and help create a better, more efficient system for others.

I don’t mean this to imply that everyone should be forced into a life that is oriented towards service. But in a world where many people seem to think that the world owes them something, it feels as though in teaching the science of entropy, we could remind them that the precise opposite is true. After all, the universe died a little bit to make you, so you damn well better contribute.

Side note: An important quote in today’s article came from a video game. And it isn’t a nostalgia piece, like “all your base are belong to us”, but rather a serious expression of literary merit. If there is any doubt that video games will eventually surpass movies/books, let this stand as evidence that eventually, all fiction will be interactive.

Originally, this blog post was simply about the fact that nobody was saying “net neutrality” and “zero rating” in the same sentence. But then I found out that somebody was and far more eloquently than I, so go read this as a primer.

Given that Jon Healey made the argument so well, I am going to try to make a slightly different point. Not “Why doesn’t anyone object to zero rating?” but rather “How is it that people can both support zero rating and net neutrality?” After all, that is a fairly complicated mental gymnastics routine: “I am unwilling for networks to decide what content should be fast or slow, but I am entirely willing for them to decide whether it should be free or not.”

Brief recap of the argument: zero rating is actually a form of preferential traffic handling that is exactly analogous to the speed discussion that is dominating the net neutrality debate. It just subs cost for speed. In the same way that Comcast could choose to make Netflix faster or slower, they could choose to make you pay for the actual bandwidth to deliver Netflix or not, either by specifically charging you for Netflix traffic (which consumers would rebel against) or by making other types of traffic free (which consumers are celebrating in the form of zero rating on mobile carriers).

From a psych perspective, this is all about framing. Zero rating is framed as a gain: you would normally have to pay for this content but due to the benevolence of networks, it is free. Traffic shaping is framed as a loss: you would normally get this content fast but due to the evil of networks, it is slow.

You could, however, switch the frame on either statement. For zero rating: you would normally get this content for free but due to the evil of networks, you have to pay. For traffic shaping: you would normally get this content slow but due to the benevolence of the networks, it is fast.

And those statements are actually true. Right now, zero rate services are a marketing tactic simply because most services don’t zero rate and you do have to pay for the data they use. To put it differently, there is a contrast effect, where paying is the norm and free is different. If zero rating became the new norm, however, paying for bandwidth would feel exactly like slow services – a loss.

It would have the same market effects as well. Pandora and T-Mobile are big enough to have bizdev folks and lawyers and finance that make zero rating possible; your average startup can’t zero rate. Thus, if zero rating becomes rampant, big companies will win and small companies will lose, because they don’t have easy access to the machinery that allows for zero rating. Middlemen like Syntonic may fill in that market gap, but that will come at a price.

I’m not advocating for or against net neutrality, at least not here. But I do believe that that discussion should include zero rating. Whether it is cost or speed, gain or loss, it is important that we don’t let our framing biases keep us from making guidelines that are based not the internet as we use it today but the internet that will exist tomorrow. For every scenario we consider, we must consciously resist our biases and posit its opposite in frame, in concept, and in execution. It is only then that we can build an internet for the future.

Side note: If we made connectivity free, the price of hardware would go up steeply. Is it possible that we’re going to return to a world where the ability to afford the phone is going to be the gating factor, not affording the data?