Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#517 minutes

In this episode of Broadband Conversations, Commissioner Rosenworcel chats with writer, producer, director and actress Justine Bateman. Justine also is a net neutrality activist and has been involved in the fight to preserve an open internet since the beginning. Commissioner Rosenworcel and Justine discuss net neutrality, Justine's new book, and the future of creative media.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello and welcome to another episode of Broadband Conversations. This is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I'm a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. This is the podcast where I get to talk to some amazing women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. You get to hear what their working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

Now, today is special, so let me introduce my guest. I'm joined by author, actress, producer, and director Justine Bateman. Now, you might know her because for years she graced the television screen as one of the members of the cast of "Family Ties" and, more recently, she authored a book on fame called "Fame: The Highjacking of Reality." But what makes me most excited about this conversation is that Justine also has a computer science degree and she's an activist and, specifically, she's been a forceful advocate for net neutrality.

Justine, thank you so much for joining me today.

MS. BATEMAN: Thank you, Commissioner. And like I said earlier, I so appreciate your position as a tent pole in the net neutrality tent.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. I appreciate that. So how about we jump in, but I'm going to set the stage. It was about a year ago that the FCC voted to roll back our net neutrality policies, and, for the record, I voted against that decision because what it did was it allowed our broadband providers to block websites, slow online services, and censor online content.

Now, you've been involved with net neutrality since the beginning and, in fact, you were a witness before the United States Senate at a hearing on this subject a few years ago. I know you've written about this topic. You've stayed engaged and talked about it before. But why did you first get involved in it and what keeps you engaged?

MS. BATEMAN: Well, I think really just, to me, it's an issue that has nothing to do with political parties. It's really just saying do you want your ISP, whoever you pay to get, and pay a lot of money, frankly, sometimes, to have an internet connection, do you want them to control what's being seen? Do you want them to control what you're seeing, and also do you want them to control what message you're trying to get out there?

And, yes, that's crazy. You remind me that you were there. And on our side of saying we need net neutrality, we need all these packages to be treated neutrally, was somebody from some gun organization, there was me, there was Lawrence Lessig who is a fair use copyright lawyer -- I'm probably not getting that right --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's right. And professor --

MS. BATEMAN: -- the president of the Writers Guild of America and then some conservative moms' group. So you see this, like, group of people that don't have a lot in common, but we all want our messages to go out.

And then on the other side was just a lawyer who was representing the group that was representing, so three people removed now, the ISPs.


MS. BATEMAN: And I remember one of them, so that particular guy said, well, we need to get rid of net neutrality, we need to not have it because we need to be able to innovate. And Senator Kerry at the time, I got a big intellectual crush on him after this, he took a beat and then he looked at the guy and he said, "You don't expect anyone in this room to believe a word you're saying, do you?"


MS. BATEMAN: I thought that was great.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, no, quite a hearing. You don't forget those moments when you get to see them on Capitol Hill and you sit at the witness table.

Now, that was a few years ago, but last year the FCC revisited this issue and millions of people wrote this agency, which was kind of crazy to me because I didn't even think that millions of Americans knew what this agency did or where we were located. But I'm curious, if you look back on that vote and all the noise that was made about a year ago, were you surprised that so many people were fired up about this?

MS. BATEMAN: No, I'm not. I'm more surprised that we have an arrangement wherein five people, two of them, thankfully, see the light, but that five people got to vote on that issue and decide whether or not all American citizens, all 300-something million citizens are going to have their ability to access information and communicate online severely limited. I don't really, I'm sure there's a lot of legal reasons why, but that also sounds like an anathema to life in America.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, I was there. I can tell you it was really dramatic and really extraordinary that this agency was making that decision for so many people across this country.

Okay. So let's take a turn. You've had this long career in the creative arts, and, at the same time, you got a degree in computer science and digital media management. So let's just talk for a moment about that because I think that's an awfully cool fact that most folks won't know about you.

So tell us a little bit about your studies and then, as a result, do you have any advice you'd offer to girls or young women thinking about pursuing further education or a career in technology or media or engineering?

MS. BATEMAN: Sure. I went in as a freshman at UCLA at 46 and --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You go. That's awesome.

MS. BATEMAN: Yes, it was a great experience. That will be my third book. And it was really, I was putting together a lot of projects that combined technology and entertainment, and I just saw that it was going to be a better way for me if I just got a computer science degree and got these projects put together myself because I found that I was a little ahead of what people were ready to get onboard with, even though all I needed was their money. I didn't need anything else from them.

Anyway, nonetheless, that got me to school and, yes, got the computer science degree and had a, you know, UCLA is a fantastic school and I'm very fortunate to have been accepted there.

And what I would say to women who want to get in tech, you might be somebody who does like breaking things, but if you happen to be one of the many females who have been taught their whole lives, like, don't make a fuss, don't make any noise, don't break anything, go study tech and break something.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like that. I like that.

MS. BATEMAN: Just break it. Like, intentionally try to break it because that's what you have to do, when you do programs, you have to try and break them. You have to imagine, I used to always imagine that some eight-year-old boy is getting on to my program and trying to mess with it, trying to put in wrong data, trying to somehow make it do something it's not supposed to do. So try to think that way. If I were an eight-year-old boy and I was trying to break something, what would I do here now?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. That feels really, I have an eight-year-old boy at home, so I have to say that feels incredibly real, as does the capacity to sort of mess around with things. But what kind of projects did you do? Is there anything you want to highlight or talk about?

MS. BATEMAN: Well, the thing I'm most interested in and the reason I went was combining, like I said, tech and entertainment. And it's basically this principle: everything on your phone, just talking about touchscreens for now, you know, everything on your phone or your iPad or if you do have a touchscreen desktop, all of your apps are geared toward the functionality of that touchscreen. It uses the functionality -- so we'll just talk about the touchscreens now, right? All your apps, you can swipe, tap, all these things and, you know, go up, down, and you can tap and go deeper into certain situations, you know, depending on the app. And everything uses this functionality, except when you get to one of your apps that is filmed entertainment, video. All you can do is pause and play. And I always saw that as a real absence of exploiting the technology that's available. You're just leaving it on the ground.

So all the projects that I have, not all of them but a lot of them actually use that functionality. So then, in that way, I don't have to structure my scripts in a line, like you have to do for a linear format which is basically all we watch, almost all we watch.


MS. BATEMAN: You know, you watch something from the beginning and then you see the middle and then you see the end, and that's because of the technical restriction of the delivery. When you go to a movie theater or you watch something on TV or on your phone, that's a limitation.

But with touchscreen technology or augmented reality or something, I don't have to write a script in a line. I can write it more so in the shape in a tree even. And not choose your own adventure but, rather, the story is that big. Just like, you know, I'm in my house and there's other people in this house and there's things that they're doing and you're in your office and there's other people in your office and you're seeing what they're doing and there's lives that they're living, and really this is a really big story. It's not just you and me talking.

So with the technology that we have now, we can really explore all of that and, you know, it's a more complex story, it's more complicated for the writer, but I love challenges like that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: If I take it back to what I've seen before this agency, if you look at the history of moving from radio to television, in the early days on television people just got on television and read like they were on radio. It was as if the extent of the medium wasn't fully apparent to them, and it took some time for people to realize that there was this whole range of other artistry that was available in this new medium, and I think we're starting in early days to try to, you know, understand what digital technology can do for storytelling, but we really haven't made it very far just yet.

So let me just take a turn. We're going to go from, like, the future of digital storytelling to publishing a book because I know you just published a book and it's about fame.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: So just tell me a little bit about the themes you explore in that work and also how technology played a role in its creation.

MS. BATEMAN: Sure. Well, the book is called "Fame," and it's about the life cycle of fame, the beginning, the equilibrium, and then the slide, and then the descent, because very rarely does anyone ever talk about the latter portion of that life cycle of fame, and that's something that's really interesting to me.

So I take the reader, because I have experienced that entire life cycle, I take the reader on an emotional time travel. So I want them to know, kind of like a ghost of Christmas past where I'm going to take them back into all of these situations at different points in that life cycle and tell them what it was like on the inside and then also my theories and sociological theories on why the public behaves the way it does at different points of those life cycles. For example, when you're on the backside in the post-fame portion of the life cycle, why does the public react in an angry manner towards you? And I always found that really interesting when I experienced it. Or in a shaming manner? So it's explored in that.

And then what I also wanted to look at was it seemed to me that around the year 2000 our society put fame and celebrity on an extremely high pedestal and started to become very obsessed with it, and I wanted to see what was the perfect storm right there that seemed to cause that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, I like to ask a few questions at the end.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: So these are the questions I ask everyone before we close out, and the first is I'm going to ask you to go into a wayback machine. Tell me if you can recall what's the first thing you did on the internet or online?

MS. BATEMAN: Okay. I remember, this is before Google, you couldn't just search for your favorite subject or find a website that was interesting to you. You had to know what the address was.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right, right.

MS. BATEMAN: And so I wish I still had it. I had a yellow pages for websites, and I would either go through that or I would go to the Webby Awards and I would look at who had won and I would go to those sites and check them out.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Okay. That's a very cool answer. I've been asking a lot of people that, but the idea that you went to a directory of the best stuff online, that's a really good answer.

MS. BATEMAN: Thank God for the Webby Awards back then.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. I mean, somebody was doing it.

MS. BATEMAN: I wouldn't have known how to get them.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. More mundane. What is the last thing you did on the internet?

MS. BATEMAN: Last thing I did was binging on all the fantastic films on because they have a new owner and they're, unfortunately, being shut down, so I'm trying to see everything on my watch list. And they have The Criterion Collection and just some of the best films that have ever been made in history, and it's a real shame to see them go.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But it's so cool you get to call them up right now. Just try to imagine 10 - 20 years ago where this entailed, you know, going to the local video store and pulling everything off of a shelf. I'm still in awe that I can call up old movies that I recall, never having the opportunity to watch. I'm just hopeful that more of those sites, they multiple so that we get access to more of the great entertainment from over the last several decades.

MS. BATEMAN: Yes, it's really tremendous. I agree.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Final question, but you know what? I'm going to start this with a look back at your Senate testimony from a decade ago and, at the time, you said something that I think is so great. You said, "In entertainment, I believe we're on the verge of a creative renaissance and the internet is the grid upon which the renaissance can rest." I think that's awesome because subsequent history proved you right in so many ways.

So no pressure or anything, this is your chance to look ahead once again. What do you think the future of the internet and digital life should look like?

MS. BATEMAN: Of all the utilities that we use, I just, to not classify the internet as one of those, the logic escapes me. It connects us to questions about our health, our connection with our insurance companies, all of our commerce, our banking, our social life, our entertainment, our education. It's the most far-reaching utility we have, and so the future of it, I just feel --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Make it open.

MS. BATEMAN: It's so necessary that it be open. It's so necessary to not impinge on our freedoms, and we need net neutrality in order to maintain that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Before we go, tell me where folks can follow you to keep up-to-date with what you're doing.

MS. BATEMAN: Oh, sure. They can go to, well,

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Well, that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Justine. Thank you for all you're doing. And thanks to everyone --

MS. BATEMAN: Thank you. And thank you so much for your work. Thank you, thank you.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.