The Next Net
Why a Decentralized Network?
The moment the "net neutrality" debate began was the moment the net neutrality debate was lost. For once the fate of a network -- its fairness, its rule set, its capacity for social or economic reformation -- is in the hands of policymakers and the corporations funding them -- that network loses its power to effect change. The mere fact that lawmakers and lobbyists now control the future of the net should be enough to turn us elsewhere.
Of course the Internet was never truly free, bottom-up, decentralized, or chaotic. Yes, it may have been designed with many nodes and redundancies for it to withstand a nuclear attack, but it has always been absolutely controlled by central authorities. From its Domain Name Servers to its IP addresses, the Internet depends on highly centralized mechanisms to send our packets from one place to another.
The ease with which a Senator can make a phone call to have a website such as Wikileaks yanked from the net mirrors the ease with which an entire top-level domain, like say .ir, can be excised. And no, even if some smart people jot down the numeric ip addresses of the websites they want to see before the names are yanked, offending addresses can still be blocked by any number of cooperating government and corporate trunks, relays, and ISPs. That's why ministers in China finally concluded (in cables released by Wikileaks, no less) that the Internet was "no threat."
I'm not trying to be a downer here, or knock the possibilities for networking. I just want to smash the fiction that the Internet is some sort of uncontrollable, decentralized free-for-all, so that we can get on with the business of creating something else that is.
That's right. I propose we abandon the Internet, or at least accept the fact that it has been surrendered to corporate control like pretty much everything else in Western society. It was bound to happen, and its flawed, centralized architecture made it ripe for conquest.
Just as the fledgling peer-to-peer economy of the Late Middle Ages was quashed by a repressive monarchy that still had the power to print money and write laws, the fledgling Internet of the 21st century is being quashed by a similarly corporatist government that has its hands on the switches through which we mean to transact and communicate. It will never truly level the playing fields of commerce, politics, and culture. And if it looks like that does stand a chance of happening, the Internet will be adjusted to prevent it.
The fiberoptic cables running through the streets of San Francisco and New York are not a commons, they are corporate-owned. The ISPs through which we connect are no longer public universities but private media companies who not only sell us access but sell us content, block the ports through which we share, and limit the applications through which we create. They are not turning the free, public net into a shopping mall. It already is a shopping mall. Your revolutionary YouTube video has a Google advertisement running across the bottom. Yes, that's the price of "free" when you're operating on someone else's network.
But unlike our medieval forebears, we don't have to defend our digital commons from corporate encroachment. Fighting and losing that un-winnable battle will only reinforce our sense of helplessness, anyway. Instead of pretending that the Internet was ever destined to be our social and intellectual commons, we can much more easily conspire together to build a real networked commons, intentionally. And with this priority embedded into its very architecture and functioning.
It is not rocket science. And I know there's more than a few dozen people reading this right now who could make it happen.
Back in 1984, long before the Internet even existed, many of us who wanted to network with our computers used something called FidoNet. It was a super simple way of having a network -- albeit an asynchronous one.
One kid (I assume they were all kids like me, but I'm sure there were real adults doing this, too) would let his computer be used as a "server." This just meant his parents let him have his own phone line for the modem. The rest of us would call in from our computers (one at a time, of course) upload the stuff we wanted to share and download any email that had arrived for us. Once or twice a night, the server would call some other servers in the network and see if any email had arrived for anyone with an account on his machine. Super simple.
Now FidoNet employed a genuinely distributed architecture. (And if you smart hackers can say why that's wrong, and how FidoNet could have been more distributed, please continue that line of thought! You are already on your way to developing the next network.) 25 years of networking later, lessons learned, and battles fought; can you imagine how much better we could do?
So let's get on it. Shall we use telephony, ham radio, or some other part of the spectrum? Do we organize overlapping meshes of WiMax? Do we ask George Soros for some money? MacArthur Foundation? Do we even need or want them or money at all? How might the funding of our network by a central bank issued currency, or a private foundation, or a public university, bias the very architecture we are trying to build? Who gets the ability to govern or limit what may spread over our network, if anyone? Should there be ways for us to transact?
To make the sorts of choices that might actually yield our next and truly decentralized network, we must take a good look at the highly centralized real world in which we live - as well as how it got that way. Only by understanding its principles, reckoning with the forces at play, and accepting the battles we have already lost, might we begin to forge ahead to create new forms that exist beyond any authority's ability to grant them protection.
The Answer to the Internet Off Switch
From the actions of the Egyptian government to the policies of Facebook, the monopolies of central banks to the corporatization of the Internet, we are witnessing the potential of a peer-to-peer networking become overshadowed by the hierarchies of the status quo. It's time for us to gather and see what is still possible on the net, and what, if anything, can be built to replace it.
I have had a vague misgiving about the direction the net's been going for, well, maybe 15 years. But until recently, it was more like the feeling when another Starbucks opens on the block, a Wal-Mart moves into town, or a bank forecloses unnecessarily on that cool local bookstore to make room for another bank.
Lately, however, what's wrong with the net has become quite crystalized for me. It started with the corporate-government banishment of Wikileaks last year, and reached a peak with Egypt shutting off its networks to stave off revolution. The Obama administration seeking the ability to do pretty much the same thing in the US, Facebook's "sponsored stories," and the pending loss of net neutrality don't help, either.
On the website Shareable, and again in an OpEd for CNN.com, I suggested we "fork" the Internet -- that we accept the fact that the net is built on a fundamentally hierarchical architecture, surrender it to the corporations who run it, and consider building something else for ourselves. The Internet as built will always be subject to top-down government control and domination by the biggest corporations. They administrate the indexes and own the conduit. It has choke points -- technological, legal, and commercial. They can turn it off and shut us out. A p2p network protected only by laws -- that exists but for the grace of those in charge -- is not a p2p network. It is a hierarchical network allowing itself to be used in a p2p fashion, when convenient to those currently in charge.
If we have a dream of how social media could restore peer-to-peer commerce, culture, and government, and if the current Internet is too tightly controlled to allow for it, why not build the kind of network and mechanisms to realize it?
I received literally thousands of emails in response. Some people simply wanted to know if it was really true -- could a government really just "turn off" the net? Yes. It's true. Others wrote to let me know there's no alternative; there's no such thing as an unstoppable network. Even if we use ham radio or wifi "mesh" networks to connect to each other, they can always be jammed by governments. True, but by that logic the authorities also can prevent us from speaking to one another by shooting us. At least the tyrant would be in the position of attacking the people's network, instead of simply turning off the network he already controls.
Finally, though, the vast majority of emails came from people who wanted to get started actually building a new net, developing p2p currency, or figuring out how to promote deep democracy through social media. What should they do? Where should they go? And those kinds of questions can't be answered in an email, an essay or a column. It's not something you click on. These challenges can only be answered over time by people actively collaborating on solutions.
That's why -- with some encouragement from a few great organizations -- I've decided to convene a summit called Contact. Contact will seek to explore and realize the greater promise of social media to promote new forms of culture, commerce, collective action, and creativity. I'm inviting technologists, artists, activists, businesspeople, funders, and other stakeholders in the networked future, to come together to hatch new ideas, connect with new collaborators, and forge an ongoing community for innovating social media and beyond. Some of them, like Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, Paul Hartzog and Sam Rose at the Forward Foundation, have been working on these questions for a while. Others come from NGOs and even corporations looking to support and become part of whatever is next, rather than spending money resisting it. Evolver/Reality Sandwich is one of the project sponsors.
From the development of a new non-hierarchical Internet to the implementation of alternative e-currencies, the prototyping of open source democracy to experiments in collective cultural expression, Contact will seek to initiate mechanisms that realize the true promise of the networking revolution.
The first summit, to be held October 20, 2011 as a MeetupEverywhere and centered at the historic Angel Orensanz Center in New York City, will be a participatory festival for ideas and action, consisting primarily of meetings convened by attendees. Featured participants will deliver brief "provocations" on stage, sharing the greatest challenges they are facing in their particular fields. But their primary contribution to the day will be to join in the meetings convened by other participants, sharing their experience, insight, and even connections to help bring these ideas into reality.
If it's not the only thing of its kind in the world, so much the better. Let's connect, conceive, and conspire. Contact isn't a way of competing with those efforts, but supporting them.
Topics I'm opening for discussion include:
- Can we build an alternative Internet that can't be turned off?
- Alternatives to top-down registries and corporate-controlled access
BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS
- New net-based currencies and transaction networks
- Net-enabled Local Activism and Job Creation
- Arts networking initiatives
- Decentralized social networking platforms
- Proxy voting to expert friends
- open source democracy
- "Filter Bubbles" and how to prevent them
- What Factors Facilitate Collective Intelligence?
- The Reclamation of Public Space
But please feel invited to bring your own. I may be initiating this thing, but I am by no means in charge.
At the epicenter of Contact will be the Bazaar -- a free-form marketplace of ideas, demos, haggling, and ad-hoc connections. If you have visited the Akihabara, Tokyo's ultra-vibrant open-air electronics market, or the under-the-highway open-air jade market of Kowloon, or even the Burning Man festival, you understand the power of combining commerce, physical location, and serendipity. A decidedly unstructured counterpart to the convened meetings, solo provocations, and the MeetUpEverywheres, the Bazaar will bring p2p to life, encouraging introductions, brokering, deal-making, food-tasting, and propositions of every kind. It is where the social, business, political, and spiritual agendas merge into one big human agenda.
Contact will hope to revive the spirit of optimism and infinite possibility of the early cyber-era, folding the edges of this culture back to the middle. Social media has come to be understood as little more than a marketing opportunity. We see it as quite possibly the catalyst for the next stage of human evolution and, at the very least, a way to restore p2p value exchange and decentralized innovation to the realms of culture, commerce and government.
Content was never king. Contact is. Please join us, and find the others. More about Contact, for now, here.
This article originally appeared in two parts on Shareable.net.
Image by Daniel R. Blume, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet