Was the development of the Internet a wrong turn?


[I posted this on Facebook, seems it struck a nerve based on the likes and responses. Reposting here, perhaps time for a blog revival.]

I argued in the early 90s that the Internet would connect creatives on the fringes and fringe communities would form and have more impact on social and political cultures. What I didn’t see was that communities or armies of ignorant, racist, fascist, paramilitarist, arguably insane, rabid right, false Christian gremlins would form and seize control of an existing political party, that they would undermine their own interest and dismantle the middle class, that they would endeavor to promote dark-age philosophies over advances in reason and science, and that they would not be opposed, but cultivated by politicians and wealthy business and media interests who would see them as a source of potential power, missing dangerous signals from the emergent mob and their unholy alliance with it. These people may be a vocal minority, but they seem to have growing force. I’m not so sure the Internet has proved to be a Good Thing. It may be the catalyst for the rapid unraveling of civilization.

I added a link to Jennifer Granick’s post, “The Dream of Internet Freedom Doesn’t Have to Die.” And Hoder’s just posted “The Web We Have to Save” on Medium. He says “the web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.”

What the Internet Is

This works as a manifesto. I didn’t write it — it’s by the brilliant technologist David P. Reed.

Occasionally, people ask my perspective on the Internet, since I often object to confusing it with things like the telephone or Cable TV. Recently I composed a response that captures my perspective, as one of the participants in its genesis, and as an advocate for sustaining its fundamental initial design principles. I hope these words clarify what I believe many of those who continue to create the Internet continue to do, even though most of them are not aware of it. I also hope many will see their interest in keeping the core principles of the Internet alive.

The Internet must be fit to be the best medium of discourse and intercourse [not just one of many media, and not just limited to democratic discourse among humans]. It must be fit to be the best medium for commercial intercourse as well, though that might be subsumed as a proper subset of discourse and intercourse.

Which implies interoperability and non-balkanization of the medium, of course. But it also implies flexibility and evolvability – which *must* be permissionless and as capable as possible of adapting to as-yet-unforeseen uses and incorporating as-yet-unforeseen technologies.

I’ve used the notion of a major language of inter-cultural interaction, like English, Chinese, or Arabic, as an explicit predecessor and model for the Internet’s elements – it’s protocols and subject matter, it’s mechanism of self-extension, and it’s role as a “universal solvent”.

We create English or Chinese or Arabic merely by using it well. We build laws in those frameworks, protocols of all sorts in those frameworks, etc.

But those frameworks are inadequate to include all subjects and practices of discourse and intercourse in our modern digital world. So we invented the Internet – a set of protocols that are extraordinarily simple and extraordinarily independent of medium, while extensible and infinitely complex. THey are mature, but they have run into a limit: they cannot be a framework for all forms of (digital information). One cannot encode a photograph for transmission in English, yet one can in the framework we have built beginning with the Internet’s IP datagrams, addressing scheme, and agreed-upon mechanics.

The Internet and its protocols are sufficient to support an evolving and ultimately ramifying set of protocols and intercourse forms – one’s that have *real* impact beyond jurisdiction or “standards body”.

The key is that the Internet is created by its users, because its users are free to create it. There is no “governor” who has the power to say “no” – you cannot technically communicate that way or about that.

And the other key is that we (the ones who began it, and the ones who now add to it every day, making it better) have proven that we don’t need a system that draws boundaries, says no, and proscribes evolution in order to have a system that flourishes.

It just works.

This is a shock to those who seem to think that one needs to hand all the keys to a powerful company like the old AT&T or to a powerful central “coordinating body” like the ITU, in order for it not to fall apart.

The Internet has proven that the “Tower of Babel” is not inevitable (and it never was), because communications is an increasing returns system – you can’t opt out and hope to improve your lot. Also because “assembly” (that is, group-forming) is an increasing returns system. Whether economically or culturally, the joint creation of systems of discourse and intercourse *by the users* of those systems creates coherence while also supporting innovation.

The problem (if we have any) is those who are either blind to that, or willfully reject what has been shown now for at least 30 years – that the Internet works.

Also there is too much (mis)use of the Fallacy of Composition that has allowed the Internet to be represented as merely what happens when you have packets rather than circuits, or merely what happens when you choose to adopt certain formats and bit layouts. That’s what the “OSI model” is often taken to mean: a specific design document that sits sterile on a shelf, ignoring the dynamic and actual phenomenon of the Internet. A thing is not what it is, at the moment, made of. A river is not the water molecules that currently sit in the river. This is why the neither owners of the fibers and switches nor the IETF can make the Internet safe or secure – that idea is just another Fallacy of Composition. [footnote: many instances of the “end-to-end argument” are arguments based on a Fallacy of Composition].

The Internet is not the wires. It’s not the wires and the fibers. It’s never been the same thing as “Broadband”, though there has been an active effort to confuse the two. It’s not the packets. It’s not the W3C standards document or the IETF’s meetings. It’s NONE of these things – because those things are merely epiphenomena that enable the Internet itself.

The Internet is an abstract noun, not a physical thing. It is not a frequency band or a “service” that should be regulated by one of the service-specific offices of the FCC. It is not a “product” that is “provided” by a provider.

But the Internet is itself, and it includes and is defined by those who have used it, those who are using it and those who will use it.

The Internet inherits war

Bruce Schneier at Technology Review:

Arms races are fueled by two things: ignorance and fear. We don’t know the capabilities of the other side, and we fear that they are more capable than we are. So we spend more, just in case. The other side, of course, does the same. That spending will result in more cyber weapons for attack and more cyber-surveillance for defense. It will result in move government control over the protocols of the Internet, and less free-market innovation over the same. At its worst, we might be about to enter an information-age Cold War: one with more than two “superpowers.” Aside from this being a bad future for the Internet, this is inherently destabilizing. It’s just too easy for this amount of antagonistic power and advanced weaponry to get used: for a mistaken attribution to be reacted to with a counterattack, for a misunderstanding to become a cause for offensive action, or for a minor skirmish to escalate into a full-fledged cyberwar.

Google’s insanely great data kingdom

Photo of part of the physical infrastructure for Google's data system.

Photo: Google/Connie Zhou

Steven Levy wrote the book on Google (In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives); now Google’s let him into its formerly top secret data center in Lenoir, North Carolina. The massive data infrastructure is a wonder to behold. [Link]

This is what makes Google Google: its physical network, its thousands of fiber miles, and those many thousands of servers that, in aggregate, add up to the mother of all clouds. This multibillion-dollar infrastructure allows the company to index 20 billion web pages a day. To handle more than 3 billion daily search queries. To conduct millions of ad auctions in real time. To offer free email storage to 425 million Gmail users. To zip millions of YouTube videos to users every day. To deliver search results before the user has finished typing the query. In the near future, when Google releases the wearable computing platform called Glass, this infrastructure will power its visual search results.

Infinite spectrum vs scarcity hype

David Isenberg explains that spectrum for various forms of wireless transmission and communication is treated as scarce, similar to real estate, because a scarcity model works for “cellcos” (cellular communication companies, former telcos) In fact, spectrum is infinite. [Link]

The core of the story is whether or not spectrum is a rival good. A rival good is something that when it’s used by one party can’t be used by another. The cellcos say it is. Current FCC regulation does too. But David Reed has repeatedly pointed out that physics — our understanding of physical reality — says otherwise. The article paraphrases him: electromagnetic spectrum is not finite. Not finite. In other words, infinite.

Technology Use Among Youth (Pew Internet)

The Pew Internet and American Life project’s Amanda Lenhart presented at the Annenberg Public Policty Center on Internet use among the young. No huge surprises here – access is often mobile, and texting is a big part of the online experience for young people.

“In her talk, Amanda focused on bringing together data that highlights the demographic differences among groups of youth in their adoption, use and experiences with technology and social media. While such data may have illustrated what was called a ‘digital divide’ in the past, it now highlights a variety of digital differences among groups of youth.”

Augmented cyborgs at SXSW

Another SXSW coming up; it’ll be good to see old friends and make new connections. The Austin Chronicle asked me to write something for their SXSW Interactive issue; that led to an interesing interview with cyborg anthropologist Amber Case, a longer version of which I might post here later. When “bOING bOING” was a magazine, I was an associated editor listed as “cyborganic jivemeister,” and the magazine I published, FringeWare Review, focused quite bit on “cyborging.” Originally a science fiction term, a mashup of “cybernetic organism,” the term represents a potentially huge field of study – how humans interact with, and how human experience is enhanced by, digital technology. If you’ll be at SXSW Interactive, don’t miss Amber’s keynote Sunday, March 11, 2pm at the Austin Convention Center, Exhibit Hall 5 (#SXAmberCase). Meanwhile after the interview was done she and I kept talking, and will be working on a project together, a blog on the subject of augmented reality.

Adriana Lukas: how to avoid hierarchies

Adriana discusses her thinking about heterarchy, including initial thoughts about five laws of heterarchy.

“Hierarchies seem to be like oxygen: they’re all around us, pervasive, visible only to those who study them. Hierarchies are the most efficient system for management and distribution of scarce resources… given that the physical world is defined by scarcity of all sorts, it goes a long way toward explaining hierarchy as our default organizational structure….There is potential to come up with alternatives to our hierarchical organizational defaults, and I think that would be good news for all those trapped in stifling and disempowering organizations.”

How should the Internet be governed?

This piece hints at the politicization of the Internet and the complexity of its future. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the closest thing we have to “Internet governance.” It’s the organization that coordinates the standards and processes associated with Internet addresses – the assigned names and numbers referenced in the organization’s name. In “ICANN’s ‘Unelected’ Crisis” Michael Roberts write about the controversy over ICANN’s unelected leadership and multistakeholder model. “If ICANN is to maintain its quasi-independence, a hard boiled, Kissinger-like brand of pragmatic statesmanship will be necessary.” [Link]

The case against Aaron Swartz

Max Kennerly has posted the best legal overview I’ve seen of the Aaron Swartz indictment. He analyzes whether there’s actually a case to be made, and finds many weaknesses in the indictment, concluding that “the whole case looks like the iPhone prototype saga again: a civil claim that some overly aggressive prosecutor is trying to dress up as a federal crime. JSTOR has more than adequate civil remedies for whatever transpired here.” The worse problem: “This prosecution will give every “hacker” — and I use that term in a complimentary fashion, like the UNIX hackers of old, the people who built the Internet and its tools through creativity and determination — pause before they do anything outside of a bona fide API. The chilling effects will make us all worse off.” So this relates to the ongoing question whether we can sustain the free and open character of the Internet as monied interests come increasingly into play.

Post-Internet Google+ Beta Madness

I’ve been researching, thinking about, and presenting on the future of the Internet, and this week I’m preparing to propose a SXSW panel and getting ready for a presentation next week at Bootstrap Interactive in Austin. At the moment I’m thinking we’re in a “post-Internet” era. The collaborative, peer to peer network of networks has been co-opted and overlaid by a very few large corporations, and as was the case with earlier information technologies (film, radio, television) monopolies (or duopolies) are forming for network access, hardware, and information services, and the advertising model originated by David Sarnoff et al. for radio is pervasive on an Internet thick with ads – increasingly sites you visit throw an obnoxious full-screen ad in your face as you land. I’m hearing more and more conversations about building a new alternative Internet (and, for that matter, alternative economies and forms of governance).

As I was thinking hard about this, and digging deeper, Google + launched, and the geekiest cohort among my friends started showing up for the limited beta. Plus is YAAS (“yet another activity stream”), probably better-engineered and more social than Facebook’s. No real marketing vibe so far, just a lot of people hanging out (often literally, using G+’s “Hangout” feature, a high-quality form of videoconferencing that’s very cool but crashy).

Google + is the Next Big Rockit. People who are (or wannabe) paid to think about social media are filling many buckets with bits of speculative and often redundant information about the system, which doesn’t strike me as particularly new and innovative in the patterns it’s aggregated. But it is a welcome change from the other high-adoption social environments du jour, namely Facebook and Twitter. Unlike Twitter, it allows longer-form posts and inline media-sharing. Unlike Facebook, it has functional management of relationships (via Circles) and better handling of both transparency and privacy…

And did you mention Diaspora? Their launch has been so constrained as to be a mere whisper, next to the great swooshing sound of the Google+ launch.

I saw Robert Scoble post that he likes it because he can share videos and articles with everybody, and I assume that his emphasis was not on the ability to share (because we’ve been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed et al), but on the idea of sharing “with everybody.” Google + is structured so that you can see and reach more people, and when you’re selective about what you see it’s your choice, not a selection by algorithm as you have in Facebook’s “Top Stories.” At Google + you can drop people into “circles” according to whatever categorization scheme fits your DNA, and that’s really the only operational filter at this point.

But, back to my point about the post-Internet world, what’s been cool about Google+ so far has been the absence of that overlay of commercial messaging that has fogged other sites. It’s been a relatively spam-free zone, reminding me what fired me up about online social spaces from the 80s onward. How long the beta period will last I don’t know, but it’s been a nice reminder of what we could potentially have, if we could turn down the volume the advertising and marketing blasts that seem so much pervasive online lately than even on television or radio.

Back to thinking hard about the future of the Internet.

Increase bandwidth exponentially

Internet prime mover Vint Cerf echoes what I’ve been hearing from other architects of the TCP/IP network: we should focus on building much fatter pipes, and get away from the enforced/legacy scarcity and build gigabit broadband networks. Nothing here about the cost of providing gigabit access, nothing here about the fact that much of the (rural) U.S. has no access to broadband at any speed. What policies do we need to have pervasive gigabit broadband, urban and rural, in the U.S.? Who will pay for the buildout? [Link]