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:

TECHNOLOGY

  • 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

CULTURE

  • Arts networking initiatives
  • Decentralized social networking platforms

GOVERNMENT

  • Proxy voting to expert friends
  • open source democracy
  • "Filter Bubbles" and how to prevent them

MEANING

  • 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.