Rushkoff: abandon internet, build its successor

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Over at Shareable, Doug Rushkoff crystallises a bunch of post-Wikileaks thoughts that have been knocking around in my head into one (fairly) coherent statement:

… 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 “something else” is basically a peer-to-peer network similar to the existing internet, but one that is completely unreliant on corporate/gubernatorial/non-commons infrastructure like optical fibre. Rushkoff is honest enough to admit he doesn’t have the answers, but he’s surely asking the right questions:

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.

I’m no network engineer, but I’m pretty sure that an ad-hoc and rhizomatic peer-to-peer network based on some cableless connection like wi-fi is possible, at least in theory. Anyone in the audience able to tell me why I’m wrong? Or, better still, how we can build it?

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5 Responses to “Rushkoff: abandon internet, build its successor”

  1. Wintermute says:

    If you need to do something under the table: Darknets and private networks.

    You could do some wireless on a small scale, like in a neighborhood, but ISPs are still the gatekeepers to the outside world. And anyway, it’s technically illegal to construct your own wire-mesh network without FCC approval.

    “Decentralized” networks on any sort of scale is a joke.

    Remember Murphy’s Law: Anything that can make money WILL make money.

    If you ever get a network up to a sufficient size and globalization that everyday folk like Bieber fans and grandmas and not just the manifesto-wagging 1337ists are using it, that network WILL fall under corporate / government / mogul control. Every “power” toppling revolution gives birth to a new tyrant. Every grass roots “Yes We Can!” movement — be it Obama or the Tea Party — gets coopted by THE MONEY (Obama’s generous Wall Street sponsors and Sarah Palin & Repub Friends, respectively). And every bright-eyed, hope-eating, change-sleeping engineer claiming “Dont Be Evil!” or for-free Harvard-nerd programmed social network, if it grows to any important size, will come under the influence of THE MONEY. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2011/01/wall-street-roundup-goldman-friends-facebook-prepping-for-wikileaks-.html

    Let me know when Kurzweil’s science fictional AIs figure out how to rewire the neocortex such that Homo Sapiens no longer desires to compete for status, prestige, and wealth.

    The only solution is to re-examine the goals. Get real. You’re never going to get a totally decentralized network, if not for the simplest point that most people don’t give a shit about your cyberpunk subversion and don’t have anything to hide from the government / corporations. Most people just want to lol at their cousin’s baby pictures and check their email; and it’s INFINITELY easier and faster to do that on existing corporate-controlled networks than to go through all the trouble. And why should they? Most people just want to get their paychecks for pushing iPhone branding in their marketing department, head down to Starbucks and pick up a ten dollar latte while checking Twitter. Most people don’t NEED a decentralized internet. They love that 4G super fast netflix-filled, 550 million social networked ineternet just fine, thanks. Who cares that they cut off some weird Australian guy’s credit card? All this decentralization talk is interrupting my Jersey Shore.

    The people who need a decentralized network are people who are going to get the Swedish government banging on their country’s door to be extradited for fake rape charges.

    If your goal is you want to say something that might piss off THE POWER, the best you’ve got is darknets and similar clandestine networks. They’re imperfect, but that’s as good as you’re going to get. Simple as that.

  2. otocon says:

    [edited for politeness] Yes much of your gripe are truisms, alienated indirect commodified people/culture not giving two shits about anything not two feet away from them. But we have agency, a complex option making mechanism called awareness. A tool for creating our future. U can either try which is fun and rewarding or pout/perpetuate crap.

    anyways i thinks that this is a totally awesome critique and proposal of current societal structures of power and what can be created in there absence,collapse, or outgrowth of the current one. Ive been checking out this blog for a couple of months now, curtesy of future pundits.com and like many of the topics.

    As an anarchist communist, critical of hierarchical power, observer of horizontal, free association, mutual aid tendencies within the history of civilization and optimist to expanding these tendencies to make rich subsistence for all possible these are the kinda things that make looking ahead at the future and its possibilities worth wile.

  3. Martin says:

    As a network engineer of sorts, my five cents would be something similar to Wintermute’s – no, a fully decentralized global network can probably not be built.

    First thing – the open frequencies (e.g. wifi) that we have cannot stretch any significant geographical area. In any case, the oceans will stop any wireless approach with basic bandwidth except satellites. A local darknet might sound fun but I see no reality in it – people want to be connected globally and only hardcore survivalists would be happy reading only the blogs and status updates of people within their tiny secure wifi zone.

    I think we need to recognize that the physical layer of networks need and always will need significant capital investment and economy of scale, as well as constant maintenance. It is better to use that our advantage. I would do the global de-centralized network as Tor have already started – a tunneled, overlayed network on top of what we already have. Traffic can always be obfuscated, encrypted and re-routed. Of course commercial interests, or perhaps political, will continue to chase that traffic. The trick is not to replace internet, but to enhance it. As long as Justin Bieber is taking a majority of the traffic (and thereby paying the ads, the subscriptions, etc), there will be plenty of room for an overlayed darknet to send the data that we want to protect and keep uncontrolled.

    Why not a Bieberized steganographic global darknet, built on adding 5% extra overhead in Justin Bieber videos? The ISPs can never block _that_ 😉

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Martin: I find your ideas interesting, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. 😉

  5. boru says:

    “What if every light bulb in the world could also transmit data? At TEDGlobal, Harald Haas demonstrates, for the first time, a device that could do exactly that. By flickering the light from a single LED, a change too quick for the human eye to detect, he can transmit far more data than a cellular tower — and do it in a way that’s more efficient, secure and widespread.”

    http://www.ted.com/talks/harald_haas_wireless_data_from_every_light_bulb.html