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?