… 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?
I’ve mentioned Douglas Rushkoff here a few times before (both as a thinker and a writer of comics and fiction), and I’m also deeply interested in alternative economic structures, so the following video of Rushkoff’s swift fifteen-minute keynote speech to the O’Reilly Web 2.0 conference was like internet crack for me.
I strongly recommend you watch it; even if you don’t agree with all of his points, Rushkoff’s got a very coherent vision, and seems to be one of the few alternative currency advocates who’s thought beyond the basics. In a nutshell, he’s saying we need to shift paradigms, and move from extracting value to exchanging value. Take a look:
Unsurprisingly, everyone everywhere is talking about the economy. The usual twist on the topic is to ask “how can we fix it?”, but Douglas Rushkoff would like to suggest that the global financial collapse is a blessing in disguise and that we should just let it die, as it gives us a chance to reassess the assumptions that our monetary systems were built upon:
… it’s even more important for us to come to grips with the fact that the system in peril is not a natural one, or even one that we should be attempting to revive and restore. The thing that is dying—the corporatized model of commerce—has not, nor has it ever been, supportive of the real economy. It wasn’t meant to be. And before we start lamenting its demise or, worse, spending good money after bad to resuscitate it, we had better understand what it was for, how it nearly sucked us all dry, and why we should put it out of our misery.
His point is that, at every level, the system was designed to benefit those who set it up at the long-term expense of everyone else – it’s almost miraculous it’s lasted as long as it has:
An economy based on an interest-bearing centralized currency must grow to survive, and this means extracting more, producing more and consuming more. Interest-bearing currency favors the redistribution of wealth from the periphery (the people) to the center (the corporations and their owners). Just sitting on money—capital—is the most assured way of increasing wealth. By the very mechanics of the system, the rich get richer on an absolute and relative basis.
The biggest wealth generator of all was banking itself. By lending money at interest to people and businesses who had no other way to conduct transactions or make investments, banks put themselves at the center of the extraction equation. The longer the economy survived, the more money would have to be borrowed, and the more interest earned by the bank.
Just in case you think Rushkoff’s a sneaky pinko or something, it’s worth considering that he’s an advocate of local economies and currencies, and opposed to any form of centralised control; even if you don’t agree with what he has to say, he raises some talking points that we’d all do well to at least consider. As he points out, we may not get another opportunity… and you know what they say about life handing you lemons. [image by Cory Doctorow]
But what do you think? Should we build a new world where value is produced by actual effort, or can the financial system be fixed to ensure we don’t all strive for the profits of a few?
Those of you who follow the Double-Boing may have noticed that they’ve started getting guest bloggers on board again. This week sees a visitation from Douglas Rushkoff; there are few thinkers and writers that I would recommend without reservation, but Rushkoff is one of them. [image from biography page of Rushkoff’s website]
He’s written (sometimes with great influence) on politics, cyberculture, religion, ethics, finance, viral marketing, reality hacking and all sorts of other stuff, and he never fails to come up with something challenging. So if you’re not a regular BoingBoing reader, I’d suggest grabbing the RSS feed, if only for this week. Here’s a snippet from his ‘Open-Source Democracy’ post:
Back when everyone was thinking about digital democracy as some sort of voting scheme or mass feedback polling operation, I wrote a short book called Open Source Democracy in an effort to extend people’s thinking beyond elections to include participation in civics. Yes, we have representatives, but they’re only good as their ability to respond to the needs that come from the bottom up.
Rushkoff’s a blogger in his own right, and a novelist too. More recently he did an excellent comic-format series on DC Vertigo called Testament – Old Testament fables meet dark near-future corporate dystopia. Recommended.