Pirate Bay founder calls for peer-to-peer DNS

Paul Raven @ 01-12-2010

One tends to still think of the internet as a sort of dimensionless new frontier, a conceptual un-space hovering somewhere between anarchy and ad-hocracy, beyond the reach of the archons of meatspace… and to a great extent it is. But not entirely, as Homeland Security’s seizure of more than eighty infringing web domains over the past weekend demonstrates*. The protocols of the internet itself are inherently anarchic, but the domain name sytem that sits on top of it (effectively governing how we see the web, and more importantly who we see there) is a classic hierarchy… and ICANN has demonstrated that it knows exactly which side of its monopolistic bread is buttered, so to speak.

So cue the beleaguered co-founder of the Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde, calling for a peer-to-peer replacement for the DNS system. Ars Technica points out that it’s not going to be easy, cheap, or bulletproof:

There are a number of obstacles standing in the way of P2P DNS. First of all, today Google has a huge array of enormous DNS servers to serve up all the *.google.* domains, while I have an aging Pentium 4 box running DNS and mail for just me. In a new system, people looking for Google may hit my server—as well as the other way around, of course. So I’ll have to invest in a bigger server. With a peer-to-peer system, people also have to depend on the kindness of strangers: random people around the Net have to send people in your direction. This is hard to make secure, and it’s much slower than the existing DNS.

But the biggest problem of all is the ownership of domain names. In a DHT, information is found through hashes of the desired object. With file sharing, this is a hash over the file to be shared. If two people want to share the same file, you actually want to find them both, and download pieces from both of them—that way, the download goes faster. But with the DNS, things work much better if a domain name only maps to a single destination.

[…]

Today, ICANN and the TLDs decide who gets which domain. The Pirate Bay proposes to replace them with an algorithm, one that would reside in the P2P DNS software. The stakes are high: even a small fraction of the traffic of a popular site, or even just an interesting search term, can be worth a lot of money. It’s hard to imagine that with such high stakes there wouldn’t be any abuse of such an open system, or at the very least, widely diverging points of view of what’s best.

All systems will be abused; gaming the set-up is human nature. Everything can and will be hacked. The question here is who we’d rather was able to play the game: should it be anyone with the energy and wherewithal to learn the ropes, or just the unelected appointees of powerful nation-states?

[ * Good on ya, HS; nothing’s gonna spike the wheels of The Terrorists like preventing people from downloading hip-hop albums for free! ]


Wikiversity

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

What would further education look like if it was run more like Wikipedia? That’s the question asked by a chap called David J Staley at the Educause conference in Anaheim, California last week, who thinks it’s a pretty good idea [via SlashDot]:

First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.

[ Those of you who’ve read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance may be reminded of Phaedrus’ University… ]

And instead of tenure, it would have professors “whose longevity would be determined by the community,” Mr. Staley said, and who would move back and forth between the “real world” and the university.

Universities “seem to be becoming more top-down and hierarchical at a time when more and more organizations are looking more like networks,” said Mr. Staley…

Not everyone agrees with Staley, of course:

“… he clearly understands Wikipedia about as well as he understands universities. That is, not very well. Wikipedia is peculiar. Its brilliance is in its peculiarity. It’s also more static, intellectually conservative, and elite-governed than most people believe.”

Valid points, but I think the problem is due to Staley using a specific institution as a placeholder for a more general set of ideas and methods; yes, Wikipedia is flawed (just like any human institution), but its underlying principles are symptomatic of a phase change in the way we look at organisation, which is what I suspect Staley was getting at.

We’ve discussed further education’s increasing unsuitability-for-purpose before, and much of that unsuitability comes from the rigidity of its hierarchical approach to both organisation and the categorisation of knowledge; a more open, flexible and fluid system might not produce the same numbers of people equipped with expensive pieces of vellum, but I suspect it would produce a lot more people with knowledge that was actually useful to them in the chaos of the contemporary economy. That said, until you manage to convince employers to hire people on the basis of their actual skillsets instead of their paper qualifications, you’re going to struggle to convince academia to abandon the business-like model that it currently operates under.

Interestingly, this chimes with a UK-based project I’ve been invited to get involved with, which I will discuss further when it’s more fully developed…


METAtropolis as an outsider anarchist text

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2010

Just for a change, it’s not me projecting anarchist ideas onto contemporary science fiction. Instead, it’s one Margaret Killjoy (who may or may not be pseudonymous) writing at The Anvil Review, who takes a look at the John Scalzi-edited anthology METAtropolis and reads it as a selection of “outsider anarchist fiction” [hat-tip to William Gillis]:

The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or anarchistnews.org; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum.

To be honest, I think there’s an element of the vanity of the marginalised at play, there. Sure, Scalzi et al may not have read the sources Killjoy cites, but they’re hardly the only places that anarchist ideas crop up; anyone who reads Futurismic would have stumbled across the ideas of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring, and – my personal politics aside – I don’t think anyone would claim this website as an explicitly anarchist text*. The ideas Killjoy is highlighting have been part of science fiction’s stock in trade for some time… that’s exactly where I discovered most of them, at any rate. I’m surprised at her surprise, in other words; sf is hardly the vacuum of ararchist ideas she seems to think it is.

However, once we get past Killjoy’s own outsider theatrics, she has some interesting readings to share, and raises an interesting point: that certain components of the traditional anarchist philosophical platform are indeed becoming more culturally acceptable (provided you define inclusion in science fiction stories as a badge of cultural acceptance, which I suspect would be contested vigorously by a large section of the populace), or at least acceptable enough to be put forward as plausible solutions to a difficult near-future in a fictional context.

I’m not just fascinated by the cultures that these stories present, I’m fascinated by their authors’ point of entry. I would suggest that technology culture in the 21st century is leaning more and more towards anarchist approaches. Centralization is being outed as the demon it is: centralization and homogeny are understood as the bane of a healthy online network, and many are beginning to realize that the same is true of offline networks. A sort of neo-tribalism is on the rise, as is simply understanding that people and cultures are more fascinating when viewed as webs, as horizontal networks, than as rigidly controlled and highly-formalized structures.

What’s more, intellectual property is increasingly out of vogue. A sort of anarcho-futurist mentality is on the rise: that we should borrow and steal freely from each other’s ideas, that copyright laws are an imposition on our aesthetic and creative freedom, that they stand in the way of moving our culture forward–or outward, or in whatever direction it feels like moving. Some are, I would argue, even beginning to understand that it is not that we steal ideas from one another, but that copyright and intellectual property actually represent theft from the public, enclosure of what by nature ought to be the commons. Knowledge knows no scarcity and there is no reason to charge for its dissemination.

Slowly, this critique of intellectual property is filtering out into meatspace, and now in the 21st century many geeks are coming to their own understandings of what Proudhon so famously stated in the 19th: property is theft.

Radicals would be fools to ignore this sudden appearance of fellow-travelers.

Radicals might also be fools for not realising that sf has had a fair few fellow-travellers for many years, too… but the underlying point is valid. Critiques of intellectual property, top-down power structures and the machinery of democracy are indeed rampant in modern culture, especially online, and especially in the sphere of science fiction. Whether that means sf is a vanguard for coming political change or merely a haven for otherwise unacceptable and marginal radical ideas (or perhaps both) remains to be seen.

[ * – Or maybe they would? For the record, I identify with anarchism but not as an anarchist; it’s always struck me that an ideology so obsessed with abandoning hierarchies can be so fussy about deciding who’s in and who’s out. Anarchism should surely be the -ism that rejects -isms, but – from my own outsider’s perspective, at least – it’s at least as obsessed with self-taxonomy and them-and-ussing as any other movement, if not more so… and much as I sympathise with many of the philosophies that inform them, my experience with radical groups has always brought to mind that well-known scene from Life Of Brian. Your mileage, of course, may vary. 🙂 ]


Against the geek hierarchy, brothers and sisters!

Paul Raven @ 10-07-2008

Singaporean temple - a hierarchy of godsI guess most Futurismic readers are familiar with the disdain that being a science fiction fan brings from “normal” people, right? So, if we know how it hurts to be rejected on the basis of a completely harmless hobby or intellectual pursuit, why do we still do it to other people?

This is the question that Jeremiah Tolbert asks in his inaugural column for Fantasy Magazine. Take it away, Jeremy:

“In the Bad Old Days before the geek yearbook stereotype turned from “most likely to be 30 and still playing D&D in parent’s basement” into “most likely to be a billionaire before 30”, many fans were targeted with the word in a hurtful manner. If you’re on that chart [the well-known “Geek Hierarchy” flowchart], you’ve almost certainly been made fun of for it by someone. Such is life, and convincing the mainstream to accept us is a much larger battle than the one I wish to address here. But how about we take a break from bagging on one another?”

How about it, indeed. Much like Jeremy, I try hard to live by those ideals… though I’d be lying to claim that I’ve always done so, or that I don’t slip every now and again to this day. [image by jurvetson]

In an example of the sychronicity that the blogosphere is so good at creating, sf novelist Richard Morgan‘s guest spot standing in for Jeff VanderMeer at Omnivoracious takes a more specifically bookish approach to the same issue:

“… just try telling an audience of fantasy fans that Frodo should have died at Mount Doom. Steve Erikson tried it at a convention, and nearly caused a riot as a result. Oh yes, children, for if there is bigotry out there in the big bad world of mainstream literary crit, there’s as much and to spare in here, in the cosy and slightly claustrophobic confines of our genre. For every mainstream critic who wouldn’t know good science fiction or fantasy if it bit him in the ass, there is also a fistful of genre fans who think The God of Small Things must be some kind of fantasy epic about war between microscopic elves, Vineland is that Norse Saga about the Vikings discovering America, and Philip Roth is, wait a minute, oh yeah, that guy who used to sing with Van Halen, right?”

I guess everyone has a mote in their eye of some sort… we humans really have to struggle to get past our innate instinct to despise “the Other”, even in matters as inconsequential as the books we like reading. Small wonder we’re still fighting wars over patches of ground and coloured rags tied to sticks, then.

[ * Disclosure – Richard Morgan is one of my clients. ]


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