2011-01-12 Futures for the Internet

The explosion of Wikileaks related news, and the manifestation of the internet's political potential to those who had previously ignored it, or only superficially acknowledged it, has led to a debate of increased intensity about the nature of the net, its political dimension, and its uncertain future. WL Central compiles some valuable commentary on this issue:

Rop Gonggrip: Keynote at 27C3

Rop Gonggrip's fascinating keynote speech from 27C3 projects an uncertain future, online and off, and offers some visions of what the role of the internet, and the hacker community, will be in this future. His riveting pessimism is tempered by a reassuring pragmatism, and a veteran's insight into the subject matter.

We still have to tell most of the people out there, but privacy is not in fact brought about by some magic combination on the intentionally confusing privacy radiobutton page on Facebook. It does come from, among other things, code some of us have already written and code that we still need to write: we need many things by yesterday. And we need to properly security-audit the tools we build, even if that means we can’t put in new features as quickly.

The future

As for the future, I stand by our basic story in “We lost the war”: it’s going to be a mess. I’ve just calmed down a lot when I decided for myself that this is not only bad news. Let’s face it: the current situation was never sustainable anyway. And people, both in rich and in poor countries, are not very happy now. Just remember the massive loads of ant-depressants apparently needed to keep us going. The decline of the Roman Empire was probably a very interesting period to live in and for most inhabitants life simply went on, with or without Rome.

OK, so the world is going to be a mess for a bit… You are maybe asking yourself: “What do I do with this knowledge?”. First of all, John Stewart nailed it when he recently said “we live in difficult times, not end times.” The future is not about finding solitude and a farm on a hill, it’s not about guns and ammo. But it is about having working trust relationships with the most varied group of people you can find. And it is about imagining beyond today and picking up a wide range of skills. It’s about positioning yourself such that you have some flexibility. Even if everything stays the same, there’s not much risk in any of that.

If on the other hand some of the structures around us indeed implode, we as a community will become no less important. Again: the world is not going to end. I promise there will be no zombies and humanity will survive. A lot of structures will survive. It’s just going to be quite messy for a little bit. Lots of people will freak out. For us the news sites will just be more like Fefe’s blog and the TV news will be more like the Fnord show.

If the shit hits the fan, a lot of things are going to be decentralized, but in a still very networked world. Some of us will likely be reverse engineering and then reengineering systems to get rid of some of the crazy complexity and dependencies. Improvising and doing more with less is something we are good at, not to mention making things when we need them and repairing them instead of throwing them away.

Douglas Rushkoff: The Next Net

Douglas Rushkoff takes a grim view towards the potential for the internet to meet the aspirations of hacker philosophy, but puts a positive spin on this, issuing a call to start designing a successor network. The comment stream also provides a fascinating discussion of the idea.

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.

3QD: What Kind of Space is Cyberspace?

A September 2009 post drawing together some excellent sources to argue that the exponential increase of energy consumption necessary to power the world's graduation into "the cloud" is insustainable, predicting an internet energy crisis.

In order to maintain total, ubiquitous availability, as today's internet users have come to expect, a lot of things have to be happening simultaneously. The millions of hard disc drives that store the internet's contents have to be powered up and spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, not just in one place but at backup mirror sites elsewhere. The drives' read-write arms are constantly racing over the surfaces of the discs. Other servers have to be available to handle spikes in demand, as when everyone searches for Michael Jackson or Teddy Kennedy at the same time. Electrons run at light speed through miles of transmission wires and power cables. Air conditioning keeps the whirring servers cool. Real estate has to be acquired and developed to house it all. Electrical grids have to be extended to the sites. And lots of electricity has to be generated, which means lots of carbon dioxide gets produced.

How much? According to Vanderbilt:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing, says Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud, he calculates, consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world's electricity.

That is what it takes to maintain Facebook's reported 15 billion photos, entertain Microsoft's 20 million Xbox Live subscribers, and host all the other always-on content that we use. But at what cost?

According to a July 20, 2009 report by Wired magazine, Google's millions of servers 'process about 1 petabyte of user-generated data every hour'. What is a petabyte? It's a million gigabytes. The Charlotte Observer reported on June 3, 2009 that Apple is planning to build a $1 billion server farm in North Carolina, thanks in part to a $46 million tax break from the state. Cyberspace already consumes more energy than Sweden. How long before it needs more space than Sweden?

The economics of cyberspace and server farms provides no automatic curb to their growth. The key questions for business are how to get energy cheaply and how to keep transmission times in the low milliseconds. Revenues for services like Facebook and Youtube do not come from costs to users. From a naive user's perspective, cyberspace is infinite, free, and clean. As long as people perceive no cost in uploading their photos and videos, they will do so—and their content will stay there without expiring. Free video is like free petrol or free air conditioning: anyone not paying the bill for a resource will use it without restraint. And that is exactly what is happening in cyberspace.

Morozov: Parsing the impact of Anonymous
Evgeny Morozov has weighed in with numerous blog posts offering insightful analysis on the recent actions carried out under the Anonymous banner - the most clearly political and widescale example of its kind. Morozov followed up with several other blog posts, clarifying his position, and developing his ideas.

As far as long-term developments are concerned, I think that much depends on whether the WikiLeaks saga would continue being a debate about freedom of expression, government transparency or whistle-blowing or whether it would become a nearly-paranoid debate about the risks to national security. Anonymous is playing with fire, for they risk tipping the balance towards the latter interpretation -- and all the policy levers that come with it.

That said, I don't think that their attacks are necessarily illegal or immoral. As long as they don't break into other people's computers, launching DDoS should not be treated as a crime by default; we have to think about the particular circumstances in which such attacks are launched and their targets. I like to think of DDoS as equivalents of sit-ins: both aim at briefly disrupting a service or an institution in order to make a point. As long as we don't criminalize all sit-ins, I don't think we should aim at criminalizing all DDoS.

I can spend hours debating this subject but, in short, while Anonymous' actions may result in greater government oversight of the Internet, they are not necessarily illegal or immoral just because they involve DDoS attacks. The danger here is obviously that if the narrative suddenly becomes dominated by national security concerns, we can forget about DDoS as legitimate means of expression dissent -- that possibility would be closed, as they would be criminalized.

zunguzungu: Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government

Aaron Bady's (zungzungu's) now famous post, in which he brought Julian Assange's essays on conspiracies to the attention of the more attentive mainstream press, and those engaged netizens who had not been following the Wikileaks story with obessessive zeal. The essay is succinct, accessible, and encapsulates Assange's work in a manner which led to its huge popularity, provoking a global shift in the understanding of Wikileaks and the reasons for its existence. The article is coveredwith some further speculation, by a post at 3QD.

it’s worth reflecting that the conspiracy’s ability to deceive others through propaganda can also be the conspiracy’s tendency to deceive itself by its own propaganda. So many people genuinely drink the Kool-Aid, after all. Would our super-spies in Afghanistan ever have been so taken in by the imposter Taliban guy if they didn’t, basically, believe their own line of propaganda, if they didn’t convince themselves — even provisionally — that we actually are winning the war against Talibothra? The same is true of WMD; while no one in possession of the facts could rationally conclude that Saddam Hussein then (or Iran now) are actually, positively in pursuit of WMD’s, this doesn’t mean that the people talking about ticking time bombs don’t actually believe that they are. It just means they are operating with bad information about the environment. Sometimes this works in their favor, but sometimes it does not: if Obama thinks Afghanistan is winnable, it may sink his presidency, for example, while the belief of his advisors that the economy would recover if the government rescued only the banks almost certainly lost the midterm elections for the Democrats (and was the death-knell for so many of the Blue Dogs who were driving that particular policy choice). Whether this actually hurts the conspiracy is unclear; those Blue Dogs might have lost their seats, but most of them will retire from public service to cushy jobs supported by the sectors they supported while they were in public service. And lots of successful politicians do nothing but fail.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire

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