Selling Democracy – Part II

In a press conference about Iran last week, a reporter asked US Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the US couldn’t do an end run around Iranian censorship and use its satellites to ‘beam down’ broadband data connections to the Iranian people.

The question as asked comes across as remarkably naive to us geeks. We make it our business to know the difference between the logical (soft) network and the physical (hard) network.

A tension exists between the inherently democratic design of the myriad end-to-end connections that compose the Internet and the centralised conformation of the physical networks themselves. Briefly, the ‘soft’ elements of the network (the software we run on our computers and the protocols they follow) are completely agnostic about how the data they share actually get from one point to another.

On the other hand, the ‘hard’ elements (international satellite links, long-distance cables and the connection between your home and your ISP) are all about how the data moves. Controlling the data flow is their very essence.

From a ‘hard’ network point of view, this idea of ‘beaming down broadband to an entire population’ is little more than a pipe dream. The thing is, it’s pretty easy to receive a signal from a satellite. Sending an answer back is another matter entirely. That requires some pretty sophisticated equipment.

This led a number of geeks to discard the question entirely and to laugh more than a little at the naiveté of the reporter who posed it.

I’m not so sure we should cast it aside it so quickly.

Why indeed can we not just ‘beam’ bandwidth all over the place so that anyone and their dog can use it? There are technical challenges to be overcome, but they’re not as onerous as they might first appear. Or at least, they don’t need to be.

For years now, geeks have been tinkering with what are known collectively as mesh network technologies. The premise of a mesh network is that whenever an Internet-savvy wireless device is turned on, it checks around to see who else is online. If it doesn’t have an Internet connection, it finds someone else who does. Conversely, it willingly shares its own Internet connection whenever it has one.

This design principle adheres more to the ‘soft’ network approach, because mesh-enabled devices don’t particularly care about how they connect to other communications devices. As long as everybody plays nice with each other, they can just connect and go.

There are some inherent weaknesses to this approach. The first is that things get messed up quickly if people don’t play nice. A mesh network looks a lot like a room full of people passing notes to each other. I write a quick message, then hand it to you to pass on to someone else. Eventually the message lands in the right hands.

But what happens when someone else reads the note? What if it’s a love letter? What if it contains information about my bank account, or some other secret?

There’s also the issue of how such networks organise themselves. Currently, once you’ve got more than about 40 points in a mesh network, things start to get messy. Each member of the network spends more time passing other people’s notes than it does actually communicating on its own behalf.

Lastly, mesh network work pretty well over short distances, but the moment you need to transmit something over distance (say, between Vila and Santo), you need pretty powerful equipment. And that comes at a price. So if everybody’s sharing my Internet connection, how do I get them to share the cost of the connection?

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the potential for ad hoc, self-organising networks is spectacular, to say the least. If people were to embrace them on a broad basis, I don’t doubt that a lot of the wrinkles I’ve described could be reconciled.

All except one: Who pays for it? Internet users have long contended with something known as the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s an age-old story, whenever we share a common resource, be it a patch of garden, a fruit tree or a house, the temptation always exists to take just a little more of it than we’re supposed to.

When I operated a public wireless hotspot service, I frequently had to remind my customers to play nice. There was always someone who wanted to use all of the available bandwidth. I ended up writing the software equivalent of a sin-bin – a penalty box of sorts where people who didn’t share the network nicely with others could be given a ‘time-out’ until they showed they were willing to cooperate.

Centralised networks don’t suffer as much from this phenomenon because the network operator creates a separate connection for each customer. This connection can be controlled from a central location, Unwelcome traffic can be curtailed or simply dropped on the floor. They have a really easy way to answer the ‘who pays’ question: Miss a payment? Lose your service.

In recent years, nearly all communications devices have been designed to adhere to this model. Wireless access points, laptops, iPhones and other ‘smart’ handheld devices could easily be configured to create or join mesh networks on the fly. The code for it exists. But they don’t.

That’s because most consumer devices are designed to integrate into the existing economic model, which attaches individual customers to central networks.

Most of the time, this presents no problem at all. Network owners take care of the headaches of building and managing the infrastructure and we blithely go about our business.

Blithely, that is, until our interests no longer coincide with the network owners’. The result can be petty nuisances like limitations in using Skype or downloading files. Or they can be life-changing, as the people of Iran have recently discovered.

Back in Canada, I had a friend who had escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia. I ventured that he must be grateful for the freedom he experienced in his new home. His answer surprised me.

“If I had known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have defected. In a Communist society, everything is taken care of. Where you work, what you eat, who you speak to and even what you say. Here, I’m constantly forced to make decisions. Decisions I’d never had to make before in my life. Democracy is harder than I every imagined it would be.”

Right now, we work in an online environment that more closely resembles Czechoslovakia as it was than Canada today. We don’t really need to think much about how things work because others have taken that role on themselves.

If we choose to follow the other path, to rely more on cooperative networks, we will be faced with the same quandary as my Czech friend. Freedom implies responsibility and participation. Problems on the network are no longer someone else’s.

On the other hand, the network would be our own to use as we see fit.

Frankly, I doubt such a cultural change will transpire, except where the alternative is unacceptable. Just as a bird in the nest has no incentive to leave until its parents stop feeding it, we have no incentive to trade in our laptops and modems for more democratic tools. Until, of course, the network stops feeding us.

Posted: June 28th, 2009
Categories: geek, journamalism, social commentary, soft-core, wonk
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