Episode 6: Distributed Internet

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Transcript of Audio:

Hello Deviators! Welcome back to Three Deviations Out! Last week we explored the wonderful world of data storage, including cool innovations like DNA and other 3D storages.  This week we’re delving into the murky waters of the distributed internet, a topic that until recently has been confined to peer reviewed papers and TV comedies.  Essentially it involves taking this distributed network of cables running across the globe connecting us all and instead of relying on the cables, it relies on the invisible, wireless connections our devices make with one another through wireless transmissions.  Before we get into that, let’s cover the basics:

What: The distributed Internet, essentially an Internet 2.0 that takes advantage of blockchain, IoT, and other emerging technologies and has the potential to solve a number of issues with the current internet structure.

Who: Ethereum, Rightmesh, Georgia Tech, Australian National Laboratory, Maidsafe, Golem, Raffael Kemenczy, FireChat

Why: The Internet was a game changer.  That’s fairly universally accepted.  Movement of information, knowledge, communication, and process from manual and hard copies to online has allowed greater access, transparency, and connection.  The internet took what was great about computers and allowed them to reach current maximum potential by connecting them, and us, all together.  Distributed internet takes that same idea and expands it, breaking down barriers to entry and allowing for an even more democratized and transparent system.  What we have now is great, but it could be better.  Over the last few decades we’ve had the chance to see in real time what large scale change has happened to our societies across the globe because of the internet.  Expanding that even further to the remaining half of the unplugged population, and fixing some of the bugs so the systems works in the favor of the many instead of in the favor of the few has the potential to be revolutionary.

So, that’s the theory of the day.  Distributed Internet is an outlier because it takes how we use the internet today, already a revolutionary tool, and injects it with democratizing steroids.  Theoretically.  Let’s explore! Today we’re covering

The Internet now

Problems

Solutions

Use Cases

Idealized World

 

The Internet Now:

In 1962 Paul Baran published ‘On Distributed Communications Networks’ with the RAND corporation and thus the Internet was born.  Kind of.  Like all great tech this now ubiquitous aspect of our lives started with a research paper.  The Internet as we know it now is comprised of a complex system of fiber and coax lines that connects you to the billions of other online humans.  As of today (Tuesday Sept 12, 2017) there are 3.726 billion global Internet users, 1.252 billion websites, and 1.992 billion Facebook users.  Just today, 117.4 billion emails have been sent, 2.69 billion Google searches completed, 2.524 million blog posts written, 334 million tweets sent, 3.2 billion videos watched, and 44,782 websites hacked.  Total global internet use for the day reaches over 2.19 billion gigabytes, and it’s barely afternoon.  Jeepers that’s a lot of data!  Since the first website went live close to 30 years ago on August 6, 1991, the Internet has become entrenched in half the world’s daily lives.  It brings us goods through ecommerce, services like news, legal advice, health advice, any advice, and outlets through forums like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Quora, and others.  It has brought new prosperity to community support with easy to use peer to peer networks and crowdsourcing.  Most of all, the Internet has brought about the democratization of knowledge, like a more digestible, more robust, easier to access library.

Problems: 

As great as the internet is now, it could always be better.  There are some serious problems with today’s global knowledge center, the most glaring being that only about half of the population is an online user.  This stems largely from lack of infrastructure and while not difficult to see the cause, the solution to such a problem is less easily identifiable.  A few less straightforward problems we’ll cover today are content attribution, corporate consolidation, regulation, and anonymization.  I chose these issues because I consider them to be the most problematic of problems with the internet.  Comment below if you have thoughts on other issues or believe the internet is perfect as is and there’s no reason to change it.  I’d love to hear your opinion.

Content Attribution:

Content attribution is the idea that a content creator receives credit for the content they produce.  Often what is deemed credit is flexible so here I am defining credit as ownership of content and any repercussions thereof.  So, if there is some copyright shenanigans going on with a piece of content, it’s on the creator.  But also, if content is shared globally and goes viral that is sourced to the creator and they reap the benefits.  As it stands now most online media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Reddit, Quora, and LinkedIn obtain a ‘worldwide non-exclusive royalty free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).’  That’s directly from Twitter’s terms of service, but the others are extremely similar.  Of those I looked at only Medium ensured the user that content would remain the creators and any distribution would be passed by the creator before completed.  As it stands the majority of content available on the internet doesn’t necessarily belong to a very large company, but that company has free, worldwide access to distribute or destroy it.  This can lead to controversial scenarios such as the destruction of YouTube videos showing violence, which happens to also destroy the very detailed video history created by the people of Syria of the war ravaging their country. It also leads to the need to own a piece of property on the internet before you content is actually yours.  While that property cost may be comparably small to physical property, the barrier to entry still exists. This is most damning in areas where poverty is high and the need to be heard is rampant, yet just being heard gets those creators little compared to if the content they were building was theirs.

 Twitter Content Terms Facebook Content Terms Facebook Content TermsInstagram Content Terms Pinterest Content Terms Reddit Content Terms Medium Content Terms LinkedIn Content Terms

Corporate Consolidation:

The internet was meant to be a global democratization of knowledge accessible by anyone.  I don’t know about you though, but I have one internet and cable provider available to me in the region that I live in, Comcast.  Where I last lived there was also one, Time Warner Cable now Spectrum, but Verizon Fios was working its way around the town and it was one of the most exciting things to happen in years.  Okay, so it was a small town and not much happened.  But having two internet providers is like seeing a unicorn and we were ready to embrace the magical creature even if it would take years for implementation.  Currently I am fascinated by this great map that shows the number of broadband providers in a given area in the US (the link is below).  There is a maximum of 13 providers in any given area across the country, but the number of areas with three or more providers is dramatically lower than the areas with only two providers.  And when you filter for areas with only one internet and cable provider, almost the entire country lights up.

Consolidation is not only happening with providers.  There is massive consolidation and silos in the actual use of the internet.  What browser do you use?  I bet I could guess.  At most I would need four guesses; Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, or Firefox.  There are others but the majority of internet users take advantage of one of those four.  As far as search engines go, you probably use Google, but you may use Bing.  Unless you use TOR, and then that’s a whole other story.  But in general, there is heavy consolidation with both the delivery and use of the internet, leaving those in power with the ability to make the rules up as they go and ignore us plebians just trying to effectively use this truly amazing tool.

Regulation:

These corporations that have become highly consolidated are also highly unregulated and have been that way since inception.  Because of this, providers have been able to drive prices up for mediocre services and those which were able to get into the business at the beginning have enough control over those who would write regulation that it isn’t going to happen without major lobbyist reform.  This lack of regulation just creates more lack of regulation as these companies consolidate (e.g. the Charter acquisition of Time Warner Cable last year) as power consolidates with the companies.  The only leg that we consumers have to stand on is anti-trust (e.g. the attempt of Comcast to acquire Time Warner Cable two years ago).  Without effective regulation these companies operate essentially as monopolies in the territories they have sliced up and come to agreements on with the other providers.

Anonymization:

The internet has given access to free speech for all, an extraordinary feat and a great addition to humankind.  Unfortunately, this free speech has come on the heels of anonymization, and that has led to a growing divide across ideologies as individuals and rhetoric online becomes more and more charged.  Being able to hide behind a screen and a username brings people a confidence they don’t have in the physical world; confidence to say something they may not have, to back an opinion they may not believe in, or to attack someone they may otherwise be polite to.

Solutions:

In this ever-quickening age of emerging technology there seem to be solutions promising to address every type of problem the world has to throw at us humans except for maybe us humans.  Oh wait, we have robots for that.  We’ll get into that in a few weeks.  But what this means is since the inception of the internet there have been some pretty tremendous breakthroughs in technology that have the potential to fix the problems we just spoke of.  I say ‘have the potential’ because you never really know if someone can swim until you throw them in the water.  Until we have analytical proof though, what I’ve seen of these technologies is enough to convince me that there can be a true concerted effort to right the wrongs of our global communications system.

Blockchain:

Blockchain is the killer of the troll.  Especially when used in the right way.  The distributed ledger allows for all transactions of a particular block to be tracked with transparency back to the inception of that block.  By attributing blocks to individual users, other users are able to see the actions and history of that user.  While this still allows for anonymity of a user from their physical persona, it essentially creates a line of credit for their online persona.  If a user is discredited in one forum or community, that will follow them to the next forum or community they enter.  They will then have to build their credit back up from the wreckage.  Sure they could create another user, wipe the slate clean, but that would be like having no credit and I don’t know about you but I know what a bank says to someone who has no credit.

IoT: IoT is a global, diverse, and distributed collection of devices that talk to one another wirelessly and range from those that fit under our skin to those that fit in our pocket and those that take up floorspace in our kitchen.  From RFID trackers to devices on manufacturing equipment to drones and washer dryers, connected devices are being integrated into nearly every current generation hardware piece.  Wifi enablement has allowed these devices to become integral in both our daily lives and corporate processes with use cases spanning from consumer to enterprise.  What this means is more connected computing power is moving around the globe in shipping containers and in our pockets today than even existed 30 years ago.  And all of it operates wirelessly. This is the key to the distributed internet, the fact that there exists a wireless, mobile network of hardware.  Essentially this is what the phone lines were to the original internet connections.  Now they run on their own fiber or coax but the first internet connections relied on existing infrastructure just as internet 2.0 will rely on the existing infrastructure of wireless devices.

Quantum:

Quantum computing and especially quantum communications will be the second wave of internet 2.0 similarly to how dedicated fiber and coax lines were the second wave of the internet.  Quantum communication with an established network has the potential to open up communication lines to the entire current unconnected population.  However, that will take more than a few years to establish and a reliable quantum communication network cannot be expected until 2030 at the earliest.  Until then we must rely on what we have and hope that like AI and quantum computing (different from quantum communication) progresses faster than expected.

Early Adopters:

As I mentioned a few weeks ago us millennials are the generation of tech for tech’s sake.  We are early adopters, we are those who gave Google Glass a chance and are willing to implant chips in our skin for work.  That is exactly what is needed in the distributed internet.  The general concept creates better service as there is more adoption, and there needs to be trust from the early adopters that things will get better as word spreads.  So don’t be wary, initial users, it will get better.  The way mesh networks work is by bouncing off devices within a given distance of one another.  As wifi and Bluetooth ranges improve so will these applications but what will improve the services faster is just having your friends sign up and them having their friends sign up and their friends and so on.

Use Cases:

While implementation of what is considered a distributed internet is still in its infancy, there are a few companies and institutions which have begun to lay out how the overall theory would come into reality.  Today we look at RightMesh and FireChat, all of which are attempting to bring into reality the distributed internet.

On September 7 2017, RightMesh released a whitepaper outlining a distributed internet system that operates off the devices already operating globally. The company relies on its software that can be installed on any device and allows users to profit off of unused processing power and internet bandwidth.  Currently the software is in beta and available on Android and Java enabled devices, and is not available in the US or Canada. Key to the RightMesh platform is developers to create integrated apps in local languages.  The company has provided a free software development kit.  As with other mesh networks this one relies on a userbase, and gains strength and stability as that userbase increases.  As we begin to see adoption rates increase we will better understand the benefits and implications of this particular application of distributed networks.

Many users of FireChat advocated using the application for those involved in the catastrophic hurricanes of the last month as powerlines and internet connections and cell towers went down across entire major cities.  This application is a messaging app that allows users to communicate with one another across a given distance without internet connection or cell service.  It uses the Wifi or Bluetooth embedded in a devices existing hardware to send a message.  This is limited to just over 200 feet between any given device but messages are able to bounce across other devices within the network until reaching their destination, so the more people who download the app the further messages are able to travel.  This is particularly advantageous in exactly this type of disastrous situation, where people may be stuck in closed off homes with no communication available as rescue and recovery teams pass by outside.  Again, the downside to this application is the need to have mass buy in; larger communities of users means better service so the first users may experience less than satisfactory services.

Idealized World:

I am an internet idealist.  An optimist some may say.  I believe in the internet as a democratizing force that enables users through knowledge and opportunity to make something better out of their lives.  It could be the great equalizer.  Right now, it is not.  Which is unfortunate but there’s no help in moping over it.  Instead the generation of tech can get off our asses and actually do something about it, like build a better one.  With the emerging technologies we have available at our fingertips the largest problems of the current internet will not disappear over time.  They just won’t exist in the first place.  The technology won’t allow those issues to be viable in the protocol.  Of course, there will be other issues that inevitably arise, as with all things, and we can tackle those when they come too.  Remember, when the first internet emerged those on the forefront thought about it idealistically as well.  We just happen to be starting the cycle all over again 30 years later.

Thanks for spending some time with me today while I fleshed out some ideas about the distributed internet.  Speaking of fleshed out, this episode was pretty bare bones, so I will be most likely following up with another on the same topic as more information arises.  If you’re interested in being on the podcast or just talking about interesting topics with me please reach out, I love to hear about all the cool and awesome things different people do with their lives.  I hope you enjoyed this today.  Next week we discuss the swift and strong break in education and how we are digging a deeper hole for ourselves every day we stand still. Be greater than average friends!

Amanda

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