Living in interesting times

Lecture to Bath University Computer Science Society, November 8, 2006.

We have come a long way since January 1983 when the Internet was conjured into existence. We’ve seen the growth, academic use and then privatisation of the network, the development of many applications and services, of which Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web is probably the most important, the inflation and bursting of the first dotcom bubble and, over the last six months, the leadup to the great web crash of 2008.

We are a point in the development of the networked world where we face many issues, some of which have obvious solutions, some of which have no clear solution and some of which have desirable solutions that will conflict with or undermine other desirable outcomes.

In the midst of these many challenges we can clearly see and must admit that past practice has stopped being a good guide to current or future decision-making. We cannot afford to fight the next war using the tactics and weaponry of the last, in the way generals so often do. We must instead look clearly and dispassionately at the Internet of today, make the hard decisions about what we want tomorrow’s network to look like, and find a way forward.

For some, the way forward is already being sketched out by Google, Yahoo! and Amazon as they offer tempting APIs and non-standard data formats to enthusiastic developers keen to add some scripted magic to even the most banal website. For others social networks, virtual worlds, user-generated content and the end of mainstream media point the way to the promised metaverse, the land of prims and money.

But we must not be fooled by the cool sites and apparently open interfaces. Most of the effort is – literally – window dressing, designed to attract venture capitalists to poorly-thought out businesses in order to find enough first-round funding to build either a large enough user base or a barely runnable alpha codebase that will provide Google or Yahoo! with yet another tasty snack.

We, users and often early adopters of Flickr, del.icio.us, Writely and YouTube, get left with the crap, of course, once it’s been through the corporate digestive tract. It is worth noting that only one type of coffee bean is thought to benefit from being digested by a monkey – most are considered unpalatable after the process.

As you may have guessed by now, I don’t believe that Web 2.0 is the answer. Or rather, if it is the answer then we are clearly asking the wrong question.

Karl Marx outlined the steps through which he believed an exploitative industrial society needed to pass before it could reach socialism. After the revolution came the dictatorship of the proletariat, a painful but necessary stage of oppression and correction, during which the organs of the state would whither away as humanity achieved its true potential and coercion became unnecessary.

Web 2.0 marks the dictatorship of the presentation layer, a triumph of appearance over architecture that any good computer scientist will instantly recognise and dismiss. Javascript and XML cannot deliver the stability, scalability or effective resource discovery that we need, and nothing that is being done today in Web 2.0 has any long-term applicability to solving the problems of turning the network from a series of tubes connecting processors into a distributed computing environment.

Sun Microsystems may have trademarked ‘the network is the computer’ twenty years ago, but we’re still a decade off delivering.

There is a danger that we will find ourselves stuck with this inadequate solution, that Tim O’Reilly’s dream will beome our nightmare and, as in Soviet Russia or the People’s Republic of China, the oligarchy who benefit most from the stale socialising of Flickr and YouTube will manage to hold back the transition to true socialism that Marx predicted.

O’Reilly, more the pragmatic Mao than the psychopathic Stalin, I think, has already announced that Web 2.0 is about business and development now, not the emerging collective intelligence of humanity he preached from the barricades last year.

So what are the challenges that face us today? And what future could we imagine, assuming that we don’t get stuck with point and drag interfaces and XMLhttpRequest forever?

These are the main things that keep me awake at night.

Net governance, or how we ensure that politics is properly applied

Rolling out the network to the next five billion people

Network neutrality, and the importance of keeping the pipes dumb

How copyright works when everything is digital or digitised

The nature of knowledge in a networked world, and how best to learn from the failure of Wikipedia

Staying safe, and ensuring that the technology is used to keep us safe, not keep us controlled

If code is law, how do we write reliable, provable code

Each is worth expanding on, but for the moment I think there is a wider issue that we need urgently to consider. We need to decide how too deal with the social, political and economic impact of the monster that we have unleashed since the two-way Web came back into fashion. Participative media, citizen journalism, blogging and self-publishing and social networking mark the point at which the societal structures of the second half of the twentieth century finally break down and vanish.

History doesn’t end, but eras do. And between 2000 and 2007 we have seen the end of the post-war era.

For the last ten years I’ve been saying that the real impact of the Internet, when it comes, will shake up our world more than any other revolution, and that it will happen faster than any other change. This is because it was clear to me, as an unreconstructed Marxist, that the economic infrastructure of the global economy had already moved to the network, and that the societal and cultural superstructure was therefore bound to follow.

It is happening. It is happening all around us. The network, built and architected to permit fast exchange of information between companies, built to facilitate financial transactions, both wholesale and retail, has become a conduit for individual self-expression and the result – at least in the developed West where access is becoming universal – is that political processes, media companies and businesses of every type are being changed.

The shape of the US election was partly determined by the blogosphere, especially the election monitoring that is going on, not to mention the political scandals.

We are inventing new forms of artistic and cultural expression, from machinima to mashups via video clips and blogs, and soon we will find ways to curate, present and sell them, as we do with every other form of artistic expression.

Companies like Dell feel the fury of their former consumers and try to reinvent themselves in the image of the participative community, fooling nobody.

And every media outlet is turning to its former audience and trying to find ways to include and embrace the, hoping that they can turn participation into money when previously all they needed was passive participation. Newspapers have passed the point of no return, and are so stepped in ink that going on were as tedious as to return. They have lost.

What is to be done?

We can move forward, and even achieve a modicum of network and social justice, if we recognise two fundamental principles. The first is from Larry Lessig: code is law . We write the code, and so, within the broad limits of physical and mathematical reality, we can do whatever we want with or to the network.

The second is even more fundamental. In the big game of scissors, paper, stone, politics trumps engineering . The limits on our capabilities, and the breadth of our vision, depend on politics (widely construed to include religious and social concerns) far more than engineering.

Put simply, the IETF and ISOC cannot beat ICANN, and ICANN does what the Commerce Department wants.

Yet all is not lost. The revolutionary period is not yet done, and there is time to shape the technologies and politics to give outcomes which we progressive liberals would approve of, still time for social justice and freedom of expression to be built into the laws and the code.

If we can unlearn the lessons of the Web and transcend its stateless protocols to achieve real distributed processing over a managed, trustworthy network, then the possibilities truly are remarkable.

We can build hybrid applications which use modular code and distributed services, some local, some remote. We can introduce yet another level of abstraction – always the solution to any computer science problem – and get our codebase away from any processor dependency, so that it doesn’t matter if your libraries are local or remote but the stuff you use regularly is always where you need it to be, cached on your local storage when needed, on a remote server when you’re online.

If we can establish a new IP regime, one which gets away from the current reification of ideas and their expression to one which allows freeer use and reuse, which does not give up the grey areas of interpretation to machine logic, and which respects the rights of creator while balancing them with the wider interest of society, then we could unleash a new era of creative expression to match the early years of the last century.

And if we sort out our interfaces and interactions we can finally put our heads into the screen, be part of the metaverse, enter cyberspace and interact fully and equally with agents, people, sims and any other machine- or human-generated intelligence.

But this will not just happen. Indeed, it will almost certainly not happen unless people of good intent and deep skill work to make it happen. When Google hired a K Street lobbyist it was seen as a sign that they are selling out, but however much we may disapprove of the way politics is done in the US it showed that Google, technocrats above all, realised that they needed to get their hands dirty if they were going to shape the legislative and regulatory agendas.

We need programmers and developers and systems administrators and network architects to engage with the political programme as much as they engage with the technology. Without them the decisions made by the politicians, urged on by think tanks and lobbysists will be taken in ignorance of the technical reality and we’ll see more absurdities like the Deleting Online Predators Act.

The time has come for us to stand up and be counted. And we need people who can count in hex.

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