Monday, November 14, 2005


I'm seeing a swelling of alternets. Programs that circumvent standard internet protocols and create a network of computers using a more egalitarian methodology. Them's big words meaning: "computers are starting to talk to each other directly."

It seems to be getting steadily more popular. Some are built on top of the internet, some are built to avoid internet architecture entirely. All of them are unregulated and anarchist.

So, ask yourself: is it a fad, a blip? Or is it the pre-early-adopter phase of a Big Thing?

The roots of these systems can be tracked back easily to the early days, joyous days of modem-powered BBS and dollar-a-minute pre-internet connectivity. As the internet rose in power, geeks followed it and followed a similar rise in power. Geeks are early adopters, and they flourish when there is pioneering work to do.

The rebellion against the internet didn't start until it became painfully clear that the internet was no longer in early adopter phase. No longer was it a geek plaything. Mapped by Google, legislated by the government, it became Just Another Mainstream Thing. Never was this more clear than when P2P systems began to be held responsible for the data they transmitted.

Ever since the death of Napster, these shadowy alternative internets have started to show up, as geeks begin to seek a way to continue to own and pioneer the field of information technology (communication being the most important of geek traditions). P2P networks such as BitTorrent and Emule are primitive examples of these alternets - geeks seeking to swap information without moderation by The Man.

As with early BBS systems, these P2P networks have primitive capabilities. However, just as the internet grew up, these alternets are growing up. These days, it doesn't take much hunting to find a fledgling alternet which is virtually identical in capabilities to the internet (even using the same browser) except for one small detail:

They are anonymous and untrackable, powered by the people browsing them rather than by huge central systems.

They are built out of WiFi, out of known-friendly contact lists, out of parasites on the fat pipes. They are an techno-anarchist's dream.

It feels like hacking, again. For however long hackers can maintain control.

Of course, that includes all the parts of hacking that the mainstream hates: finicky connections, obscure functionality, and elitism. But that comes with the territory, and if you belong there, you get along great in that kind of environment.

Are these alternets, these darknets - are they growing, or just a fad?

They're growing. Geeks naturally hate corporation-and-government owned pipes. We are not corporations or governments, and they don't much like us: we're unreliable assholes who continually punch holes in their propaganda. The internet is becoming ever more a corporate-and-government owned place. Our searches are mandated by unfeeling engines powered by money. Our experiences are governed by software which both tracks us and falls prey to anyone with an agenda.

Geeks will always be the first to abandon a calcifying ship. This has always been true. Geeks jump-started every major means of communication ever made... then abandoned it as everyone else got on board. Even newspapers!

You can be sure that these darknets will become a daily part of geek life in ten years. And ten years after that, everyone will be using them, and geeks will move on to something else.

Because we are neophiles, and we don't like being told what we can and can't do. This is the way we have always been.

Now notice: the vast majority of technological innovation comes from people who hate being told what to do. People who would be anarchists if they could figure out a way to do it without being punched in the nose by someone bigger than them. People who will stare at you blankly when you ask, "why are you programming that?" Geeks move society forward.

And the way we do that is by turning our chosen field into a huge number of different versions. Then we pick and choose the best, which steadily grows until it becomes a (usually corrupt) monopoly. 2% of us are fantastically wealthy, having chosen properly, and the other 98% dive into a new field, cause a new mess, and try again.

One of the new fields is P2P networking. It's not a fad, it's a field which is about to reach early adopter phase. It's hard to see at the moment, but as geeks move on to embrace alternets, the internet will fall deeper into the clutches of governments and corporations. Their frenzied attempts to maintain control over yesterday's distribution channels will cause darknets, alternets, and virtual worlds to become ever more popular.

You can see it in history. Books become movies. Movies become games. Brick & concrete stores become on-line stores. And each time, the giants scrambled keep their methods intact and to suppress and cripple the new methods. And each time, they failed.

Keep your eye on the bouncing ball, ladies and gentlemen. It's about to go into trust-based peer networking.


Craig Perko said...

Point of fact: virtual worlds will become ever more popular. In ten years, darknets will probably be largely 3D graphics...

Patrick Dugan said...

I totally dig where you're pointing with this. Maybe as the singularity ramps up (particularly if its IA fueled) I suspect we'll see cultures of transhumans with highly divergent interests and mental evolutions sharing telepathic darknets of varying complexity, from image projection to shared virtual worlds. You're definetly onto something here Craig, even if the future is significantly more tame than what I'm suggesting.

Craig Perko said...

If you mean "telepathic" as in "controlled by the mind", I suppose I can see that; but not in the next ten years. Or twenty, I imagine.