Selling Democracy – Part II

In recent years, nearly all communications devices have been designed to adhere to a centralised network 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.

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.

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