This is a first in a series of articles that shows how technology I’ve imagined in my writing will change the world, speed our evolution and prove essential to our survival. First off, with some exceptions, I haven’t invented all of the tech in my work. Sci-Fi, as a genre, draws on many sources. Often inventing tech is about combining multiple ideas into a new idea. Take virtualization as an example. I know a lot of about VMWare and other virtualization tech from my years a systems engineer. When I decided in my first novel to give everyone the power to run full copies of their personality, it only made sense that people could run multiple copies of themselves to work on more complex problems. I called these vSelves. Running full copies of our minds is probably a long way off. One tech that is not far off though is decentralized, peer to peer internet. I wrote about decentralized q-nets, or quantum encrypted, entangled nets, in a short story called The Illustrated Scriptures, about ten years ago. Over the past few years, we’ve seen people already at work on the decentralized part.
If I were to imagine my tech in the modern world, I would envision an uncontrollable, point to point, fully encrypted network run by individual people and communities. Most likely it would evolve separately from the current internet, perhaps using IPv6 and eventually it would allow link points back into the official internet. It would have to be supremely easy to set up, perhaps a small wifi box that can be given to people and linked to a series of satellites and ground based personal cell towers that are publicly developed. Why do we need this tech? Because the internet as you know it, as a source of freedom and communication, is under assault by the forces of the world the love control. Luckily though, there are people working to keep us free from the prying eyes of the censorship regimes. Some enterprising Afghans have already gotten started by building their own wifi networks out of trash. Seeing how important social media and communications networks have been to the Arab Spring uprisings, made me realize that we can’t have an internet that can easily be shut down.
The internet flows through several key choke points, typically run by large corporations or governments. In the United States, this problem is less pronounced, as we have more competition but it is still a problem and could easily become a bigger one. It’s already a problem, when we see big internet companies, that also happen to be big media companies, creating secret pacts to kick people off the internet if they’re accused of copyright infringement. There is no law that’s driving this. There is no court of law that the companies will have to prove their case in. There is no due process. This is just companies who control a choke point, cutting off the internet to people deemed to hurt their business. Oops, maybe they never read the study they commissioned the told them exactl the opposite of what they believe and that is that pirates are media companies biggest customers.
As the internet spanned the world, many people thought that its overwhelming western style individuality would make censorship almost impossible. But of course, totalitarian minded people are often as creative as the people who invent the things that power freedom and creativity. It wasn’t long before corporate greed and the desire to sedate and control the populace began to alter the face of the net. It started in China, with the help of American corporation Cisco. China didn’t have the tech to scale their own internet networks, so they called in Cisco. Cisco, in turn saw it as an opportunity to sell more stuff. An internal document from the era, detailed in a Wired article and a lawsuit against the company, shows how “the networking giant has marketed its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression.” China is just getting started. There is reason they are building the biggest cloud computing center in the world. It’s much simpler to cut people off when you have all their data stored in one place.
Other repressive regimes saw the opportunity to control the internet, by centralizing the core routing and switching infrastructure in state run facilities. Even if they didn’t have the ability to rapidly censor whatever they didn’t like with centralized software, they could always just turn the internet and cell phones off, as we saw in many of the Arab countries during the revolutions, such as Egypt and Syria and Libya. One of the first things the Libyan rebels did, when they captured Tripoli, was turn the internet back on and give everyone 40 bucks worth of free text messages. Governments will only get better at shutting down the internet. Earlier this year we saw our irresponsible elected representatives in the United States contemplating passing an internet “kill switch” law that would allow the government to shut down the internet in the event of a crisis. Just the other day we saw Pakistan banning the use of encrypted VPNs, because they have trouble tracking them. Any technology that makes tracking people more difficult will always be under assault by those who love central control.
Governments and corporations have historically proved themselves bad stewards of the public interest. While we’ve lived under an unprecedented period of freedom in the U.S., we also have a long history of censorship of books and media. We forget that this country was founded by people who saw what happens when a country begins to work counter to its citizens. The response to Wikileaks, a government and corporate whistleblower site, was proof that these groups are still bad stewards. Through a coordinated assault on their finances, their domain names, their internet hosting providers and their bandwidth, Wikileaks was harassed and forced off the internet for long periods. Their founder was suddenly accused of rape. They had their accounts frozen and their ability to take credit cards killed by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal. In essence, Paypal stole their money from them by illegally freezing their accounts. In the end, it just proves that any point in the chain that is controlled by central authority figures is a potential weak point for all of us. The internet is too valuable to leave in the hands of anyone but the people.
We need to evolve the internet to the next phase. We need to move swiftly from a net centrally controlled by governments and corporations. Really, this is just an expansion of the original ideas behind the net. The internet was designed with high survivability in mind. The military created it to allow information to flow even if some points along the chain disappeared. Now it’s time to completely decentralize it and give people a constant voice and connection to the rest of the world. Some people are already working on building this new net. I believe that the civil unrest all over the world will help speed this technology towards mass adoption. In the end I’d like to see a $50 unit that anyone can drop in their house to join the distributed net that nobody can shut down unless you stop everyone. I’d love to see microversions of the unit that can be embedded in home appliances, for use in war torn countries. In the short run we are limited by the technologies of cellular and wireless. In the future, I see quantum entanglement as a possibility for creating point to point nets, but that is probably years away. In the meantime, we work with what we have. You go to war not with the arm you want, but the army you got.