In most of the world, inventors identify a need and wear themselves out creating innovations to meet it. On the Net, the creative process seems to work in reverse: you make cool and exciting stuff, and assume that somebody, somewhere will eventually want to use it. It helps to announce, in the process, that the new gizmo will change everything about the way we (take your pick) communicate, do business, go to the movies, have sex, get an education, acquire music.
On the cover of Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies, there's a blurb from the respected Stanford Law Net guru Lawrence Lessig:
"Peer-to-Peer," he exults,"is the next great thing for the Internet."
If we've learned anything in the past decade or so, it's to run for your life whenever you hear anybody say that. The next great thing on the Internet usually turns out to be something like sex sites, instant messaging, free music or free Web pages. A couple of months ago, we were being told that TiVo was going to alter everything about marketing, but now digital replay recording sales are in the tank. Most people know the difference between something that's neat and something they need.
One thing you can take to the bank (if it's still letting you in the door): Peer-to-Peer is not the next great thing, on the Net or off. It's a great thing, a fascinating and fun thing, especially for the thousands of tech gurus and coders and free music hogs who design and use it. And it unquestionably has some seriously social implications, like rendering censorship or government regulation very nearly impossible, creating new kinds of anonymous payment systems, and giving individuals unprecedented, and perhaps even permanent access to data, communications, ideas and freedom of a kind.
P2P, writes Clay Shirky in a recent essay defining peer-to-peer, is a class of applications that takes advantages of particular resources -- storage, cycles, content, human presence -- that are available at the edges of the Internet, beyond the conventional reach of governments, institutions and businesses.
Because getting to these intensely decentralized resources means operating in a new environment -- unstable connectivity, unpredictable IP addresses -- p2p nodes must operate outside the existing domain name system and have total autonomy from central servers. That, says Shirky, an influential writer about society and the Net, is what makes p2p distinctive. (But even basic definitions about what p2p is aren't clear: One programmer read this paragraph and wrote me: "I don't quite agree. It would seem to me that you need to have very fault tolerant and abuse-tolerant systems that can handle nodes coming and going constantly. That's more the issue, not so much the unpredictable IP addresses. Basically, it needs to be a system that can handle having people connect and disconnect from it at random.")
Whatever. The Digerati and the idealistic are swooning over p2p. They say it's heralding a new age in the personal control of information.
Peer-to-peer, writes Andy Oram of O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. in the introduction of this book, was the eyebrow raiser for the summer of 2000. Napster, SETI@home, Freenet, Gnutella, Jabber and .Net (Microsoft's big P2P gamble) shocked the computer world, and woke it from its long slumber, says Oram. (Was it, in fact, asleep?)
What's the excitement all about? "In various ways, they (these p2p) sites, return content, choice and control to ordinary users," Oram says. Tiny endpoints on the Internet, sometimes without even knowing each other, exchange information and form communities. There are no more clients and servers -- or at least, the servers retract discreetly. Instead, the significant communication takes place between cooperating peers. That is why, diverse as such developments are, it is appropriate to lump them together under the "peer-to-peer" rubric.
This idea is sweeping alternative media. Erik Moeller recently set up a mailing list for p2p journalism which suggests the direction some people believe p2p media might be taking us. "Collaborative journalism" or peer-to-peer-journalism," writes Moeller, "is understood as referring to weblogs and interactive communities where users submit and filter articles and/or comments. We are... interested in exploring new opportunities offered by decentralized networks, or Napster-like content sharing." But it's far from clear what those "opportunities" might be; how collaborative media will work, or what good it might do, let alone whether such media are economically feasible or able to reach any significant audiences. Like those falling trees in the forest, information needs critical mass. It has to be seen and heard by substantial numbers of people to have significance.
There is a utopian flavor about p2p -- freedom for everyone all of the time. Nobody embraces populism more than various political elites, even though there's no evidence that the masses are looking for decentralized info. The problem is that some of the best media has been organized, accountable and coherent in ways that may not be possible in a de-centralized information model.
There is a school of thought that says individuals don't want to control every aspect of everything to do with their lives -- electricity, water, sewage come to mind -- and that information technologies are already overwhelming and incoherent. At the moment, p2p raises more questions than answers or possibilities. Gnutella replaces Napster, which is important to many people, but that doesn't translate into the Net's next great thing.
In a chapter on trust, the authors write about open issues like the absence of a global Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to guarantee anonymity, something many programmers believe isn't possible and is never going to happen. As the writers correctly point out, this has enormous implications for the future of so-called "censorship-resistant" publishing systems, since there are so many ways to trace people and correlate their online activity that any promise of anonymity may be misguided. Which means the idea of a censorship-resistant technology itself may be doubtful.
Chapter Sixteen deals with the accountability of peer-to-peer programs, including one p2p's most touted potential applications, anonymous macropayment digital cash schemes. The micropayment systems discussed in the book offer strong security and anonymity, write the authors, but they come at a cost. "The computational and size requirements of such digital cash are much greater." And they operate more slowly. The writings on digital cash suggest these systems may be workable -- or might even come to pass -- but they have the ring of sci-fi about them, like hover cars; dazzling uses of technology that soar far above the heads, or perhaps even the needs, of most consumers.
Napster is the most widely-heralded example of the p2p revolution, even though, technically, Napster did operate from a central server, and...er...seems to be dying. (But it's peer-to-peer, writes Shirky, because the addresses of Napster nodes bypass DNS, and because once the Napster server resolves the IP addresses of the PC's hosting a particular song, it shifts control of the file transfers to the nodes.)
Shirky wrote the very interesting chapter of this book called "Listening to Napster," in which he writes that what makes Napster and Popular Power and Freenet and AIMster and Groove similiar is that they are all leveraging previously unused resources (mostly by using variable connectivity). This lets them make new, powerful use of the countless millions of devices that have been connected to the edges of the Net in recent years. Perhaps to make P2P clearer, Alexander Graham Bell is often cited, in this book and elsewhere, as an organizer of P2P, the phone a classic example of primal peer-to-peer technology.
The idea is that peer-to-peer is exciting because it harnesses all this unused space, power and connectivity, draws from the basic Net/hacker, free software/Open Source idea of reversing the flow of information, giving more power to individuals to control their own information lives, escaping government or corporation control and domination. Nodes of thought, conversation and data-sharing can flourish far from control of corporate lawyers, FBI agents or copyright snitches, and communications are more lateral and anonymous.
So peer-to-peer is being championed as a technology, a business opportunity and an investment, as well as a revolutionary new means of empowering people and protecting their civil liberties and sense of individualism. Sounds pretty good. In the book, Usenet news and its decentralized model of control is cited as the grandaddy of todays' peer-to-peer applications. Usenet, created in l979, uses no central control, and copies files between computers.
In the afterword, Oram tries to look ahead to the possible implications, to the fact that p2p technologies may challenge governments and corporations. Putting tools in the hands of individual users could have an enormous impact on business models, writes Oram. People might no longer buy a technical manual from O'Reilly & Associates; they might download it from a peer instead, or more creatively perhaps, extract and combine pieces of it along with other material from a number of different peers. This, Oram adds, could further weaken conventional notions of copyright.
Peer-to-peer is useful where "the goods you're trying to get at lie at many endpoints; in other words, where the value of information lies in the contributions of many users rather than the authority of one." It's obvious that this could be valuable in research and some kinds of business development. But the book offers precious few examples of the kind of information that might be valuable in that way to large numbers of people.
This all echoes, in the highest traditions of the hacker ethic, the idealistic founders of the Net and Web, and the ideologists behind Open Source.
But as interesting as it is, and important as some of its applications and implications already are, I personally don't believe peer-to-peer will move beyond the interests and worklives of a relative handful of computer technologists, many of whom seem to have lost touch with the needs, aspirations, frustrations and lives of middle-class Americans, who are always -- always -- the people who decide which media technologies will actually revolutionize the world and which will not.
Consumers seem quite happy to buy their books in bookstores or online, in one piece and in traditional form. Nobody is abandoning movies, magazines aren't vanishing, even the record industry racked up more money than ever before last year: $15 billion.
When peer-to-peer advocates cite the telephone as an example of P2P's usefulness, seeking perhaps to piggy-back on its astonishing success and truly revolutionary impact, they ought to stop and think. People who were geographically isolated, whose lives often depended on getting in touch with the outside world, who desperately needed a way of talking quickly with one another, found that the phone provided an essential technological utility at little cost and with considerable reliability.
To use their new technology, they simply had to order it, and someone came to their house and installed it. Almost from the first, it was inexpensive and comprehensible. People didn't have to manipulate it, and the old AT&T, like many pre-corporatist companies, understood the notion of tech support and customer service. If the thing didn't work, somebody came to your house and fixed it or replaced it pronto. You didn't have to discuss it with them on the phone for hours, either. Especially after the first decade or so, the phone company took completely responsibility for creating and maintaining the technologies they brought into homes.
For anyone in the computer industry to compare that level of service and support with complex new information technologies in which the point is that nobody is in charge or responsible for explaining or fixing things is absurd. The public would be crazy to buy that argument. Peer-to-peer is touted as a democratizing force in computing, but it's hard to imagine a time when more than a handful of people will be able to understand, let alone use, it.
The explosion on moderating, filtering and other individualistic systems in recent years has touched off a wave of narcissistic media and culture online -- people talking to themselves, rating one another's comments, limiting their communications to pre-selected or like-minded people, or trading data, nodes and files as much for the sake of it as for any urgently needed utility.
Now comes the much-heralded P2P, another potential plunge into personalized, chaotic and subterranean communications. Is this what the Net is really about, every invididual talking to every other individual at the same time, nobody really able to grasp, comprehend or evaluate what they are seeing, where it came from, or knowing who else might be seeing it?
In nearly 400 pages of intelligent, mostly complex and technical discussions about the evolution of peer-to-peer, from Jeremie Miller on "Conversational Technologies" to Adam Langley on "Mixmaster Remailers," to Brandon Wiley on "Interoperability Through Gateways," only two clearly significant utilities were mentioned -- file-sharing systems like Napster, which has a central server and isn't technically a peer-to-peer technology, which is why the government and entertainment industry could cripple it, and the fact that P2P threatens to make censorship impossible. But governments have little to fear from P2P. Since everyone is an equal content provider, goes the theory, it would be almost impossible for any significant mass of people to ever see the same message.
In his essay, Shirky offers a litmus test for anybody who is confused about P2P: l. Does it treat variable connectivity and temporary network addresses as the norm?, and 2. Does it give the nodes at the edges of the network significant autonomy? So Napster is P2P because the addresses of Napster nodes bypass the DNS system. Intel's "server peer-to-peer" is not P2P, because servers have always been peers. ICQ and Jabber are P2P because not only do they devolve connection management to the individual nodes once they resolve the address, they violate "the machine-centric worldview" encoded in the DNS system. E-mail is not P2P, because your address is not machine independent.
People's technology needs are clear, especially when it comes to the Net. They are looking to trade stocks, do research, talk about sex, buy stuff on EBay, play games and quizzes, or e-mail Uncle Charlie. At this juncture, the tech world seems on the edge of literally sinking into esoteric, exotic new programming and connective technologies that simply make little coherent sense for the overwhelming bulk of technology users, who are already enraged at the cost, poor quality and lack of service involving the outrageously-unsupported technologies they have, from cell phones to computers to DSL. And they are frustrated at a media environment, from telephones to computers, in which noone seems responsible for anything, from dumb and hostile or commercial messaging to minimal tech support. Peer-to-peer is designed to have no central authority.
This seems like the wrong technology at the wrong time. Only five percent of the country even has broadband, and the number isn't likely to go much higher soon, especially with an administration in Washington which has made it crystal clear that it doesn't want to pay for the required infrastructure.
There's a difference between neat stuff and significant stuff. Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies does a great job of explaining how P2P works, all the way down to free riding and scalability.
But it fails to tell us why people outside of the technical world should really care. It raises many more questions than it answers. It fails to address the true social implications of technologies like this: do Harry and Martha in Dubuque need peer-to-peer?