Postcards from the Edge

Multiple reports were expelled into the surrounding ether from the Supernova conference on decentralization in Palo Alto (blogged by Jeremy Allaire, Cory DoctorowGlenn Fleishman, JD LasicaMitch Ratcliffe, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, according to Dave Winer and Dan Gillmor. Dan was even pressed into service to replace a scheduled keynote by Clay Shirky, stranded here in NYC by his airline). Dave Winer participated as a panelist on blogging but was tepid at first about even the bit of centralized meatspace the conference required:

Is it in poor taste to say that I wouldn’t go if it weren’t 15 minutes away and a freebie for me because I’m speaking? Yeah, it is in poor taste, but I have to say it anyway. Maybe the conference will exceed my expectations. Right now they’re pretty low.”*

Understandable. Conferences, like computer magazines, seemed to have been eclipsed by the immediacy of the web. But the unexpected seemed to happen as the conference was blogged from the floor by many who brought their unique insights, their own publics and shared the ability to look over each other’s shoulders. Even Dave seemed to warm to it, perhaps helped by companionship over spicy noodles:

“Hey the nicest moment of the evening, even though it was horribly embarrassing, was the enthusiastic round of applause I got when I walked into the restaurant and saw the scene. The cool thing about weblogs is that today in 2002, it attracts the nicest, smartest, and most ambitious people. We kicked butt at the conference during the day, leading Kevin Werbach to say that bloggers rule the world, or something like that, to which I say It’s about time y’all figured that out and stop sending PR people to explain technology to us, and be prepared to answer the tough questions, and also be prepared to build on our work. Nothing is more frustrating than a BigCo who sends a glad-hander to tell you how they’re going to fail at reinventing everything you had working three years ago.

Life’s like that. We’d rather stay in our own cocoons but are forced to congregate and we end up getting more than we expected. “April is the cruelest month,” T. S. Eliot lamented over spring’s annual invitation to party.

Well Named

Like the Supernova conference, supernovas are the source of the heavy elements that have been organized into humans and other simple creatures. The Big Bang was certainly the archetype of centralization – everything’s been rushing to the edges ever since. The elements spewing from the big bang were lightweight: hydrogen, helium, some deuterium and lithium. Evolution’s just a process of combining in novel ways. In the primordial minute or so, sub-nuclear particles coalesced into subatomic particles and then into atoms, molecules, etc. My favorite data point is that a neutron has 10.3 minutes to join up with a proton or it disappears. I guess a 16-year-old could relate.

After spreading around the universe, the light elements coalesced enough to form stars and to fire up the fusion of hydrogen into helium and thence into bigger molecules right up to carbon, iron, etc. Cosmologists point out that life depends on supernovae to expel those elements out into space to populate the universe with enough heavier elements to support organic chemistry. Every interesting atom in our bodies was cooked in the fires of an unnamed sun and exploded into our sun’s orbit by a supernova.

The Stupidnet

Cory Doctorow was inspired by David Isenberg’s talk on the promise of the Stupid Network:

In two or three years, you can have an entire telephone company’s worth of bandwidth in your house for $2,000.
“The phone companies value artificial scarcity. The most malleable of all laws (Moore’s Law, Gilder’s Law) is accounting law — depreciation…
” So keep it simple, stupid. All the smarts in the network should be at the ends, in PCs or devices, not in routers or other network pieces.
“Internetworking shifts control and value-creation from the network owner to the end-user. A conventional telephone call touches every node in every network, and every node’s owner can add features — call waiting, etc. The Internet’s job is to ignore network-specific differences, like call waiting. Call-waiting is defined at the end-points between both parties on the conversation.

David Isenberg seems to assume what everyone else seems to dismiss out of hand – that we can run fiber to the home and be done with it. If the cablecos could profit on coax 30 years ago, why is it assumed someone else can’t make sense of fiber today – it’s not like you can’t buy stuff using it.

Cory references George Gilder who is worth quoting here. Gilder’s Law of the Telecosm holds that bandwidth capacity grows ten times faster than Moore’s Law of microprocessors doubling every 18 months or so. He pointed out as early as 1992 in The Coming of the Fibersphere that, “In a world of dumb terminals and telephones, networks had to be smart. But in a world of smart terminals, networks have to be dumb“.

Gilder characterized an optical fibersphere, analogous to the atmosphere from which we use clever radios to pluck just the message we want while ignoring the rest. The rise of ubiquitous clever connected machines threatens every intermediary and its employees and shareholders. Whether they’re telcos, “content” companies, wireless providers or the politicians who work for them, there’s a zillion people and organizations which, however clueless they may be, can sense that there’s something radically wrong with their income model and a lot of franchises are about to be cancelled. His Fibersphere article hoped that the owners of fiber would just hook it all up together and let us light it from the edges, so that every packet is propagated everywhere to be grabbed by just the intended recipient. Under this model, a signal will travel down the fiber to Beijing faster than it will move from your microchip to the back of your computer.

The solution of the centralists is cleverness. We’re promised services that the smart machines don’t quite do yet (but will), like Voice Over IP, Pay Per View,
Messaging, etc. Cleverness is a euphemism for complexity we don’t need promised by business plans we can’t trust.

And that’s the take-away from any discussion about decentralization vs. concentration. When you buy a service, you don’t buy it from a company or its owners or its asset base or even a stable set of employees. You buy it from a business plan and nothing more. “The most malleable of all laws (Moore’s Law, Gilder’s Law) is accounting law.”

If the business plan doesn’t work out, your trust will be violated in a New York minute. Airlines routinely cancel flights to maximize their scarce returns, and probably don’t have a lot of choice. Clay Shirky, trying to get to the Supernova conference to deliver his keynote, could only hope that his reservation reflected a reservoir of resources, competence and intent adding up to a timely flight to the west coast. Unfortunately you don’t buy a plane ticket from a pilot, a worthy craft and loyal crew, but from a set of contingent, often promiscuous business intentions.

Separation of Church and Statement

I’m convinced we need to separate representations about quality from those from whom we seek quality. Until quality is quantified and rolled up into useful data across vendors, customers and individual products, we’ll continue to stumble around in the agora bumping into the stalls. It’s information that will never be organized by vendors since it chronicles the failure of business plans that were never going to work anyway, and in some vague sense, they knew it all along.

8:57:27 PM    

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