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Freedom to be Equal

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But the return to the original peer-to-peer model of the Internet is fraught with many new problems. As Minar and Hedlund note, "These phenomena pose challenges and obstacles to peer-to-peer applications: both the network and the applications have to be designed together to work in tandem. Application authors must design robust applications that can function in the complex Internet environment, and network designers must build in capabilities to handle new peer-to-peer applications."

The answers to these questions, the authors suggest, might exist more in the past and the early years of the Net than in new technologies. As they observe, "Fortunately, many of these issues are familiar from the experience of the early Internet; the lessons learned there can be brought forward to design tomorrow’s systems." Past experience can serve new Web designers because the new P2P network model is more "revolutionary for its scale and its particular implementations than for its concept." In this sense, "a good number of past Internet applications can provide lessons to architects of new peer-to-peer applications."

Minar and Hedlund suggest that in some cases designers of current applications can learn from distributed Internet systems like Usenet and DNS. In other cases, the changes that the Internet has undergone during its commercialization may need to be reversed or modified to accommodate new peer-to-peer applications. "In either case," they note, "the lessons these systems provide are instructive, and may help us, as application designers, avoid causing the death of the Internet."

While the greatest use for peer-to-peer technology on the Internet so far has been Napster and the sharing of music, the ultimate power of P2P might really exist in that old human form of communication called conversations.

In "Jabber Conversational Technologies" from Chapter Six of the Peer-To-Peer book, Jeremie Miller discusses the new freedom that the Internet might bring about by free-flowing conversations. Miller should know as founder of Jabber, an Open Source movement designed to create a new, standard distributed XML-based platform for instant messaging and presence applications.The popular Internet book The Cluetrain Manifesto observed that "Markets are conversations." While this might be true to a certain extent, conversations are much more than markets. In effect, they really might be that magic "ether" of the Internet. As Miller notes:

"Conversations are an important part of our daily lives. For most people, in fact, they are the most important way to acquire and spread knowledge during a normal working day … Conversations provide a comfortable medium in which knowledge flows both directions, and where contributors share an inherit context through their subjects and relationships."

Apart from having a historic importance in communication, Miller observes how conversations are becoming an important part of the networked world. "Witness the popularity of email, chat, and instant messaging, which enable users to increase the range and scope of their conversations to reach those that they may not have before."

But to Miller, there is a problem with conversations on the Internet because little attention has been paid to popular Internet channels that support conversations. As Miller notes:

"Instead, most people see the Web as the driving force, and view it as a content delivery platform rather than a place for exchanges among equals. The dominance of the Web has come about because it has succeeded in becoming a fundamentally unifying technology that provides access to content in all forms and formats. However, it tends toward being a traditional one-way broadcast medium, with the largest base of users being passive recipients of content."

Despite the equalizing forces of content on the Internet, Miller observes that conversations "have a stubborn way of re-emerging in any human activity." Much of the recent excitement and buzz around the Web, he suggests, have centered on sites that use it as a conversational medium. For a few examples he offers "conversations" that take place on particular sites (Slashdot, eBay, Amazon) or particular applications (Napster, AIM/ICQ, Netshow).

While the emergence of a conversational Internet holds great promise for freedom over equality, much of the current state of Internet conversations is in a state of chaos. As Miller notes, "the new conversations sprout up in a disjointed, chaotic variety where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing."

For this reason, Miller suggests that Internet conversations stand to benefit significantly by the introduction of a common platform designed to support the rich dynamic and flexible nature of a conversation.

Does his creation Jabber offer this new "holy grail" for conversation on the Internet? Miller might be a little prejudiced but he thinks so. He does offer a good argument.

Jabber could well become this platform. It’s not a single application (although Jabber clients can be downloaded and used right now) nor even a protocol. Instead, using XML, Jabber serves as a glue that can tie together an unlimited range of applications that tie together people and services. Thus, it will support and encourage the growth of diverse conversational systems - and this moment in Internet history is a ripe one for such innovations.

So, we return to our original observation of the persistence of a myth that we are living in an era of great freedom when in reality we might be really be living in an era of unprecedented equality.

A few have realized the myth. But can young gurus of technologies like peer-to-peer and Jabber turn the tide?

They are up against a massive force. Ultimately, the myth of freedom might be one of Madison Avenue’s greatest products. Working in conjunction with Washington and Wall Street it provides a foe much larger than the Democrat or Republican Party.

The objections to the freedom promised by peer-to-peer communication have begun to infiltrate in from all sides. As Minar and Hedlund note in their article from Peer-to-Peer, certainly not everyone thinks that P2P communication is a good thing. Some objections cite legal and moral concerns. Other problems are technical. And some are economic. Many network providers, they note, having set up their systems with the idea that users would spend most of their time downloading data from central servers, have economic objections to peer-to-peer models.

Network providers have began to fight back. "Some have begun to cut off access to peer-to-peer services on the basis that they violate user agreements and consume too much bandwidth."

The arguments continue as the battle between America’s paradoxical ideas of freedom and equality work as a subtext to the whole show. At one time in America, morality might have been the best element to have on your side. At one time, even religion. At one time even technology or science. But now it’s increasingly clear that economics is the best partner to have by your side.

Some might say that the challenge for the young today in communication is to stop equality from being the leading economic model. But it is perhaps better to suggest that the communication challenge is not in stopping the equality of mass produced content in America. Rather it is in creating a new economic model for freedom. Can real freedom ever dominate in a late capitalistic consumer culture? And what does the medium of electricity do to the sense of freedom and equality? Or, is all of this talk about electric media and psychology just that, little more than talk? Since America is the "late capitalist consumer culture" in history, there is not a lot to go on here.

Will the Internet really become the new way towards this new freedom and economics? Or is it little more than the Madison Avenue "wolf" in sheep’s clothing? Something dark and demonic hiding behind all of its millions of sites happy faces? The more time you spend on the Internet, the more difficult this question is to answer.

You spend a little time on it, you tend to lose some of your objectivity just like any scientist observing phenomena. Yes, of course you become more a part of it. Just like any thing else you spend time with. Your television set. Your bedside radio. Your daily commute down the ten lanes of the Las Angeles freeway system. The Starbucks you spend you time in. Your family.

This new medium has proven to be a trusty partner to many. How much has it also betrayed people by convincing them it was something that it was not?

Perhaps this is one reason that the words "consumer freedom" are bantered around so much today until it is almost a type of "elevator musak" of the entrenched economic powers that be.

The rallying cry of our controlling economic forces in America today is "Content is king." Rightly so. Internet "content" symbolizes equality while the "connectivity" promised by peer-to-peer symbolizes freedom.

American consumer culture has never been able to figure out how it can make money on freedom. The only money is through a modern form of Henry Ford’s mass production. Now, it is electronic content that is mass produced rather than black cars. But of course content today is no where near as important as that content that Henry Ford produced with his black cars. It can’t support itself like Ford’s cars could and always needs to go begging for sponsorship in the advertising world.

In a large sense, the business Republican world of freedom has moved ahead so much like the Democratic social world of equality. Each has needed sponsors in the end. The Republicans needing advertisers. The Democrats needing foundations and taxpayers.

But to all who are out to create freedom rather than perpetuate equality. No one today knows how to make money out of peer-to-peer communication. But at one time, a company was making money out of it.

It was called AT&T.

Not Pacific Bell or BellSouth or Sprint or MCI or (toss in any of the hundreds here). It was AT&T and it ran the first grand American experiment in peer-to-peer communication.

It put into practice an economic model called the "toll gate" economic model for communication. You paid on a time basis for the ability to communicate directly. It worked when the AT&T owned both long distance and local communication.

But when it lost long distance communication it was time for emergence of other economic models based on "content" rather than "connectivity." Content, like all of that content of mass production which fueled the American mass culture, needed something else than the "toll gate" concept of a "nickle to reach out and touch someone." Media content business models depend on advertising sponsorship (to underwrite loss) far more than "toll gate" economic models.

It is as if Henry Ford decided to produce cars and sell them for far less than his cost of production. As if he was running some dot.com business circa the year 2000. To cover costs, he would plaster logos of sponsors on the cars so that they would look like Nascars. The cars are not worth what the market has paid for them.

The new economy of personal communication in America will be tied closely to democracy. Modern versions of mass production content have been pushed on American consumers whether it is children’s cereal or the two candidates for American President. Now, there is only money in the symbols created by the producing class and sold to the consuming class. By the politicians sold to their constituents.

But what if the consuming class could once again produce its own symbols and then buy them, or buy into them? Bypass all of those middle-men distributors, and wholesalers and retailers? All of the politicians and advertisers? Purchase these symbols without the hint of sponsorship intrusion from Madison Avenue or from some social cause foundation?

In the end, the two classes Marx suggested is just a myth. There is really no proletariat or bourgeoisie class. No producer class. No consumer class. There is just one class which dominates at one time. Just as the producer in America dominates the work days and the consumer dominates the leisure time of the nights, weekends and holidays.

The real challenge is in being more producers of our own life than consumers of a created life. Is the cycle between the paradoxical ideas of freedom and equality shifting? Is equality finally giving way to freedom? Or is a grand battle yet ahead? Only we know. Not Washington. Not even Madison Avenue or Hollywood.

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