This week Facebook’s ban-bot went berserk; Github went down; and all Google services collapsed for a few minutes, taking 40% of the Internet with them. Just another week on the Internet, then. We love our centralized services, until they let us down.
Bruce Sterling calls them “the Stacks”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft. In his most recent (always riveting) State of the World conversation, he wrote:
In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.
They don’t want much, those Stacks. Just your identity, your allegiance, and all of your data. Just to be your sole provider of messaging, media, merchandise, and metadata. Just to take part in as much of your online existence as they possibly can, and maybe to one day mediate your every interaction with the world around you, online or off.
Other proto-Stacks want to join their number. Once upon a time, Twitter was essentially an API: then they became aware of “the increasing importance of us providing the core Twitter consumption experience through a consistent set of products and tools.” Meaning they want to be a Stack. Github used to just host git repositories; now it does issue tracking, project management, and more. Call it a specialized business Stack for software development. And Yahoo is either a second-tier Stack or a Stack wannabe, depending on how generous you’re feeling today.
The essay “Android is better” was all over my Internet this week. Its money quote:
Most services I rely on daily are owned by Google. My world revolves around GMail and Google search. I could start listing Android features I adore, but this succinctly states why Android makes sense for me: The number of Google products I use each day boggles my mind. No other company has embedded itself this deeply into my life.”
Indeed. It’s very convenient to live in a Stack. It’s easy, it’s seamless, it’s comfortable. And it means putting much, or very nearly all, of our increasingly important online existences into the hands of a few titanic megacorporations. It means relying on their benevolence, not just today, but for the foreseeable future. Remember back in the early days of Google Plus, when Google started disabling users’ accounts for violating Google Plus’s astonishingly poorly-thought-out real-name policy? Remember how betrayed those users sounded?
They believed in Google. And then Google turned on them. Just like it recently turned on and banished people who wanted to run their own servers…or, in other words, wanted to build their own personal nanoStack.
But life inside the Stacks is so much easier, so much better, so much more comfortable, than life in the untracked wilderness outside. Better to live amid the comforts of city-states ruled by benevolent tyrants than to have to hunt your own food, make your own camp, and maintain your own mail servers, amid the beasts and bandits in the trackless wastes outside their walls.
That’s why the hackers who want to jailbreak the Internet will never be more than a curiosity, right? That’s why App.net (which really wants to be a Stack itself, anyway, just a classier one) only just hit 1% of 1% of the population of Facebook…after it introduced a free tier. That’s why new initiatives like Trrst, “a secure and distributed blog platform for the open web,” which is raising money on Kickstarter, will never get anywhere significant. Right?
If technology was a meritocracy I'd be sending this as a peer-to-peer RDF tweet from an Amiga 10,000 running GNU NLS on top of SmallTalk.—
Paul Ford (@ftrain) August 16, 2013
Which, I mean, that would probably be a disaster too.—
Paul Ford (@ftrain) August 16, 2013
These online anarchists, these idealists, don’t just claim that people should control their own data, and where it lives, and who’s allowed to access it; they claim that people want to. They claim that people don’t, and shouldn’t, trust for-profit megacorporations. They claim that client-server Stacks are only big because they’re good for business, while really, in a pure true noble world untrammeled by money and capitalism, everything would be purely peer-to-peer.
Unfortunately these claims are nonsense. Webmail is inherently insecure; and yet, among a group of those people most aware and most perturbed by this fact–the clients of Silent Circle’s recently shuttered email service–
98% of Silent Mail customers opted to let Silent Circle hold the encryption keys, which made using the service much easier. When users manage their own keys, they have to log into a special system to exchange cryptographic keys with each person they want to email with.
Most damning of all, look at Github. It’s a great site, great service, great business. I use it every day. But its name and very existence are also, in a way, fundamental oxymorons:
Today is our quarterly reminder that Linus gave us a completely distributed VCS, so we stored all of our repos in a single point of failure.—
Gary Bernhardt (@garybernhardt) August 15, 2013
The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of people, including highly technical capable people, don’t want peer-to-peer protocols. They don’t want to own their own data. They just want ease. Convenience. Someone else to take over and take care of their data problems. They want the Stacks.
However. There have been a couple of odd and interesting exceptions.
Consider Skype. It was brilliantly peer-to-peer…for a while. But a few years ago it too turned to centralized servers. Not, its principle architect maintains, to make surveillance easier, but because in today’s mobile world, where any given node is very likely a phone with limited battery, bandwidth, and processing power, peer-to-peer protocols are less effective. But is that only a temporary truth? Might they raise their hydra heads again in five or ten years, when even phones can serve as supernodes?
Most of all, consider BitTorrent, and the hundreds of millions of users of its distributed swarming protocol. It is the anti-Stack; it is immensely popular; and it is a sign that another way is possible. Might the city-states yet be overrun by Khan-like nomads? Might you one day only need to install a StackSeed app on your phone, or computer, in order for it to become a node in one of several ever-shifting peer-to-peer clouds, striping multiple copies of your encrypted data to a motley crew of other member devices, flickering chaotically around the planet like weather?
Maybe. But only if, somehow, ad-hoc encrypted peer-to-peer services become as seamless and easy to use as today’s Stacks. It seems unlikely, yes; but look at Skype, look at BitTorrent. It doesn’t seem inconceivable. Maybe, just maybe, the reign of the Stacks will be temporary after all.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.