The Medium is the Mess…

This is an adaption of a recent entry on my own blog in which I discuss the nature of ‘The Web’ and why it needs to be seen as quite distinct from ‘The Internet’. The focus of this piece is a little different, as I believe there is particular relevance to the P2P movement, in that the term ‘P2P’ when used to refer to P2P-technology, has high relevance to the discussion about ‘Web vs Internet’, and some focus may be needed to differentiate this specific application of the term P2P, from its many other close derivatives. This then is a reference point to keep in mind in relation to the following discussion.

Although Web leviathans like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook all clearly leverage aspects of the many-to-many/ peer-to-peer trend, they also usurp and plunder many aspects of the contributions freely given by their users via constraining them inside the legacy client-server system of the web. However, most web users blindly accept the Web’s plutocratic rules of engagement hook-line-and-sinker and are locked-in to its operational logic which is still very much the antithesis of a peer-to-peer orientated approach.

The concept of P2P on the Web is actively stigmatized from many quarters, mainly by the Music and Movie industries that would like to bury the whole idea, or work out a way to buy and control it. (both unlikely) The difficulty is, that on the pro-P2P side, discussions of the broad applicability of the ‘P2P-Meme’ to so many diverse aspects in our culture, might have the unintended consequence of making the term almost apply to everything and (possibly) nothing at the same time. In other words, the P2P meme’s pluralistic tendencies tend to see the term ‘P2P’ applied in ever increasing ways, arguably diluting some of its power and potential, and its valid heritage as a technical-system born of the Internet that actually predates ‘The Web’ by about 20 years. (my concern is not about ‘history’ so much as the future, as I see P2P-Technology as one of the most compelling potential agents of change in this now fundamental global arena)

From where I stand there is a clear ‘value-axis’ existing on the Internet, and a rather peculiar ‘Cargo-Cult’ type adherence to a dominant cultural meme called “The Web” which as a term is used too often interchangeably with the term “Internet”. This simple semantic muddle must end, as it is the source of a lot of confused reasoning.

Value AxisThere are three primary components in a value-axis of the Internet, Connectivity, Communications and Transactions. Of these three, Connectivity is the most fundamental, with the next most fundamental factor being Communications and then Transactions with all other general applications, (information, entertainment, blogs, websites, web2.0 etc) sitting above these three. This simple taxonomy ranks factors in terms of which is more primary in its ability to ‘enable’ the others.

Websites, Portals (Facebook, MySpace, Saleforce, etc) are at the upper end of this scale of importance. (ie least fundamental) This does not mean to imply that consumer or business websites and ASP-based web-services are not important, but rather that as a rule these sites function atop a foundation of established connectivity, communications and transaction protocols, and are not in themselves ‘fundamental’ in the sense that they exclusively enable higher applications.

The Web itself sits on layer 2, ‘Communications’. After all, the Web, for all the hype associated with it, really just resembles a massive Amusement Park accessed by obtaining a ‘Browser’ ticket. In other words the Browser is your ticket, and you ride this communication platform which is actually built on the more fundamental Connectivity layer. Its no secret where the value truly resides in this mega-market duality. Browsers are free, Connectivity you pay for, and the ‘Attention Economy’ (acknowledgement to Umair Haque) sits like an ecosystem above all that, with Google currently at the top of the food-chain.

In his illuminating article ‘Content is Not King’ written in 2001, Andrew Odlyzko nailed it with prescient clarity, even though he, like so many, has used the term Internet, when he could well have been referring to the Web.

“The Internet is widely regarded as primarily a content delivery system. Yet historically, connectivity has mattered much more than content. Even on the Internet, content is not as important as is often claimed, since it is e-mail that is still the true “killer app.”
– Andrew Odlyzko, First Monday:

Email (by the way) has the same status as the Web, it is a communication platform on layer two. Andrew Odlyzko does not distinguish between Communications and Connectivity. In his article referred to above, they are to all intents and purposes the same, yet his message is clear. Its the connectivity between people that is more fundamental (and valued) than the content exchanged.

The Web and the Internet are not interchangeable concepts

So we need to appreciate that the internet and the World Wide Web are quite different things. The internet is a network that is in fact a loose array of interconnected networks. The Web has been superimposed on this global network, and is the dominant overlay-system, but it is not the only possible system that can utilize that network. The web has allowed many hundreds of millions of people to download information from ‘servers’ via protocols like DNS, (domain name system) and communicate between each other via email by use of DNS and SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol). However these protocols, serve to lock users into the ‘client’ paradigm where ‘clients’ have to accept the terms of the businesses that control the web servers. Albert Benschop pulls back the curtains in this slightly ominous description.

“The exponential growth and far-reaching commercialization of the web have lead to an ever-stronger manifestation of the power structures of society in the virtual world. At present specialized computers channel the data traffic on the Internet and portals and search machines such as AOL, Google and Yahoo! dominate and exploit the market of the internet-dollars. Strongly concentrated hubs have arisen that play a crucial role in the Internet traffic. They are monster-servers, diverting their information to millions of regular web-users.”
– Albert Benschop, Peculiarities of CyberSpace- University of Amsterdam

The client/server paradigm of the World Wide Web, overlaid on the internet in the late 1980‘s, with its multiple layers of servers sitting on their underlying enabling protocols (DNS, SMTP, FTP etc) represented, at the time, a ground-breaking innovation and has gone on to become a global phenomenon. However, as the Web has grown, its hierarchical structure, identity and addressing protocols have also facilitated many of its almost intractable negative externalities. (Spam, Spy-Ware, Email-Born-Viruses, D.O.S. Attacks, Invasive Key-Stroke-Logging, Phishing (Banking Fraud), Packet-Sniffing, Trojan-Horses, Identity-Spoofing etc)

For all the web’s vulnerabilities to attack and corruption, there is considerable ‘lock-in’ to WWW legacy systems, with the marketplace in general having built up a history of blind-acceptance trust and familiarity with it’s processes. This is a large part of the conundrum that is represented by the search for solutions to the web’s problems.

Projects like APML (Attention Profiling Mark-up Language), BCCF (the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum) and Project VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) are all well intentioned projects by switched-on people who want to do something about the inherent inequities and privacy problems of the web, and are arguably contained within this larger P2P pluralism. But… with the greatest respect, they all miss the point. Doing it actually ‘on the Web’, is self-defeating because its not a level playing field. There’s an orthodoxy present on the Web almost as dominant as the Catholic Church during the middle ages.

This is where an understanding of the pure definition of P2P, as it has developed on the Internet, may provide an instructive counter-weight, and clues to dealing with the over-hyped and over-rated orthodoxies of the web.

13 Comments The Medium is the Mess…

  1. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    P2P may in time give rise to something entirely different from both the internet and the web as defined in this article. The web and the entire internet structure are corporation controlled and we are mere guests, much like the first people sending email and discussing on the usenet, timidly using some of the bandwidth that was there for entirely different reasons.

    P2P needs to develop its own infrastructure quite independent of the hardware and even the connectivity that powers today’s internet. I see real peer-to-peer connectivity starting with consumer driven mesh networks based on WIFI or WIMax or a combination, and a gradual separation from today’s internet even for long range connectivity, which could in a first instance be driven by P2P radio bridges. Mobile device mesh networks could be part of this. As almost everyone has a mobile phone today, it would take little to hack the system these things run on to allow them to form networks among themselves, in addition to the standard connectivity into the mobile communication structure through repeater antennas.

    At the same time as a real P2P communication infrastructure develops in parallel with the existing infrastructure of the net, we might also think of backing up the data that is on the internet today on a cloud of personal computers, possibly with a novel way of distributed and redundant data storage inspired by an algorithm that mimicks holographic storage of data. There is a huge potential in personal computer hard disks for hosting the parts of all-the-data-there-is and there is more than the necessary computing power on line at any given time for reconstructing that data residing everywhere and nowhere, on the cloud of networked computers.

    Of course communications could be re-invented in a secure and spam-free manner. Much work has been done on identification, which may come in handy. Money could flow freely on such a network and it could be quite different from what we consider money today. There is an open money discussion hosted on this ning group which seeks to define the parameters of what we may consider money in the future.

    Eventually, the P2PNet could grow so pervasive that it takes over most of the functions of today’s Internet while adding new things we never dreamed were possible.

  2. AvatarSimon Edhouse

    Re Sepp’s comment: ~ Some of the ideas you mention like the use of mesh-networks are of course interesting in the context of this discussion, but many of these ideas while potentially possible, and perhaps inevitable in various manifestations, are still a bit ‘out-there’… so I think there is a middle-ground scenario that is worth exploring in the mean time.

    For instance, I don’t really agree with your comment that: “P2P needs to develop its own infrastructure quite independent of the hardware and even the connectivity that powers today’s internet.” This is a somewhat extreme position that implies the need for ‘revolution’ and not simply ‘evolution’.

    The existing core Internet backbone, (powered incidentally by 340 separate Internet backbone providers globally) while subject to degrees of segmented private ownership is still largely open, flexible, and is a medium that does not overly discriminate against innovation, even in the P2P field. One just has to reflect on Skype’s fairly successful disruptive activity in the telco arena (246M unique downloads, and 27M regular users) to see clear evidence of the power of a P2P system to take on the status quo and kick butt.

    New systems will emerge. I think the worthwhile activity is to shine a big light on the inequities of the currently dominant client-server paradigm, and build increased consumer awareness of its flaws so that large groups of consumers, (and the people who influence them) are more inclined to break away from Web-Lock-in, and experiment with these new upcoming systems.

  3. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    I substantially agree with you Simon,

    both on the statement that these ideas are – at least for now – quite “out there” and that probably a first step will be to increase consumer awareness of the inequities and flaws of the currently dominant client-server paradigm.

    When I say that P2P needs to develop its own infrastructure, I am really saying that the physical infrastructure the internet is currently running on is not impervious to disruption, perhaps from a desire to control but much more importantly from natural catastropic occurrences we have no way of predicting with accuracy at this moment. It would seem prudent to develop an infrastructure that is constructed from the bottom up, starting with wireless mesh networks connected by radio bridges for the longer distance connections. Something that is widely distributed and can be upheld simply by the actions of users of the net. It would simply be good practice to have a workable “Plan B” for the internet, just in case…

    I agree that this is not urgent urgent, and that it would be good to start building the local mesh networks, simply thinking and experimenting how to link them together across countries and continents, as an exercise of caring for the future. If we never need to fall back on this, so much the better. But at least we should have things in place for the eventuality. There is an important positive development at this moment with the Google-supported Android mobile handset standard evolving, which could tap the resource of a huge number of mobile phones to jump start a ubiquitous mesh of peers as the basis for the mesh. Probably this would be more effective than WiFi, both because of increased reach and because of the ubiquitous presence of the hardware already up and running. Handsets could form multi-hop networks among themselves as an aside to their principal use, linking in to the providers’ phone network.

    You say we should

    “shine a big light on the inequities of the currently dominant client-server paradigm, and build increased consumer awareness of its flaws so that large groups of consumers, (and the people who influence them) are more inclined to break away from Web-Lock-in, and experiment with these new upcoming systems.”

    Couldn’t agree more. But rather than just pointing out the inequities of the current paradigm, we need to provide an idea of what could replace it. Here, Martien van Steenbergen in the Netherlands has done some interesting work in laying out the basics of intelligent P2P interaction between nodes on the mesh, in his narrative of The Wizard, the Rabbit, and the Treasurer, which is part of a larger project he calls Armillaria.

    We need something like that to bring the ‘Peernet’ alive and make it attractive for people to experiment with and adopt it. There is a lot to be done for programmers here who feel a calling to help advance the move towards a society natively based on the principles of P2P.

  4. AvatarSimon Edhouse

    Sepp, there’s a thousand ways P2P development could go… You seem very interested in the idea of backing up the web, “just in case”… Well, actually there’s an awful lot of crap out there. For instance Google currently indexes 66,300,000 Britney Spears links; do you think we really need to save all 66.3 million pages about Ms Spears for posterity? Who makes the decision about what is important and what is not?

    I think you are planning a job for P2P that P2P doesn’t deserve, and certainly this idea would not be suited to “wireless mesh networks connected by radio bridges” and relying on “handsets” forming “multi-hop networks”. That kind of technical hook-up would more likely enable us to perhaps bypass the telco networks and just talk to each other for free, but not to do any kind of mass storage backup.

    Sorry to be so dismissive, but I think its way way beyond the scope of any kind of grass-roots movement to somehow create some kind of mirror of the web in case of “natural catastropic occurrences” a) its way too big a problem, and regrettably b) if there were such a “catastrophic occurrence” it would probably not be “natural” and those of us that might be left alive would probably be worrying less about all the data, and more about finding water and food than …a wireless mesh network.

  5. AvatarSimon Edhouse

    Sepp, I can see now that there are two strands to your thinking. Your main idea was to have a ‘back up internet’ and then there was another suggestion on the Ning site about “backing up the data”. Sorry that I lumped them both together in my previous response.

    Although making an ‘alternate internet’ is a lot more feasible challenge than backing up the web, my sense is that as long as we have electricity and a basic ordered civil society, we will have the internet. ~ There may be countries who choose to block their citizens access etc, but these would be the minority.

    There is some merit in forms of independent-connectivity, and we have looked at this issue, but for practical purposes we always came back to building it on top of TCP/IP. Mesh networks are interesting. If some potential is going to open up there it will reveal itself soon enough. It’s not an area that I am particularly up to speed with in terms of the latest technical advances.

  6. AvatarSepp Hasslberger


    yes, the idea is actually evolving and it’s really in two or even more parts.

    It started out with an idea to back up the data on a P2P cloud. You are right of course that we could not and probably would not want all of those articles on Britney Spears. We’d have to make a choice depending on storage capacity and relative importance of the data we’d like to store. Who would make the choice? Don’t know. Once we decide to do something like that, a way to distinguish the garbage from the useful stuff would likely emerge.

    The next part of this was the need – or I should rather say – the desirability of having a P2P based network, just in case. I don’t agree with you here that in case of a catastrophic occurrence we wouldn’t be looking for a way to network but rather for food and water. Certainly the first scramble would be for personal survival, but I could imagine that if we had a way of networking, even the basics could be easier to handle than if everyone had to act on their own. Co-ordinating help and rescue after a disaster could for sure profit from a working P2P mesh of connectivity. And if the disaster was bad (whether man made or natural) a network could help putting things back together again. If then we also had a backup of at least some of the more important data, we’d be off and running in little time.

    Perhaps you look too much at the limits we face today, instead of how communications technology is evolving. In this context, the artile about the developing Android standard provides some encouragement. (Sorry the link in my last comment to that article didn’t work – here is the correct one.)

    With regard to storage, we’re fast developing media that can hold ever increasing amounts of data. With that future storage capacity, the task of making a useful distributed backup might become much less daunting than it seems today.

  7. AvatarSimon Edhouse


    Reality-Check Time. Google is an Advertising Company. Google makes almost 99% of its revenue from Advertising, and that is derived from monetizing our ‘attention-data’ and locking up a 2-sided-market almost to perfection with Adsense for web-publishers, on one side and Adwords for web-advertisers on the other. (reflect on where the consumer is in this equation? i.e. disempowered, and simply being bombarded with ads) If Google is pushing ‘Android’ (which I think is a most unfortunate name, that conjures images of scenarios from films like iRobot, Blade Runner, or Spielberg’s 2001 epic A.I.) ~ If Google is behind ‘Android’ then they will only have one motive, and that is to extend their advertising dominance into yet another sector.

    By the way, although the web (apparently) does have 66.3 million Britney Spears pages, and you and I might consider the subject “garbage”, or not useful. To exclude this content from an ‘alternate web’ would be to take an elitist position. One of the great things about the web is that it doesn’t make these distinctions. It doesn’t make judgements about which piece of content is more important than another, and so to postulate a new system that would develop a “a way to distinguish the garbage from the useful stuff” may in fact be a retrograde step.

    Lastly, my preoccupation with the limits we face today does not mean I do not pay attention to, or am involved in “how communications technology is evolving” It is simply that actual ‘manifest’ innovation requires quantifiable and do-able plans that can be backed up by sound project-development methodologies. Because to get anything actually done, one needs buy-in from partners, financiers, and ultimately consumers.

  8. AvatarSepp Hasslberger

    Yes Simon, Google is an advertising company. Point well made (and well taken). Indeed it appears that what got Google into our hearts in the first place, its excellence in delivering search results, is being increasingly colored to please its advertisers. But apart from that, the general direction of Android seems positive, even though it may be driven by a strategy to further increase ad revenues.

    What I liked about the Open Handset Alliance’s Android plans was

    Android’s developers envision a world where today’s integrated wireless systems are reduced to a set of relationships between parts that are more or less interchangeable. Consumers will be free to load their phones with applications of their own choosing–free applications, applications available for sale, and custom applications developed by enterprises for their employees. These applications will be able to communicate with third-party services offered over the Internet–using any available communications pipe, be it the cellular network, a nearby Wi-Fi connection, or even a Bluetooth connection from another phone.


    If Android succeeds, it will have a major impact on wireless carriers. A phone running Google’s component-based operating system, after all, would treat wireless operators like Verizon and AT&T as just another way to reach data services on the Internet. Such a phone could turn today’s wireless providers into commodity data communications networks that also happen to carry voice.


    Just as Google’s place in the wireless world is a work in progress, so too is Android, which I suspect will not be limited to cell phones. If it’s successful, we’re likely to see Android as the basis of other handheld devices: digital cameras, GPS receivers, or even lightweight tablet computers.

    It wouldn’t seem a big step from there to postulating interconnectivity between cell phones (and similar devices) that could form the basis of a ‘Peernet’ infrastructure.

    After all, our use of the Internet and the Web has been riding on the coattails of others for a long time. The first interconnectivity of computers was a DARPA project, and the Web developed out of a desire for scientists to have a better tool to exchange data about their respective research projects. So if Google’s desire to increase advertising revenue brings us a more open standard for mobile devices, perhaps that’s what is needed to put the basis for a real P2P net out there.

    Whether all the pages that mention Britney Spears (Google does seem to be given to slightly exaggerating the actual number of pages in its search results) are relevant or not, for the purposes of making a backup of data, we really don’t know. I could imagine that once a real P2P net is established, the actual use of the net will give a clue to what’s sufficiently relevant to be backed up, similar to the demand driven proliferation of copies (seeds) of files on bit torrent today.

    Now quite apart from sparring over the doability or not of an independent P2P architecture for our communications, which I enjoy, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the article you posted here. After re-reading it, I see that I may have missed some of the deeper significance of what you are communicating. To sum up my current understanding of this:

    We have the basic communication infrastructure, which consists of the links between all computers forming the internet. The links are provided by backbones and access providers. Perhaps that infrastructure could be improved by adding a layer of mobile connectivity through opening mobile devices up to direct connection between each other, rather than routing all traffic exclusively through the providers.

    On top of this infrastructure sits a layer of communications protocols. Today we have a dominant server-client architecture which we inherited from the world wide web that was established in the 1980s.

    What keeps us from overcoming that legacy arcitecture, which has many drawbacks you have listed, is that the overwhelming majority of transactions today is firmly grounded in the client/server paradigm. Revenues are made by exploiting our attention and even things which have a P2P flavor such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook are really ways to keep us linked into the client-server meme.

    It would be desirable to overcome out attachment to the client-server architecture in favor of a P2P net or ‘Peernet’ as I have recently called it. The difference between today’s Web and a hypothetical future Peernet is as great as that between the traditional media (both print and TV) and the World Wide Web.

    What is needed, it seems, is a strategy towards the transformation of the web-dominated Internet of today into the ‘Peernet’ of tomorrow.

  9. AvatarSimon Edhouse

    The main point of my article was to try and put “The Web” in perspective, by listing it as simply the dominant communication platform, (along with email) on the Internet. To make this point is to remind people that other communication platforms can also sit on the Internet’s connectivity protocols. A good example is Skype. It is a P2P application, and when people use it, they are not actually operating on the Web, but outside it. (although obviously some aspects of the Skype ecosystem have Web components)

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