Viva PeerPoint!

I’m disappointed but not surprised that the PeerPoint Open P2P Application Design Specification Project[1] is viewed with scorn by old-guard digital libertarians and anarchists.

They accuse the PeerPoint project of being too ambitious and naive–they’ve seen everything and done everything and they have a superior, smug, cynical attitude. They argue that the only solution is more of what they are accustomed to.

But it is exactly their approach that resulted in the present state of affairs in which the internet is colonized and dominated by large corporate predators.

Digital anarchists and libertarians have been the naive, unwitting pawns of the powerful actors they meant to resist.

I’ve been around information technology since long before the internet, since IT was called electronic data processing. Since before the email and electronic bulletin boards and USENET. And I’ve been involved in every aspect of it since the days when we operated mainframes with teletype terminals and punched tape. I was old guard once, very old guard.

I’ve also been a political, social, and environmental activist since the sixties, witnessing from the inside the horrifying failure of almost all our struggles.

Finally I woke up to the fact that it was on our watch–MY watch–that the world got a whole lot closer to going down the tubes. My confederates and I, we all screwed things up with the best of intentions. We all get a big-assed #FAIL.

Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that definition anybody who thinks that old-style FLOSS and independent, freelance DIY development is going to pull us through the crises and the threats we now face is not just naive–they are buried inside a mystery wrapped in a conundrum, locked within an enigma. They are lost in space.

The threats to privacy, liberty, democracy, and equality have steadily grown worse despite all our BRILLIANT efforts up till now, so only a different strategy can be expected to reverse that trend.

That strategy is not a continued, exclusive reliance on autonomous, slef-organizing, emergent systems. That’s all well and good but not, by itself, enough. We need to try something else as well. That something else might even be something that was tried in the past and discredited because it was ineffective then. It might be large-scale collective organization and design.

Critics of PeerPoint have suggested that on its best day it would be a vain effort to imitate the W3C. On its worst day it would be no more than an over-ambitious pipe dream. But they aren’t the only ones who don’t want another W3C. What we want is more like a combination of the Linux Foundation[2] and the Wikimedia Foundation[3]. Not that I’m knocking the W3C (peace be with them) but I am proposing something more agile.

The critics also say that nothing good was ever designed by a “committee” implying that I have proposed some kind of bureaucratic nightmare. They point to giant, government-sponsored boondoggles they were part of in the past. My friend Fabio had a better rebuttal than I could have given:

“Design by committee may not work, but design (and build, review, adjust, adapt, discover, unfold, involving everyone during the whole thing) by community does work and is proven to produce life-affirming architecture, in contrast to deadening architecture produced by the default “efficient”, commercial endeavor. A committee and a community. Both are groups of people. So is a mob, or an army, or a corporation. What’s the difference?”

In the past large-scale collective design failed because it was forced to adopt centralized, top-down planning and organization methods. Now we can do things in a much more distributed, horizontal, and agile manner. (Its called peer to peer.)

It also failed because it adopted organizational structures and created designs that were monolithic. Now we can create organizations and designs that are modular and composable.

Composability[4] is a system design principle that deals with the inter-relationships of components. A highly composable system provides recombinant components that can be selected and assembled in various combinations to satisfy specific user requirements. In information systems, the essential features that make a component composable are that it be:

  • self-contained (modular): it can be deployed independently – note that it may cooperate with other components, but dependent components are replaceable
  • stateless: it treats each request as an independent transaction, unrelated to any previous request. Stateless is just one technique; managed state and transactional systems can also be composable, but with greater difficulty.

Finally, many past revolutions have failed or succeeded upon their access to technology. Somehow ignoring the story of “guns, germs, and steel” the old guard now wants to say that revolutions are not about tools or technology, they are just about people and social relations. They pontificate that technology doesn’t make revolutions, people make revolutions. Tell that to an Afghan tribesman and see if he will discard his AK-47 or his satellite phone.

As Elinor Ostrom[5] wrote in her last words to the world before her death on June 12, 2012,

The goal now must be to build sustainability into the DNA of our globally interconnected society. Time is the natural resource in shortest supply…We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system. Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

As I wrote in PeerPoint, quite clearly, the PeerPoint Design Specification is meant to promote a more rapid and coherent development of our next generation of non-violent weapons of social revolution.

Let those who don’t think we need a non-violent social revolution shut the hell up and get out of the way.

Poor Richard


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