Singularity of Computing

Posted 16 Apr 2008 at 00:27 UTC (updated 21 Apr 2008 at 21:37 UTC) by lkcl Share This

Computer Technology is not serving our needs, or if it is, it is vulnerable to failure at every level.  Outlined in this article is a clear articulation of the failings of technology. Importantly, this article describes the solutions required to mitigate against failure and attack, and how to overcome some of the shortcomings that would, if implemented, make computer technology actually "useful" to the human race.

Muhammad Yunus' book Creating a World without Poverty advocates the use of IT to solve the problem of poverty (Chapter 9, page 184 onwards ).  Many articles have already been written that outline or hint at the problems:

About the Future of the Web
Top 10 Linux Desktop Hurdles
Open source usability is a technical problem we can solve on our own
Cook's Collaborative Edge

However, all of these articles miss a fundamental point: what are computers for?  The original definition of a "Computer" was a title - like "Professor" or "Doctor", and Asimov's book entitled "The End of Eternity" was written at the time when the title was still in use.  The title was given to someone who "performed computation".  Before valves, transistors and silicon chips existed, many "Computers" were given the job, often in parallel, of hand-calculating a complex mathematical task, with mental arithmetic, pencil, paper and slide rules as their tools.  Fast forward to the 21st Century and we have "Computers" that can perform billions of calculations per second, and communicate millions of words per second (although it definitely doesn't seem like either of these things are true!).  Yet, all that speed helps humanity not one bit if we don't know what "Computers" are actually for!  How can "Computers" actually help us "humans"?

So, this article will ask - and attempt to answer - the questions listed below. It will also outline where things stand at the moment; outline what the author believes people really could do with help from technology; what technology the author believes will be useful to people; and finally, provide a roadmap outlining what technologies need to be sythesised together, improved or developed entirely from scratch to actually and reliably meet people's needs.

So - here are the questions:

  • What do people need: how have lives been improved by technology?
  • How is technology currently used by most people?
  • What are the limitations of present technology that users face, perhaps without realising?
  • Why is our current technology so fragile? Why does it matter?
  • How is technology currently used in some more obscure areas?
  • How could the mainstream convergence of this obscure technology help people?

What do people need: how have lives been improved by technology?

The best technology helps people articulate and communicate their thoughts.  The best technology allows people to be much more useful members of society.  The best technology helps people to be happy, have fun, enjoy their lives.

  • Communications.  Finding the right people to communicate with, being able to contact them in a way that suits all parties.
  • Articulation. Technology should assist people to be able to articulate their thoughts and ideas; it should augment the limitations of the human mind, enhancing a person's abilities and saving them time.

Here are some simple examples on how technology improves people's lives:

  • A local fisherman is approached by a broker who would like to buy his prawns.  The price offered is a minute fraction of the market value.  The fisherman is able to look on the Internet or make a phone call to neighbouring villages and towns, to find out what the price of prawns is elsewhere.  The fisherman can work out whether someone's lives will be made better by being able to eat fresh prawns; the fisherman's life can be made better by being able to get a better price for his goods.  Technology is "useful" to the fisherman as it increases his income.
  • An inventor has an idea for a new form of energy production, but needs access to supercomputing to perform some essential calculations.  Following a breakthrough development success, the inventor announces his success on the Internet and is approached by investors who turn the idea into reality.  Word of the new energy source reaches people through advertising on radio, television and the Internet. Lives are greatly improved by a reduction in the cost of transportation and living. The inventor is more "useful" to people by having access to technology, and technology is "useful" to the inventor as it helps him realise his goals and also brings him some income.
  • A homeless woman has an idea to make products made out of recycled materials.  By using free Internet web services, she is able to advertise, sell, and be paid for her products. All her communications she could do through accessing free or paid-for Internet services, at libraries and cybercafés.  This true story turned a homeless woman into a "useful" member of society, even though she has no fixed physical address to live.

The examples could go on and on, and they illustrate plainly and simply that it is technology that augments us as individuals for society's benefit - ultimately for everyone's satisfaction and happiness. Technology allows us to realise and express our ideas and also to communicate them.

How is technology currently used by the average person?

With the explosion of the Internet, communication is now much more global, instantaneous, and increasingly a way of life.  Here is how the average person uses technology:

  • Obtain information - usually for entertainment, travel etc. - off of single-point-of-failure servers
  • Pay for goods and services, using single-point-of-failure servers
  • Attempt to communicate through an alarmingly increasing noise-to-signal ratio
  • Express our thoughts in "documents" on either single-point-of-failure "personal devices" or centrally controlled servers.
  • Attempt to communicate those "documents" - thoughts - by "copying" them (emailing them), or attempt to communicate these "documents" - thoughts - by using collaborative technology that runs on centrally controlled servers.  There are many examples, but some of the more high-profile examples are Google Docs and Wikipedia.

These uses are clear: technology is in fact being used for communications; technology is in fact allowing people to articulate their thoughts.  Yet, at the same time, there are limits, which are hinted at above and will be described in more detail in later sections.  It's worth emphasising, however, that in all of the uses, sharing and collaboration is most definitely not high on the agenda, and it's worth emphasising even more that this is the average user's fault.

What are the limitations of current technology that users face?

Technology provided to mainstream users has the following shortcomings:

  • Mainstream technology is unreliable and user-hostile.  The primary reason for this is the dominance of corporations who, realising that there are very few real options, provide the minimum level of service required to get you to buy their product, whilst either deliberately or unintentionally not satisfying your actual needs.  Their purpose is to drive you to buy the "next version of the product".  Thus, the corporation's needs are served (make a profit) but yours are not.  Not really.  This phenomenon is now fully recognised, and articulated well in quite some detail in the documentary "The Corporation".
  • Mainstream technology has many single points of failure such as monoculture design, and monoculture communications. Monoculture design is where one dominant software manufacturer has over 90% market share.  Monoculture communications is where Government-regulated Internet Services are provided and controlled by a very small number of corporations.

The list of products that do not satisfy particularly well and/or are dependent on single points of failure is pretty large: take any modern appliance such as a Personal Computer, a Cell Phone, a Smart Phone or a Media Player, and you will immediately encounter limitations and dissatisfaction:

  • The iPhone is only available in certain countries; has limited "approved" service and applications which, if bypassed or not adhered to, terminates your service irrevocably.  Only specific companies, notably O2 and AT & T, sell the iPhone.
  • Cell phones and Smart Phones promise certain features, yet these features are singularly unfulfilling, and can only use the communications infrastructure provided by the corporation that you purchased the phone from.  For example, there is only one manufacturer in the world that is promising to sell a phone that by default will be provided as "unlocked" rather than being tied to specific Airtime Providers: First International Computers's sister company "OpenMoko" is developing the "FreeRunner" product.
  • DVD and other Media players are "region locked" and DRM imposed (and then bypassed).

DRM is particulary worthwhile highlighting.  Where it has been understood or its restrictions have impacted on user's choice and rights,  Digital Rights Management has been rejected outright by users, but the fall-out from the imposition of DRM is still being felt.  Producers of Digital Content decided that they did not trust users not to pay large sums of money for their products.  Their solution was, instead of reducing the price or increasing market penetration by selling product over the Internet for people to view on the computer technology of their choice, to ask Governments to enact laws forcing manufacturers to control the access to their content. The justification for this decision was clearly stated that "people cannot be trusted: we are all thieves".  Unfortunately for the Producers, complete and total control of all computer technology could not be established: many Sovereign States ignored the Producers' demands; several people found ways to bypass the DRM mechanisms, often within hours of them being released; many more people are satisfied with low-quality copies of the Content than the Producers realise.

A few Producers have finally begun to understood the reality of the situation.  For example, Disney now sells DVDs in China at the same cost as the copies being made.  Their successful strategy in this market is simple: authenticity.  However, this quite prevalent realisation of the Content Producers that DRM does not work does not stop the DRM technology from being developed, manufactured and deployed.  Microsoft realises without question how "useful" DRM is to increasing its control over its already-captive market.  Fortunately, the cost of the hardware which contains DRM encryption technology is so much higher than that which does not have DRM that, purely on market forces alone it is difficult for Microsoft to succeed.  What they are looking for, however, is the "tipping point" of market share, where DRM is so prevalent in commodity PC hardware that they can, like the Apple iPhone, "disable" the operating system if "non-DRM" hardware is attached to the machine, or if "unapproved" software is installed.

Overall, then, the ordinary user's desires are, instead of being satisfied, being exploited and controlled. Ordinary users, who neither have the capacity to understand nor the time or capacity to "develop their own technology", are being deceived and let down. (Reports came out a few years ago in which people honestly believed that by buying a "new computer" that the problems they previously encountered with viruses and spyware would "go away" by virtue of them paying "more money").

As a side-node: underestimating the average person's requirements and capabilities is one of the areas that Free Software Developers often fail to appreciate: the average person does not have the capacity to "modify" or "improve" free software: the fact that the source code is available is entirely irrelevant to them.  Consequently, they are happy to "pay money" for something that "does the job" - for the most part - and if it doesn't entirely satisfy, their only option is to complain and suffer.     Most people simply do not know that Free Software even exists as an alternative option, and, even when they hear about it, it is often too cumbersome to install or use - and if they can install it, it doesn't even begin to offer the things that they want.  This failing of Free Software - to fail to deliver to the majority of people - is beginning to be understood and recognised, and has even been recognised in some free software circles for many years, to the extent where it is already on "roadmaps" for the future of Free Software.  That doesn't necessarily make it come true, though....

Why is our current mainstream technology so fragile? Why does it matter?

As hinted at, above, our current mainstream technology is, for the most part, designed, manufactured and controlled by a limited number of multi-billion dollar corporations.  But there is much more to it than that: most technology is designed with single points of failure built in!  It is just much simpler for any team of people - no matter how large or small - to utilise the existing well-understood tried-and-tested development tools and computing infrastructure than it is to design software or hardware that will be robust and resilient to failures, attacks or control.  So, whilst multi-billion-dollar corporations deliberately design technology that can remain within their control in order to guarantee profits, unfortunately that also often implies that the technology is susceptible to single-point failures and attack.

A few successful companies and products have bucked this trend: they will be outlined in more detail later but one that is definitely worth highlighting is Skype.  Skype is an Internet Communications product that offers the following amazing features:

  • Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.  No hassles. no fuss. you do not have to be a genius to install or use it: it just "works".
  • Free Internet phone calls
  • Free Internet Messaging
  • Free Internet Video calls
  • Conferencing and Voicemail
  • Access to "Plain Old Telephone Systems", including, in about 2004 only, access to Satellite phones (for about $4/min!).
  • Routing from "Plain Old Telephone Systems", where you can pay for as many "incoming" telephone numbers that you like, in over 20 countries including the United States, Hong Kong, the UK, France, Germany.  Calls to these numbers will be routed to you over the Internet, so you can be in one country and receive calls from another!
  • Hand-held wireless devices which look like a Mobile Phone but actually are running Skype over WIFI!
  • Deals have been done with 3G Cell Providers to run Skype on Smartphones, as the cost of making an International call over Skype is far less than it would be over the 3G Airtime network!  When this service was eventually offered by Three Networks, their subscriber base increased by 100,000 in a single month.  However, Skype for Mobile PDA Phones as downloaded from Skype itself is still blocked by Three Networks: you have to get a customised version from Three Networks, for which you must pay a monthly fee...

Skype - a proprietary program that restricts user's freedom - is a unique blend of peer-to-peer and other technologies that give the user what they want: the means to communicate easily and without fuss, and it is this "blending" that we need to see more of.  The bottom line is that Skype is "useful".  However, Skype is the successful exception to the rule. Most mainstream technology is designed with a single database as its storage mechanism; a single file on a single computer which isn't backed up automatically; a single server which gets overloaded or hacked - the list goes on.

Why does this matter?  Why does it matter that technology should be reliable, robust, resilient and decentralised?  The answers to these questions should be self-evident, and have been answered many times before, but here are a few examples which illustrate this clearly:

  • Technology is used in Air Traffic control.  Deployment of a virus-susceptible Operating System that is known to have an uptime of only a few weeks seems insane, yet it has happened.  Unix systems with

    proven reliability measured in years is routinely replaced on cost-saving-exercises by Windows.

  • A United States Aircraft Carrier was deployed with its control systems running Windows NT 4.0.  The technology crashed, leaving a flagship of the best that the United States Military has to offer dead in the water and having to be towed into harbour.
  • Call-centres "outsourced" to India were unavailable for a day when the single fibreoptic connection between India and the United States failed, inexplicably.  It was repaired relatively quickly, but the damage was done: the loss to U.S. businesses was so extreme that many companies immediately terminated their outsourcing contracts and began to reinvest in local call centres.  If the underlying technology used had been peer-to-peer internet-based, across the globe instead of just in India, using small decentralised offices instead of single centrally housed ones, a single fibre-optic failure would not have been so disruptive to the innovative cost-saving practice of "outsourcing".  However, the U.S. economy improved due to the increase in local U.S. call centres so perhaps it is not all bad...
  • Alternative Energy and so-called "Free" Energy Technology is routinely tracked down and suppressed, or the rights to the patents are bought from the inventors, and shelved.  For example, a scientist who has rediscovered the "Joe Cell" had his house burned down by teenagers, and Russian scientists who have discovered a way to get hydrolysis to sustain itself for several hours after the electricity supply stops were threatened at gunpoint (hydrolysis is the process by which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by running electricity through it).  If all these Alternative Energy technologies, as part of the development process by the scientists, were uploaded into Freenet or other File-Sharing technology, it would be incredibly difficult for the information to be suppressed.  Unfortunately, many of the scientists expect to make money by patenting their technology.  This usually turns out to be their first mistake.
  • Information in the U.S. and the U.K - crucial reports which indicate failures in performance and delivery of services - is often removed, despite laws which require it to be provided.  Often, the information is not even known about, and so cannot even be requested.  In the U.K., there is a cost-benefit analysis performed on the cost of providing the information requested.  If the number of people requesting the same information exceeds a certain threshold, it can be treated as a single request.  If the amount of time to provide the information exceeds a certain number of days, a fee can be requested.  If the time spent on providing the information exceeds yet another threshold, it does not have to be provided at all.
  • Censorship of Internet web sites is a common practice, with "Takedown" notices.  Web sites expressing viewpoints which conflict with one party or organisation's goals are attacked.  "Freedom of expression" is routinely undermined, whether the views expressed are valid or not.  This is a particularly thorny issue, because the "right to express onesself" can often result in flawed or illogical ideas overruling perfectly good ones.  For example, traditional practices on which an entire society has worked for generations are thrown out because access to another society makes some people want to have the benefits of that society, without realising that those benefits often come with a hefty price tag.  However, there are also sensible people who also should have the "right to express themselves", pointing out, just as is done here, the good reasons why a society would benefit far more from following its own traditional values than it would to follow another decadent society's values - yet if the issues are "suppressed" entirely, then no opportunity for such a discussion involving input from sensible cooler heads even exists.  (Decentralised and ecrypted forums that use peer-to-peer technology would allow such discussions to take place, but few people realise such technology exists, and it has to take place on easily-trackable centrally-controlled Internet Services which will spot the encrypted traffic far too easily).
  • As mentioned earlier, Skype and other VoIP services are routinely suppressed.  Internet Phone data is identified and either "dropped" altogether or made so horribly unreliable that it is completely unuseable.  Payment of a fee to the ISP, or the use of the ISP's own VoIP service, which is usually much more expensive than Skype, miraculously results in absolutely great service - on exactly the same network.
  • Many ISP contracts in the United States outright ban the use of Virtual Private Networks, because the traffic on VPNs cannot be "analysed".  As there are often no alternative services available, or they are far more expensive and inaffordable, people are forced to sign these contracts.
  • Cellphones are typically only available with a particular airtime provider, with a highly-controlled Operating System on the actual phone hardware.  WIFI is almost never provided except in smartphones: even then, it is extremely difficult to make WIFI phone calls, and only in the past year and then only with a high price tag has technology been created which performs seamless hand-over of phone calls from WIFI to GSM.  The cost savings that users would make would be enormous, if they could transfer calls from a free WIFI hotspot over to an airtime provider - but that money saved would be money not going into the Airtime provider's pockets, so the practice is not deployed, mainstream, at all.  The issue is a multi-faceted one with a complex cascade of Catch-22 situations, involving quite a lot of threatening and posturing by the main players, to protect their respective billion-dollar-investments.  At its core, though, is the issue that there is really only one mobile phone - the OpenMoko "FreeRunner" - that is sufficiently open for innovative developers to create this seamless hand-over system on without being adversely influenced by those corporations who stand to lose a lot of money, and the "FreeRunner" is only into its second hardware revision in the next few months.

The list of examples could go on endlessly, illustrating how people's individual needs and desires, and society's, humanity's and the planet's needs are being undermined, controlled, supressed - but this article would become too long (and this article's purpose, and that of its accompanying article, "Tech Fusion Outline" is to describe solutions, not reiterate the problems).

At the core of the issue is the effects of "The Corporation", and the documentary of the same name outlines clearly that "Corporations" exhibit pathological behaviour.  A single small corporation on its own, however pathological, usually has little effect on society and our planet.  A multi-billion-dollar corporation often has enormous detrimental impact on the environment and our lives.  The detrimental effects of many pathological multi-billion-dollar corporations, that are exclusively focussed on profits and buying laws which suit their pathological needs to increase profits, is pushing our entire planet towards catastrophic failure - and we're trying to live on it!  (Off the west coast of Texas is a huge seething stinking morass of plastic that circles in a vortex in the Pacific.  The diameter of this plastic island ranges from 50 to 100 miles, throughout the year.)

The whole point is to re-emphasise the fact that multi-billion-dollar corporations are, through the process of maximising profits in order to satisfy shareholders, keeping exclusive control as much as they can.  Ironically, these corporations develop the very technology which, if we used it for our benefit instead of shareholders' benefit, would improve all our lives and would allow us, globally, to live within our global means.  As it is, we are asset-stripping the very place we are living in - Earth - and we don't have a replacement planet to live on (yet).

The bottom line is that the continuous pursuit of profits on a global scale is going to catch up with us.  There are many reports telling us time and time again that our global and collective approach to our planet is unsustainable, and there are many more signs emphasising that the current global system is close to collapse.  So, we have a limited window of opportunity in which to transform world behaviour.  We have a limited window of opportunity to utilise the existing economic infrastructure to create and piece together the next generation of technology.  Technology that is "useful" to people throughout the world, which uses less resources, less power, relies less on "infrastructure", and becomes more reliable and more "useful" as the number of people connected together increases.

The next section hints at how that can happen.

How is technology currently used in some more obscure areas?

  • Sharing of "unused" resources for communication, via peer-to-peer technology such as Google Talk and Skype.  Peer-to-peer communication technology is far more reliable, much easier to install and use, and less problematic for its users.
  • Sharing of "information" - some of it with purpose in mind and some of it purely entertainment - via peer-to-peer technology such as Gnutella, KaZaA, gnunetd and other information-sharing technology.  Typically, that information is "files", but projects like i2p and gnunetd provide an entire infrastructure to create an "Internet over the Internet".
  • Sharing of "unused" resources for scientific benefit, via distributed clustering technology.  For example, the SETI @ Home project; the Human Genome project.  In all of these projects, people's personal computers are used to run software written by scientists, where the software retrieves data from the project over the Internet, processes it, and sends the results back to the scientists.
  • Assisting scientific projects by communicating over distributed technology a specific task where an individual can be trained very quickly to become "useful", and, because of the vast resource that these "unskilled" people represent, the work can be duplicated and double-checked, quintuple-checked. For example, in the pinpointing of microscopic space dust in hundreds of millions of high-resolution satellite images which is hazardous to satellites and spacecraft.

Many of these uses are frowned upon.  a lot.  Mostly by those who provide the single-point-of-failure services listed earlier.  Some, however, have made it - despite enormous efforts to stop them, whilst others are so clearly of scientific benefit to humanity, such as the distributed analysis for the Human Genome project, that they take hold.

How could the mainstream convergence of this obscure technology help people?

There are so many ways in which the convergence - fusion - of peer-to-peer software on peer-to-peer-enabled hardware - is useful to people that it's untrue, and so it's difficult to ascertain why it hasn't already happened, and why the problems have not yet been overcome.

  • A group of people go out hiking or riding, and they have an accident (or encounter someone who has).  There is an urgent need to return to their vehicles, yet they are in dense forest, are unable to get a satellite lock on their GPS, and cannot locate the vehicle in which the first aid equipment is located.  They are also a long way from any cell towers.  However - they have 900mhz UHF digital radio with peer-to-peer internet access in their hand-held phones, with, just as in the OLPC "ZeroConf" software, contains signal-strengh reporting.  Their vehicle is fitted with a 20 watt 900mhz UHF compatible radio, and they have stayed within its 30 mile range, with the vehicle deliberately parked high up.  The same technology that they have in their hands is also the same technology in the vehicle, and so the vehicle's base station also has a cell phone, and is in range.  An emergency call is relayed via the vehicle to the mountain rescue services.  Additionally, the distress beacon is picked up by a remote lodge (who happen to have 900mhz UHF) and, in combination with the automated help from the lodge basestation (by pinging the handset and also requesting its GPS location) and the known location of the vehicle, the group are able to have their location pinpointed, and reported to mountain rescue.
  • An individual in distress and in need of assistance is able to find help, even though a community is asleep and unable to be raised through emergency beacon activation, by "walking towards" the radio signal's increasing strength.  Phased-Array ceramic antenna beam-steering also gives some guidance on the direction that the signal is coming from.
  • A semi-automatic ontology classifer (for example the one developed in The AMOS Project) helps to organise Wikipedia and provides automated links to articles and information online, thus helping cut down on plagiarism, favouritism, the breakdown in trust on Wikipedia pages being vandalised, and many more things.
  • The same semi-automated ontology classifer automatically spots an obscure self-taught young mathematician has written in his own language a solution to a century-long-unsolved and very important mathematical problem which is outlined in detail on the Wolfram Mathworld site.
  • Web sites which are suddenly discovered and become popular are automatically replicated (if nothing else in static form).  Ironically, this was the very goals of the 1996 Microsoft Research "Millenium Project".
  • For the same reason as above, Censorship becomes impossible.  Ironically, the insanity of many people becomes recognised - and replicated - as well as the sanity of some good ideas.  Fortunately, due to the level of global communication, it's possible for saner voices to mobilise quickly, to overwhelmingly assist those suffering from mass-insanity and a desire to "rewrite history".  The jobs usually assigned to those of the United Nations, and Governments, are possible to be performed by ordinary people instead of mostly-well-meaning, but inefficient under-achieving bureaucratic and corrupted organisations.
  • In combination with GPS pinpointing, Carbon Dioxide sensors, Temperature sensors and tiny spectrum analysis equipment embedded in the hand-helds give the world's most accurate picture that we have ever known - uncensored, undeniable, distributed and analysable by anyone not just scientists whose work is being edited, toned down and suppressed - of the state of the planet, and our effect on it.
  • Information on survival under difficult and emergency circumstances can be looked up or transmitted immediately to places affected by Natural disasters, such as Tornados and Tsunamis.  Methods to obtain clean water from morning dew, using plastic sheets buried in the ground, can be described to people, including images or even videos, if necessary.  As the underlying technology is peer-to-peer distribution, using for example bittorrent, the videos can be easily found and distributed.
  • Self-inflicted ecological disasters from "modern" over-farming, creating mono-crop agricultural wastelands (such as the area surrounding Colorado, Boulder) can be reversed.  The so-called "Third World" farming techniques can be re-learned by the "First World" through communication networks where, just as Muhammad Yunus envisages, text and voice is automatically or semi-automatically translated, possibly even in real time.

The list of possibilities is literally endless - and many more of them are best described in Muhammed Yunus' book Creating a World without Poverty , especially in Chapter 9.  Even Ebay has begun to offer people a means to make microloans.  Now imagine an independent but distributed banking infrastructure - an infrastructure where anyone or any group can put up their credentials, and collateral, and form an independent bank, online...

It's perfectly possible.


Computer Technology - a tool - can be utilised to improve people's lives.
We have two disparate models: the current model of centralisation,
and the future model of distributed infrastructure.

On the one hand, we have a situation where the underlying paradigm
is that of single person, single computer, single server, single
network route from computer to server.  Easy to understand, easy to
design, easy to implement, easy to control, easy to destroy.

And other the other hand, we have collaborative technology.
distributed information. distributed service.  Communication and
search that goes via hundreds or thousands of different routes.
anonymity if you want it.  Safety in numbers, yet it's still possible
to "narrow in" to find the information you seek, communicate with whom
you want to - without being overloaded.

Collaborative technology requires a shift in perception to understand
and design, yet, ironically it is not difficult for users to actually
use. In fact, quite often, collaborative technology overcomes many of
the technical barriers (such as the problems that NAT creates).

Additionally, on the hardware front, there is work required: a shift
is needed from the single-point-of-failure model to the distributed

The hardware technology _does_ exist.  Technology such as mesh
networking (which can us the OLPC zeroconf software, already in
existence) and mesh networking can be dramatically improved by the use
of Ultra-Wide-Band 4.5km-range Transceivers.

So, even on the hardware front, the "old" model is to do
single-point-of-failure "star" networks, putting up cell towers that
are the sole and exclusive communications method.  Even if the person
you want to communicate with is only a few feet away.

A detailed outline of the technology requirements is listed in the article
"Tech Fusion Outline: Organising the World's Knowledge", and, most importantly,
the components already exist.  today.

Technology != "IT"/"Electronics"/"Communication", posted 16 Apr 2008 at 18:32 UTC by Pizza » (Master)

There are a lot of unfounded leaps of logic made here, but I'll limit myself to a couple of the underlying problems.

First, the fundamental assumption that "technology" means "information technology" -- "Technology" is nothing more than a fancy word for "tool", but "information manipulation tools" are fairly low on the importance scale. (see "Hierarchy of Needs")

IT doesn't really matter if you can't get clean water or enough food to feed your and/or your family. Or clean-burning and/or efficient stoves to make the most of limited fuel supplies. Or access to basic health care.

Perhaps most of all, the incorrect assumption that most westerners erroneously make -- that there's a functional government out there running things with the public welfare as a prime concern -- things like respect for the rule of law.

The problem facing most of the world isn't (a lack of) technology. It's overpopulation (more people than the environment can handle) and greed, systemic or otherwise.

Meanwhile, to poke holes in some of your examples:

"A local fisherman" -- His "product" spoils very quickly, and if he holds out too long for a higher price, he'll end up with nothing. The middlemen know this and have been using this to their advantage for millenia. Meanwhile, so if the fishermen try to band together to get higher prices, what's to stop the middlemen from doing the same? IT works both ways.

The problem facing most of the world isn't (a lack of) technology. It's overpopulation (more people than the environment can handle) and greed, systemic or otherwise.

Meanwhile, to poke holes in some of your examples:

"A local fisherman" -- His "product" spoils very quickly, and if he holds out too long for a higher price, he'll end up with nothing. The middlemen know this and have been using this to their advantage for millenia. Meanwhile, so if the fishermen try to band together to get higher prices, what's to stop the middlemen from doing the same? IT works both ways.

"An Inventor" -- Where is he supposed to announce his new invention "on the internet?" His personal blog? What's going to draw attention to it (to attract investors?) He's going to have to pay for advertising/exposure, no matter what medium he uses, and since everyone else out there gets the same benefits of this new IT thing, he'll just be one voice among many clamoring for investment.

"A Homeless woman" -- You make this sound as if people voluntarily chose to be homeless; as if it's a "lifestyle choice". Frankly, if this hypothetical homeless woman had the skills to coordinate a full supply chain, manufacturing, order fufillment, sales, marketing, and other people skills (or at least had the money to pay for others to do this for her; online or otherwise), she wouldn't have been homeless (ie on the streets) to begin with.

So yeah, IT can improve people's lives, their lives already need to be at a point where IT, if of itself, can help. You can't eat a cell phone. A laptop won't keep you from being mugged/raped/killed by a gone-feral milita. (Well, you might be able to bribe them with it, I suppose...)


problems, problems, posted 16 Apr 2008 at 22:13 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

pizza, thank you for your comments - please do however consider posting solutions to the problems as well as just pointing out yet more problems. there are enough people saying "problem problem" - i'm not interested.

1) the homeless woman story is a true story. i cannot "make it sound" like anything. although, you are absolutely right: many people simply cannot be bothered to help themselves. examples include those people who sat around and died after the tsunami, and those people who sit around in camps in africa and at the french entrance to the channel tunnel, waiting for help. or food.

however, there are many many stories - some of them in muhammad yunus' book - where access to technology even such as a cellphone has made a dramatic difference. one such story professor yunus told was where the telephone numbers of increasingly higher levels up the chain of government were issued to each village - including the prime minister himself, with instructions to call if they encountered difficulties. one famous story is where a woman called the chief of police because someone had been raped and the local police had just "shrugged". she called the chief of police to say "what are you going to do about this? if you don't do something i will call the prime miniser i have his phone number RIGHT here!" and a team of police was round within an hour.

the list of benefits goes on and on

2) you're not getting the importance of independent communications, most likely because you're so used to centralised control. independent wireless mesh networking, of sufficient density (or range), is *free*.

ultra-wide-band using ceramic 8-way-phased-antennae is capable of a 3 *mile* range.

3 miles.

at one gigabit per second.

if you decrease the frequency down to 433 mhz (and the bandwidth down to 9600baud, the only legally allowed baud rate - i think - check wikipedia for details) then you're looking at about 10 miles - with very little power.

either way you're looking at _free_ and untaxed and uncensored communication.

3) access to healthcare etc. - yes, i forgot to put that in: it's possible, if you have internet access, to look up information and get a self-diagnosis. or, to be able to contact organisations willing to offer free healthcare diagnosis, suggestions, research on local materials, local herbs etc. contact with indigenous people who may be a couple of hundred miles away

the possibilities are endless why do i have to spell it out for everyone ? do you _like_ having problem, problem oh mee i'm so much better off than anyone else i can tell them how much better it is in the first world.

actually, the first world is going for self-destruct, and is in DESPERATE need of contact with the so-called "third world" for advice on how to undo the damage of monocrop farming which has turned much of the first world into deserts and, in the case of colorado, will turn it into deserts pretty soon unless the process is reversed. biodiversity needs to be reestablished FAST and the people with the expertise in doing that live tens of thousands of miles away in harmonious sustainable "poverty".

so - thank you for illustrating a need to point out more clearly certain matters.

anyone else who has these kinds of viewpoints please SPEAK UP because for every person who does there will be lots who will just walk away thinking that there's nothing that can be done.

also please, anyone else who can think of "positive examples" or "alternative solutions" please also speak up, it will save me the job of having to do it.

what's to stop the middlemen from doing the same? IT works b, posted 16 Apr 2008 at 22:14 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

a _bunch_ of fishermen.

IT works triple ways.

bullying and corruption., posted 16 Apr 2008 at 22:26 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

professor yunus also reports an incident in india where two people secretly recorded a $2000 bribe being handed over to a government official in return for a defense contract (or such). the incident was uploaded to the internet, and the response was utterly overwhelming. most of the government were forced to resign.

yunus points out that it is assumed that hundreds of millions of dollars exchanges hands in bribes in india, yet actually seeing a small sum such as only $2000 - actually _seeing_ $2000 exchange hands in front of people's eyes made them see red.

IT _really does_ make a difference.

now imagine if a protest was in progress, or a peace rally, and it went awry and the police decided to start shooting the crowd, or if there was a stand-off situation. imagine if there were people with real-time video uplinks to the internet reporting the incident, live, to the world.

what do you think would happen?

do you remember the miner's strike, in the UK? an associate of mine had a family member who was supposed to be in Ireland. he was called over to help margaret thatcher terminate the coal pits. "allo son, what you doing here guarding the gates with all your mates, i thought you were in ireland?" "shut up, dad, see you at christmas" he replied.

now - the thing about that situation was that the police charged on the miners on strike, and beat them up. the miners then retaliated.

when it was shown on television, the incidents - only a minute or two apart - were reversed.

if that had gone out live, uncensored, it could have caused history to be entirely different.

and that happened in the country which i'm supposed to be proud to live in.

the inventor story, posted 16 Apr 2008 at 22:28 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

was given as an example of how inventors _are_ successful in finding investment, by doing exactly as you say: raising capital to get marketing etc.

I.T. is used to do all that - right now.

so thank you for clarifying the example by illustrating further that it is I.T. that helps the inventor to help others.

Digital Restrictions Management, posted 21 Apr 2008 at 16:48 UTC by rms » (Master)

This article recognizes the danger of Digital Restrictions Management (see, and the importance of free software (software that respects the users freedom; see In conflict with that is the praise for the non-free Skype software, which was judged solely on convenience.

Skype is no different from Windows or MacOS in that the developer has total control over it, and the users have none. Whether it is convenient or not, you can't use it and have freedom.

apologies!, posted 21 Apr 2008 at 20:57 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

rms, hi, thanks - i apologise for not emphasising enough that skype is proprietary. its example was given definitely to inspire the free software community to do better, rather than to advocate that it should be used. i'd forgotten however that there will be people reading this article that do not know the distinction between free and proprietary software.

i'll revise the article (and point out explicitly that that's been done, so that people reading later won't go "huh??" when they see your comment)

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!

Share this page