David WeinbergerThe Intimacy of Peer-to-Peer
Peer-to-Peer networking moves forward the revolution the Internet began, a revolution not only in how to put a network together but in how to put the world’s people together. Peer-to-Peer will be with us for a long time not simply because it’s good technology but because it’s even better poetry.
There are over 500,000,000 people on the Internet and probably over 20,000,000,000 pages. No other data network has ever come close to this. There’s a simple reason the Internet has been able to scale this far and will be able to include all of our globe’s denizens and everything we want to say to one another: it was designed from the beginning to be out of control. Rather than having a central hub, the Internet is a messy web of servers and end points. No one needs permission from the “Internet System Administrator” to get an account, to build a site, to download what he or she wants. We do it all ourselves. Otherwise, we’d be filling out forms such as “Request to Post” and “Request to Read” and the Internet would have only tens of thousands of users and only a million documents.
The Internet succeeded because it was designed to be out of control.
Predictably, there have been efforts to control it. The closing of Napster is only the most famous case, for it affected 70,000,000 strangers who had been sharing music. Napster worked by compiling a central directory of who had which music files on their hard drives. Because the directory was central, Napster was vulnerable: close the directory and Napster would become useless. And the United States courts did exactly that. Napster became nothing but a memory of what it was like when music was free.
But Napster introduced its 70 million users to a new concept: Peer-to-Peer. Unlike normal Web sites, Napster required you to install additional software, and not just a Flash player. To use Napster, you had to start up a new application on your desktop. That application talked to Napster.com to read its directory of music, but it also served up the music files on your hard drive to any other Napster user who requested them. The connection between you and the other Napster users was direct, not mediated by Napster.com.
The Napster Peer-to-Peer put its users hard drives directly onto the Internet. Before Napster, if I had wanted to share a music file or even a paragraph of text ranting about genetically engineered food or why goldfish are Satan’s work, I’d have to overcome the gap between my desktop and the Web. I’d have to use some unpleasant program such as an FTP application to move the file from my desktop onto a Web server. And first I’d have to get access to a Web server, which usually meant paying someone a monthly fee. It was more painful and expensive than most people liked. The practical result was that the gap between our desktop and the Web seemed large and permanent.
Napster healed the gap. Suddenly, anything I put into the designated folder on my desktop could be downloaded by anyone else. Likewise, I could see the contents residing in someone else’s Napster folder and copy what was there. While the Internet had made the world of online users accessible, Napster’s Peer-to-Peer architecture made it intimate. And so we got used to the idea that the gap between our desktop and the Web was artificial. Peer-to-Peer could help us get over it.
But why stop with music files? Why not photos, movies and animations? Why not business files and poetry and pornography? Why stop with simple file sharing? Peer-to-Peer can put any group of people together and let them do with their computers whatever they agree to.
Despite its promise, the biggest effect of Peer-to-Peer so far still is a defunct application, Napster. The natural Peer-to-Peer applications are collaborative: share files among coworkers and coordinate the activities of a project group. Businesses should love Peer-to-Peer collaborative applications. Why is it, then, that such applications have been so slow to be adopted? It’s not simply that the technology is young, although that certainly has something to do with it. It’s also that Peer-to-Peer collaboration is scary in environments where walls have been more important than doors. The image of coworkers actually touching one another hard disks is alarming to some, although every professionally-developed Peer-to-Peer application worries first about how to limit its reach. No, the reluctance has more to do with psychology than technology. Business will need a spiritual change before it will adopt perfectly business-sensible Peer-to-Peer applications. Or maybe we’re just still waiting for the right Peer-to-Peer business app to be invented.
But Peer-to-Peer has more to offer than binding together workgroups. Peer-to-Peer can help the Internet – broadly speaking – achieve its destiny.
Although the fact that there are over 500 million people on the Internet makes the Net look like a mass marketer’s dream, the Internet actually has little to do with masses. It gets its value from the millions of small groups that have formed, connected by Web sites, mailing lists, discussion boards, chat rooms, instant messaging and whatever else the Net can invent. The Internet is all about groups – people with shared interests and passions, talking in their own voices, without having to ask permission first.
Yet, the Internet isn’t very good at handling groups. The Internet has no concept of a group, or even of an individual person. When I look out at the Internet through my browser, I see an endless forest of pages, not the groups with which I routinely engage. The Internet doesn’t look like what gives it its value.
That’s a problem. Peer-to-Peer can help fix it. Peer-to-Peer enables groups of every sort to be in direct touch with one another. The application layer that makes the Internet look like the groups that I care about is likely to be powered by Peer-to-Peer. It will be integrated seamlessly with the Net experience, of course, or else it will be rejected by users.
The power of Peer-to-Peer, as with the power of the Internet, comes from its metaphor as much as from its technical abilities. The Internet is the network of networks, collecting humanity’s creativity on a vast and messy array of servers. Peer-to-Peer is the direct connection of one person with a group, sharing their personal computing space with a new type of intimacy.
We don’t know what will grow up in the Peer-to-Peer space. But much of value will. Such is the power of poetry.