Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

Content-Centric Networks and the Future of the Internet

Yesterday, design guru Don Norman published an essay expressing his fear for the future of the Internet. After exploring the cycle of imposed exclusivity that many industries go through, Norman concludes:

“I have seen the future, and if it turns out the way it is headed, I am opposed. I fear our free and continual access to information and services is doomed to be replaced by tightly controlled gardens of exclusivity.”

Fear that the Internet is turning into a set of walled gardens has permeated technology and media circles for the last several years. In that time, many hands have been wrung, many rebuttals have been written, and very few solutions have been proposed. Norman’s piece is no exception in this latter regard; he begins and ends with fear, not a solution in sight.

I believe there is a solution. It requires some backstory.

TeleHash and the P2P Pipe Dream

Earlier today, before reading Norman’s essay, I was asked by one of BankSimple’s investors for my thoughts on TeleHash. The TeleHash project describes itself thusly:

“A new wire protocol enabling applications to connect directly in a real-time and fully distributed manner, freeing them from relying on centralized datacenters.”

TeleHash is the latest in a series of technologies and initiatives that I see as ushering in a rebirth of the peer-to-peer (P2P) software movement, one squarely aimed at disrupting the new Web establishment.

Smart developers are realizing that the web industry is now the media industry. The leaders of the Silicon Valley companies that grace business columns daily are media tycoons first and technologists a very distant second. Walled gardens are being built to keep the money in.

Capitalism, in its endless and ironic cycle of creative destruction, abhors strongholds of wealth of power as soon as it creates them. To level the playing field, the marketplace requires mechanisms for circumventing and cutting through walled gardens.

The last time we were faced with the threat of walled gardens, in AOL’s heyday, the original P2P software movement arose to cut through them. While the Internet had long boasted a variety of services that could be confidently described as peer-to-peer in their architecture, tools like Gnutella, Freenet, and BitTorrent further drove home the possibilities of disintermediated computing. This change coincided with the beginning of a rise in broadband availability in American homes, and seemed to usher in a new era of possibility: shared remote computing resources, a communal celestial library, and so on.

The P2P pipe dream didn’t last. Because the initial crop of P2P technologies were heavily used for piracy, the social support and investment dollars dried up. The cycle repeats, and the walled gardens are back and bigger than ever. It’s almost as if the periodic creation of those walled gardens is a fundamental property of the Internet’s current architecture; a truly insidious bug.

Change, A Laughingstock

In 2008 I wrote a post for a site called Internet Evolution about, predictably, the future of the Internet. I wasn’t at all happy with how the post was edited, and, feeling misrepresented, I quickly backed out of the resulting public discussion.

My post, I later learned, was subsequently made the laughingstock of the annual meeting of one of the Internet’s major standards bodies. The godfathers of our global network chortled over a nobody programmer – a nobody programmer who then worked on a notoriously downtime-ridden site, no less – questioning their collective wisdom and the overwhelmingly obvious continued success of the Internet. My pride was briefly wounded when I heard of this, but I took it as a lesson and put the experience out of mind.

Until today, when the TeleHash inquiry and Norman’s post brought it up again.

The point of my post for Internet Evolution was not to suggest that the Internet as we know it is a failure, or even in danger of any kind of imminent failure (IPv4 address space depletion aside). Rather, my post was a condemnation of what I see as a clear failure to head off the scenario that Norman and others are so fearful of. Our global network could better withstand the threat of centralization. At least one solution exists.

Content-Centric Networking

What I wanted in my 2008 post was to bring light to an under-represented idea: content-centric networking. Content-centric networking is a modern way of thinking about network architecture that’s far better suited to how we’ve come to use computers and networks. I can’t do the idea justice, particularly in the space of a blog post, but the publicly available research materials should illuminate the idea for you. And oh, but it’s a lovely idea.

In order for content-centric networking to be adopted, another idea need first take root: that, like any system of human design, the Internet is flawed, aging, and could be improved. Planting this seed will be difficult, as there many stakeholders whose money and/or power depend on the Internet continuing to operate as-is. Equally challenging, we’re just now beginning to understand the Internet’s potential; the prospect of changing something that we don’t fully comprehend is daunting.

Mis-edited or not, I stand by what I said in 2008, and I agree with what Don Norman wrote yesterday. We have everything to fear from continuing down the path that the Internet is presently on. Cautious technology investments in search of quick returns will continue to keep the tech community focused on short-term, shallow problems that fit within the framework of the increasingly centralized Web. Self-congratulatory and short-sighted leadership in technical standards bodies will continue to stifle innovation. These factors combined leave us with a global network that, paradoxically, is being undermined by stagnation and greed just as we’re seeing its literally revolutionary potential in places like Egypt.

The tech industry has cultivated a reputation for liberalism in popular culture. From the inside, our industry can seem stunningly conservative, particularly in the face of serious challenges that beg for new thinking. Perhaps our eyes are clouded with dollar signs: we see the profits for this year, next year, maybe five years from now, but we don’t see that the decisions we make today could cap the money-well a decade on.

I believe that the first companies to break this cycle of decline by understanding and commoditizing content-centric networking will be new titans. There is unfathomable wealth and social good lingering untapped in that idea. Revealing the potential of content-centric networking, in whatever evolved form it takes, is a job for a smarter generation. More importantly, it’s a job for a generation that, unlike ours, is willing to play the long game to win a better, more open future.