re-build our own internet

At the Peoples Open Network, we often ask ourselves, what does it mean to build your own internet? For an answer, it may be best to look to history and see how it can be applied to the future.

There are two core values that have defined the internet from its conception. Resiliency and education. Yes, as the story goes, the United States government began building the infrastructure of the internet to be a communications network capable of withstanding nuclear warfare. A highly distributed system with multiple points of failure stood a better chance than a network where all tubes ran to the White House. While the intention was, admittedly, less than savory, the result was general positive, if not revolutionary. Or at least as revolutionary as any government sponsored program could hope to be.

The importance of education is a remnant of second institution involved in the development of the internet. Academia. Students, faculty, and staff at universities and research facilities were some of the first civilians to get their hands on internet technology. With earliest servers being setup at the likes of Stanford and UC Berkeley, the internet more resembled a university library than the marketplace of today. To these educational institutes, it was considered outrageous, if not criminal, to sell anything on the internet. The imperative of this iteration of the internet was the open exchange of knowledge.

However, these core values have seemingly disappeared, replaced by an internet that exists for the sole purpose of serving up advertisements and tracking it’s users data. So what went wrong. At some point in the 1990’s, corporations realized they could begin extracting revenue from this new-fangled technology called the Internet. Much how Western colonizers had extracted value from their colonies in centuries past, modern corporations (which are analogous to chartered monopolies a la the Dutch East India Company) now saw the opportunity to colonize digital space. Corporation vied against corporation in a winner-take all battle for the ultimate platform. Some 20 odd years later, there are only a few players remaining, the rest of us are left as pawns to be manipulated by algorithms optimized using our own data. We find ourselves in need of revolt.

To revolt is to realize that the world can be changed, that it need not stay the same. It is to realize that the structures that constrain us are entirely of our own design. It is to realize that the system can be reprogrammed, from the ground up. The internet is broken and is in need of revolt. The internet can be rebuilt, from the ground up.

But how? And who? And where? These are the questions that the Peoples Open Network and other mesh networks around the world are trying to answer.

Mesh networks are not a new idea, but they have always been a highly controversial. Written off by engineers and sociologists alike as technologically infeasible and socially preposterous, the mesh (as people in the know call mesh networks) has not received the funding or publicity necessary to truly take off. If taken seriously, the mesh could constitute a new medium of communication

In media theory, a medium is analyzed via the four following postulations: What does it amplify? What does it obsolesce? What does it retrieve? And what does it become when pushed to an extreme.

When properly implemented, mesh networks can amplify local connections, both literally and figuratively. These local connections have either been systematically ignored or intentionally destroyed by corporations. It is in the best interest of corporations to keep individuals and communities isolated so that they are more reliant on the services provided by said corporations. By re-centering the internet around the local communities while simultaneously decentralizing it, mesh networks can undo much of the isolation and dependency caused by de-localized, centralized internet services.

This leads to a possible answer for the second question. Mesh networks can potentially cause the obsolescence of artificially over-priced, individualized, centralized, corporate-controlled internet connections. Internet services providers (ISPs) must keep their prices high in order to maintain the growth imperative imposed by corporate capitalism. This growth is further sustained by dividing communities and forcing every individual in a neighborhood to pay for their own connection. Rather than distributing the cost among the community, ISPs intentionally discourage communal interaction, forcing a reliance on their centralized solutions.

By undoing the centralized structure thrust on communities by corporate ISPs, mesh networks retrieve the distributed resiliency originally intended for the internet. A mesh network is inherently resistant to destruction and censorship, issues that have become of increasing concern in numerous parts of the world. Likewise, the education aspect of the early internet is retrieved by the open, communal nature of the mesh. Mesh networks promise open access to all, regardless of income, race, gender, ethnicity, heritage, or any other social constructs that have traditionally be used to divide humanity. Additionally, by getting people involved in building the mesh, it can teach people about the actual technology of the internet, rather than obfuscating it inside of black boxes and clouds.

The trickiest question is what does the mesh flip into when pushed to an extreme. Out-of-control growth of a mesh network would result in incredibility slow internet access for everyone on the mesh. Yes, a world-wide mesh network would mean an enormous number of hops that would prevent the transmission of data any reasonable distance, say from one side of the world to the other. However, the point of mesh networks has never been to “mesh the planet” (as we say find ourselves saying at the Peoples Open Network). In fact, that sort of expansionist, capitalistic goal is antipodal to the nature of the mesh and the core values on which it is built. By operating as not-for-profit, community-run projects, mesh networks can avoid the growth imperative, instead choosing to simply sustain within their local community.

Not every mesh network will look the same. And true, not every mesh network will be a Peoples Open Network. And no, the mesh cannot fix the everything wrong with the internet by itself, but that’s ok. According to media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, “The industrial age may have been all about one-size-fits-all solutions, but the digital age will be about a wide range of distributed ones.” While mesh may be one of these solutions, it certainly won’t be the only. Perhaps one day we can mesh the planet, but after all, is that really the point.

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Resiliency and education are two of the core values that drive the Peoples Open Network, a non-profit, volunteer-run, community-owned mesh network being built in Oakland, CA. Our ongoing series of workshops is called “Build Your Own Internet” and features talks on the Why, How, and Where of mesh networks, interactive stations for learning the skills needed to build the mesh, and demos of the open-source technologies powering the mesh.

Find out how you can get involved by visiting peoplesopen.net or coming to our next workshop on July 1st in the Omni Commons Ballroom, 4799 Shattuck Ave, Oakland, CA 94609