Serenity Lost

Nothing like a little pulp sci-fi to resonate with a class on emerging tech. I saw Serenity tonight (skip this post until you have seen it, unless you aren’t planning to at all) and was amused at how a central plot line revolved around some information that has been covered up by the authorities, and the struggle to disseminate that message.

The simplicity of a single message whose content can change the world, and a single distribution channel from which to broadcast it from is amusing, but poignant. I mean, if you could broadcast one message to the world, what would it be? Are these folksonomies helping in filtering and distributing this information, or are we just ending up on our same disconnected islands of information we started from.

I am thinking of the disjoint sets of books that liberals and conservatives read, but there must be many other examples – perhaps the entire blogosphere falls into this category. One thing I have realized as I begin to rely more and more on my rss client, is that once I am lost inside of it, if you aren’t syndicating a feed, you don’t exist.

I am quite aware that a full-blown information war is currently underway. The existence (and adoption) of Flickr allow me laugh at the Bush administrations attempts to prevent the publication of Katrina’s casualties, but how did this story get swallowed up?

If bittorrent didn’t exist (or was outlawed) and we could not reclaim the “lost” bandwidth of individual broadband subscribers, large file transfers and exchanges would probably have to be mediated through centralized bandwidth providers like akamai or cisco. But this is not quite as simple as centralized vs. decentralized publishing models, since that is only half the equation. The information retrieval needs to happen on the other end, or else you’re screaming into an abyss.

I was once lucky enough to find myself in a conversation with the author of citeulike. I casually inquired as to whether he was planning on releasing the engine which powers his site under an open license. He replied that he would, but that it would be a bad idea. citeulike is supposed to be a service, not a product. Its value is actually diluted the more there are that are running. Part of flickr or delicious’ power are in their popularity. They are much more effective the more users they have, leaving us once again in a paradoxical quandary, where we need a decentralized, centralized service.

Too many flickrs, and they are all rendered weaker, and too few, and we are back in a situation where our information is in danger of being homogenized, controlled, and filtered.

2 Responses to “Serenity Lost”

  1. October 8th, 2005 | 1:45 pm

    I’m not a die-hard Browncoat or whatever they are called, but my wife and I have seen all the Firefly DVDs, and although the quality is very uneven, we thought it would be fun to see the movie.

    I guess a recent example of the ‘single message whose content can change the world, and a single distribution channel from which to broadcast it’ would be Abu Ghraib–isn’t that how the pictures got out and then spread everywhere? I think, however, that if Serenity was striving for realism, the scene at the end would be of millions of people not caring (and perhaps a clip from Fox News telling viewers that the authenticity of the video clip cannot be verified). What folksonomies and decentralized networks can do depends on the politics of the individuals using them.

    And yes, it’s true that once you start depending on your RSS aggregator, anything without a feed can drop off the radar very quickly. Part of what I want us to explore in this class, however, is not how to become so immersed in these technologies that we become members of an isolated elite of users, but rather how do we integrate these technologies into acts that have consequences beyond cyberspace. The Issue Entrepreneurship project is supposed to be such an experiment.

    As far as your point about too many competing services diluting the value of the network, I agree completely. It seems like there is a new clone coming out every couple of days now. Some of them might be better than, but as Linked explains, nodes are difficult to displace simply because they were there first. Personally, what I would like to see is a standard that would allow different applications to share the data. That way, you could have new products (that improve on interface and features), but that all share the same data. But I guess the history of software shows that this is practically impossible to achieve.

    Good post!

  2. August 27th, 2006 | 3:42 am

    […] I learned that “Big Media” only now appreciates how good they had it back in Napster days, when every file download was logged and tracked through the central Napster server. Now that they are starting down the barrel of true peer-to-peer networking (which bittorrent — the protocol, not the company — affords), they have the perspective to appreciate in hindsight the benefits that omni-present surveillence provides for them. You could even speculate that’s value proposition is to turn the bittorrent protocol, back into Napster. If they become the central clearinghouse of bittorrent seeds, they can (and will) keep records of all of the network activity. What files are being exchanged, and who is exchanging them. In bittorrent, the seeds are the servers, and technically these seeds can be distributed all across the Internet. I was really suprised to learn that Brian was actually aware of an obscure branch of Austrian code for the PloneMultimedia product which auto-generates bittorrent seeds (which we helped merge into the trunk at the Big Apple Sprint). Apparently, The Lawyers were getting all antsy about the existence of tools which make seeding all too easy. Right now, it takes a degree of technical know how to create these ad-hoc bittorrent servers, but once the auto-generation tools make it out to the premier blog, wiki, and CMS platforms, there won’t be much stopping them. The delicate balance between the overly concentrated power of centralized services vs. their practical usefulness is a theme I began to explore in my post on Serenity. I have also imagined other contexts (e.g. Creative Commons licensing) where simply landing an important feature in the top dozen authoring tools could really shift the scales in terms of adoption. I continue to actively wonder what features could be introduced to these tools to promote equality, democracy, and social justice. Someone should tell the lawyers that the cat’s head has already wriggled out of the bag, and when she gets out she is going to teach her peers the same trick. […]

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