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Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
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Don't bogart that totalitarian regime, my friend

Author: joe

Sunday, 21 May, 2006 - 14:23

p2p. It stands for peer-to-peer. It refers to a kind of network architecture. Some people fall into the trap of thinking it refers to the way people connect on a one-to-one basis over the Internet, as in, for example email conversations. Metaphorically it may do. But that really isn't what it means. You might think I'm being a pedantic asshole, here, but the reason why I'm quibbling is really important.

The 'traditional' architecture used in interconnected networks, which allows web-servers and mail-servers to work is called 'client-server' architecture. You connect to a webserver in order to get 'served' web pages. When you do so you are a 'client' - actually your browser is the client, rather than you.

The reason this is important is because if you take out the server, you can't get the webpage. Okay, some content may get cached on other servers, or copies of the content may get hosted somewhere else, but the bottom line is that client-server architecture makes it easier to attack the distribution model. Hence you get, for instance, cease-and-desist orders against people hosting copyright-infringing content on their servers and they legally must oblige and comply, and law-enforcers can make it so.

Peer-to-peer technologies use a different kind of architecture, in which transactions between what would otherwise be called 'clients' take place between each other. This is not to say that 'servers' don't come into it. The old Napster, for instance, used a central server to connect peers to each other. The eDonkey file-sharing network uses servers to index users' files for searching. A Bittorrent file requires a 'seed' which may sit on a server rather a user's computer. The key thing, though is that the network is distributed across nodes, rather than centred around a server.

Now the reason I say all this is because I've been reading dissertations from media students about to graduate who think that email is a p2p technology, or that anything that isn't TV (i.e. a one-to-many relationship) is therefore p2p. I've even heard people who should know better (teachers!) call it 'person-to-person' technology, which is clearly bollocks. Peer-to-peer specifically refers to architectures which attempt to bypass centralised models. The benefits include things like reduced cost and bandwidth for distributors (webservers charge you for the bandwidth required to provide a copy of a file to everyone who wants it, while p2p means you may only need to provide one copy), but also it means that you have more chance of circumventing centralised controls and even snooping mechanisms.

It's important to get these things right because over the last decade, governments' desires to gain ever more control over and access to digital transmissions has gradually produced ever more draconian laws such as, in the UK, the RIP Act, and in the US, the DMCA. Even as transmission of data moves away from easily controlled central servers, governments try to get more control over the other centralised conduits by which your data moves: requiring, for instance, ISPs to store user activities, demanding encryption keys for encrypted data, etc. It might even be worth mentioning that the UK government currently wants to allow ministers to enact any laws they please - the very definition of totalitarianism. Don't you think an unregulatable and unsnoopable, and more importantly, an indestructable distributed transmission mechanism might be useful in such a scenario?

Now in the US, the NSA is spying on US citizens with the happy assistance of AT&T. Who, incidentally, want to start differential charging for different kinds of data carried across their fibres. Do you think they'll resist government pressure to make it difficult for you to use p2p architectures in privacy? When you might be a pirate terrorist making money from kiddie-porn? Do you think they'll care if you're actually sharing photos of your holiday with your friends?

Why is why, boys and girls, p2p is, most importantly, a network architecture, not a metaphor for personal conversations or a hippy alternative to mainstream media.

Categories: p2p, network, architecture, law, governmental power, totalitarianism, file-sharing,
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