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issue: October 15, 2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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My Date with the Gnomes of San Jose
A First Person Account of the First Meeting of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group

by Cory Doctorow

The worst day in short history of modern peer-to-peer computing was the day that some wag coined the banal acronym "P2P." On that day, an entire field of wonderful, mind-bending, world-changing networking models were reduced to a single, oversimplified acronym-with-a-two-in-the-middle (AWATITM).

The other AWATITMs -- B2B, B2C -- were used to make simple ideas (selling stuff to people and selling stuff to companies) excitingly complex. Entire PowerPoint cosmologies were constructed around B2B and B2C, and MBA programs rejigged their curriculum to explain the theory and practice of AWATITMs. The dirty suits grabbed ahold of the idea, pumped and dumped billions of dollars in bad paper on the NASDAQ and then hastily declared B2B and B2C dead.

Turning peer-to-peer computing into P2P implies some common lineage with B2B and B2C. It places peer-to-peer computing squarely in the safe and comprehensible realm of the monetized, commodified Internet of Superbowl ads and Times Square billboards. But peer-to-peer computing isn't a business model, it's a technological one. That's not to say that you can't make money with peer-to-peer technology. (You can. People will. Lots of it.) But peer-to-peer computing isn't a way of making money per se, any more than packet-switching or error-correction is a way of making money.

What peer-to-peer computing is, is a way of making really cool decentralized networks. In a peer-to-peer universe, servers are irrelevant. Peer-to-peer networks are composed of personal computers tied together with consumer Internet connections, each node a quantum zone of uncertainty, prone to going offline whenever its owner closes his laptop and chucks it into a shoulder-bag. In peer-to-peer computing, reliability is ensured through massive redundancy; bottlenecks are dealt with in the same fashion. Peer-to-peer networks aren't owned by any central authority, nor can they be controlled, killed, or broken by a central authority. Companies and concerns may program and release software for peer-to-peer networking, but the networks that emerge are owned by everyone and no one.

They're faery infrastructure, networks whose maps form weird n-dimensional topologies of surpassing beauty and chaos; mad technological hairballs run by ad-hocracies whose members each act in their own best interests.

In a nutshell, peer-to-peer technology is goddamn wicked. It's esoteric. It's unstoppable. It's way, way cool.

But you sure wouldn't know it from the agenda at the first meeting of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group (PTPWG). Held in a San Jose Hyatt ballroom last Thursday, the meeting was convened by Intel, one of the five founding members of the Working Group. Intel had originally expected a mere 60 attendees, and had to reschedule and find bigger digs when more than 100 applied; even then, the 260-person facility had more than 300 people in attendees. In attendance were the press, clots of dirty suits, nerd firebrands, and representatives of a multifarious knot of companies that, in one way or another, qualify as "peer-to-peer."

And there we were, crammed butt-to-belly, standing room only, waiting for the inauguration of the standards-setting body that would ensure interoperability between all the players in the drearily neologistic "P2P space." It started pretty good. Bob Knighten, Intel's "Peer-to-Peer Evangelist," kicked it off by lauding us for our vision, expressed amazement at the sheer numbers in the room, and popped his tie-mic with every plosive syllable. Bob's got the right look-and-feel for this thing, he's an engineer with a fringe of hair and horn-rims and an earnest nerdiness that's as sincere as packets.

Then Bob introduced Earl Neid, a lawyer from Intel, and things went to straight to hell. Neid's an Intel lawyer, and he took us through the proposed structure of the P2PWG. At the top, there are seven steering committee members ("The Central Committee," I hissed at my seatmate). Five of them are appointed by the founding corporations; two are elected from the "Contributors" who pay $5,000 for the privilege of "contributing." That seems a little steep, but the Contributors have got it easy -- the Steering Committee members pay $25,000 each for their seats. Underneath it all, there's the great mass of $500/head "Participants" who can only be on technical committees by invitation. The Working Group would be unincorporated, "for simplicity's sake," and this hierarchy would ensure that the decision-making process would be streamlined and easy.

Neid has the lawyer mind-control drone down to an art. Though he spoke for a mere 30 minutes, it seemed like an eternity. The hairfaces and ponytails in the room began a full-body, Palm-and-cellphone collective fidget, waiting for some actual technology to be trotted out for examination. It wasn't until he finished and called for questions that the room woke up. The first questioner thanked Intel for all their hard work, but wondered aloud at the necessity of having such a centralized, hierarchical decision-making body at the helm of a decentralized, non-hierarchical technology. There was an appreciative chuckle.

Then Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly and Associates, publishers of the finest technical books in the universe, stepped up to the mic. O'Reilly blasted out an indictment of the entire show, declared his disgust with Intel for foisting their stodgy, last-gen thinking on the world, and stepped down to wild applause.

From that moment on, there was blood in the air. Intel was no longer a good corporate citizen, donating its efforts to the peer-to-peer movement. In a hot moment of exercised open-source rhetoric, Intel was transformed into a scheming Illuminatus, a Gnome of Zurich plotting to secretly co-opt and control the uncontrollable. It was like crashing the first meeting of the Trilateral Commission as they divvied up the world.

Every aspect of Intel's Working Group infrastructure was called into question: Why were they using a dumb old mailing-list for the working group when slash, the engine behind, provides an open-source means for fast and furious communications with idiosyncratic filtering options? Why this sneaky pyramid business with only seven decision-makers at the tippy-top? Why did they think it would take years to arrive at standards? Could a hardware vendor's slow technology lifecycles match the breakneck pace of innovation in the peer-to-peer software world, where new networks spring up faster than the business press can acronym-ize them?

Most damning were the examples of other standards bodies in the Internet world. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), whose standards underpin the basic structure of the Internet, is a mad ad-hocracy, an organization whose membership consists of anyone who claims to belong, an organization whose committees and working groups are weird, emergent-consensus flamefests that hammer out standards and protocols at speed. The IETF's anarchic free-for-all is eerily similar to peer-to-peer technology itself, and here Intel was, proposing an old-fashioned Supreme Soviet at the helm. What were they thinking?

Intel tried. They really did. Intel's organizational babus took the mic and announced that they were surprised at the popular sentiment, and they'd be happy to re-think the whole hierarchy thing. They'd present their ideas after lunch. And they did. Here it is: people with a better idea can email it to the Working Group over the next week, and the Trilateral Commission would deliberate in secret, pick a winner, and announce it within 30 days.

Needless to say, the room was hardly mollified. Even a presentation from UDDI, the joint industry group that's been working on a kind-of Ur-standard for peer-to-peer computing, hardly made a ripple. The GRID distributed computing project, presented by a quiet, self-deprecating academic got its biggest reaction when the presenter, Ian Foster, took a poke at Intel's proposed structure.

And the peer-to-peer world moves on. O'Reilly's sponsoring its own peer-to-peer conference, and Tim O'Reilly has used his company's site to explain in detail why Intel shouldn't be at the helm of peer-to-peer. The proposed slash-based message board inches towards completion. And in San Jose, Intel abides, collecting its $5,000 fees from "Contributors" as they sign on.

b i o :
Cory Doctorow won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer at the 2000 Hugo Awards. He is the co-founder and Chief Evangelist of openCOLA, Inc.


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