From the Archive: “Open source revolution means more Internet” [4/8/2005]

I wrote the following article in 2005 after finding that there were few articles in my college newspaper that had anything remotely to do with the Internet. I was going to go through and edit it to fit my sensibilities of grammar and correctness, but I’ll let it stand. In April of 2005 the internet was a different place… people were just getting used to the idea of ‘Wikipedia’ and ‘Youtube’. Newspapers were churning along and the Interwebplace was at least a world where all established companies knew they needed a ‘footing’ in. Today, the Internet has upset so many old ways of interacting with content and brands that old-media corporations without a comprehensive Internet strategy simply fade away. Though only four years away, 2005 was a entirely different world. In this article I tried to get a handle on what elements of the new web would be disruptive and beneficial: (and please keep in mind this article really needs an edit)

When the Internet began to really grow in the late 90s, the public understood it as a useful parallel to the more tangible content delivery systems already in place. It was believed that magazines, newspapers, and television would exert their presence primarily in the realm of non-Internet space, but each would have a presence on the net to offer extras like an archive of their content or a place for last week’s crossword puzzle answers. Against the wishes of the big media, software, and information-delivery corporations, the online community began to make its own content, sell products, tell the world’s news, and entertain the masses. The net’s producers are not only making this global content more cheaply, but its quality and integrity far surpasses the more corporate producers. This shift in authorship has implications in every aspect of visible media and software.

When the people begin to be the creators of information, programs, and entertainment, life tends to get better. A more online-centric world leads us to the Open Source revolution, the latest buzz phrase to describe the increased communality of the net and information politics. Programs work better, and thousands of dedicated users work on free operating systems like Linux in a coordinated globally-connected setting. Along with this revolution, programs, information, and images now more frequently bear the stamp of Creative Commons, a designation for freely distributed content that can never be owned or sold but must be attributed to its original creator. Better programs and information is the fruition of a fluid digital commons running circles around companies still trying to sell their inferior goods.

A more ‘open’ web means much more than just changes in journalism and software. The invention of the Wiki, a web structure that allows any page under that wiki to be edited by anyone reading it, has revolutionized the way thousands of groups communicate. It has led to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that now boasts over half a million English articles and hundreds of thousands more in other languages. In the words of one Wired magazine reviewer, “In the metamathematics of encyclopedias, 500 Kvarans equals one Pliny the Elder.” To bring this closer to home, search for Vassar College and add to that entry. It seems to be lacking many important factoids.

The concept behind wikis is almost beautiful. They are self-healing, self-growing, and self-managing. Any defacement can be instantly reversed by someone who discovers it because page versions are stored. Pages organize themselves. All one needs to do is create a community that has a following. If you start it, they will build it—sometimes at a dizzying 700 article a day rate like the case of Wikipedia. This is only the text and picture based world we’re dealing with now. Moving images are a whole new ball game, with the same changing rules.

When choosing television programming, this more open Internet will soon be a more viable delivery vehicle. Already in Austria, a net-based TV station produced by the 8,000 residents of the town Engerwitzdorf has produced 60 news segments that can be downloaded on demand. The service also puts out regular news reports—all for free. There are very few obstacles for setting up these types of video programs—the United States just needs to catch up. Getting these huge files to their respective audiences is a major obstacle, but there’s a fairly young technology that makes it easy as pie.

Using Bit Torrent, a distributed file propagation system, it’s possible to spread a file the size of a DVD to thousands of people in one day. This marvel of programming has revolutionized the way multimedia can be distributed. Currently, Bit Torrent traffic makes up more than one-third of all Internet traffic. It is no longer economically unfeasible to produce full-length movies and distribute them digitally around the world. Bit Torrent provides the downloader with a system that takes pieces of the file you need from people who need pieces of the file you have. Though it can be generally explained in one sentence, this simplicity is what has ensured its success. This sharing mechanism means cheap and lightning-fast distribution of even the largest files. An independent film house only needs a broadband Internet connection to show their movie to the world.

Here’s what should be expected: film and television producers will find a way to make their content available online in a protected streaming form. They will soon see they are dealing with a more connected audience that uses selfish devices like Tivos that cut out commercials and DVRs that play recorded TV shows. Once they get Internet users into their streaming solution with carefully researched profit models, the entire world of television will shift to the net. Cable television and cable Internet will be indistinguishable, and the big media companies will soon find a way to make both profitable. The trouble is, finding that illusive security algorithm that protects content from piracy is like finding a four-leaf clover in the Sahara. There’s always a way to get content on the free Internet.

This new open Internet is growing into whatever the world wants it to be. Lucky for us, we hold the reigns, not corporations, governments, or private interests.

Originally published in the Vassar Miscellany

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