In preparation for the Contact conference that I am helping to organize this October in NYC, I’ve been in discussion with many different communities about the types of initiatives they would like to bring to the table. The purpose of the event is to ‘realize the true potential of social media,’ and determine what infrastructures need to be in place to enable peer-to-peer commerce, culture, and governance.

My goal is to help facilitate these conversations now, so that come October, there is already a higher level of awareness and understanding of these issues, and more connections between groups working on similar objectives.

To that end, one of the conversation threads that has begun, with the help of Paul B. Hartzog, Richard C. Adler, and Sam Rose of the Future Forward Institute, is:

What are the fundamental requirements and building blocks of a distributed internet?

We’ve already seeded the question out on Quora and a google group, and found that developers will answer this question in many ways, because it raises many questions. Such as:

  • Is a ‘distributed internet’ one thing or many things (one internet or many internets?)
  • Should the focus be on hardware or software? Perhaps both in parallel, as a linked ecosystem of interoperable parts?
  • Could we make more progress by building on the existing internet architecture, or would an entirely new architecture offer a better set of advantages?
  • What about hybrid architectures of old and new (mesh networks conntected with community-owned ‘trunks’ for instance)?

Our plan is to get a sense of the various perspectives and opinions around these questions, find the common ground, and see what patterns and insights emerge. It’s not an either/or solution.. it’s probably more like both/and. As nature has shown us, diversity is a good thing. When you have a monoculture, you’re much more susceptible to collapse and catastrophic failure. Resilience is often associated with options.

So if we’re using evolutionary processes as our model, it would make sense to have a multitude of experiments and prototypes out there, with an understanding that “failure” is actually a necessary component of more agile iteration and adaptability.

As these conversations continue and we get a clearer understanding of the current landscape, a roadmap will start to come together with implementable ‘next steps.’ Once the basics are understood, we’ll start asking the harder questions, like:

  • What are the political, economic, and technological reasons for a distributed internet(s)?
  • Are distributed systems for technologically efficient?
  • Do distributed systems afford more freedom?
  • What are the core principles of a distributed internet(s)? (technology layers, philosophy, etc)
  • Who are the key players in terms of people implementing hardware ann software, participating in co-governance, and exploring legal issues around emerging infrastructures?
  • How do economics change when all of the participants are co-owners in the system?

And so on.

I hope this will be an opportunity for many of the communities, groups, and organizations to come together in a common forum and work through these questions together. This area is relatively new to me, so while I am aware of some groups, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Peer to Peer Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation, I know there are many more that I have yet to discover and engage.

If you have suggestions of people and groups that should be involved in the conversation, please pass it on! Another initiative we are working on is to map out an infographic that lists as many of the stakeholders associated with a distributed internet, as well as the many projects that are currently underway, in order to make sense of it as a larger ecosystem. Also, if you know of places where these conversations are already happening, please give us a heads up so we can direct people to those places as well.

As a start, we’ve posted the first question on Quora –

What are the fundamental requirements and building blocks of a distributed internet?

A google group was also started:

Building a Distributed Decentralized Internet

We’ll be distilling all the responses and posting results here within the next week or two, and then move through the various questions together.

As always, looking forward to learning with you!

This post co-authored by Paul B. Hartzog, Samuel Rose, Richard Adler, and Venessa Miemis