A New Mental Model for Computers and Networks

But it also gives us problems when it comes to conceiving and designing distributed approaches, such as peer-to-peer. It gives us hierarchy after hierarchy, and hierarchies within hierarchies, rather than the heterarchy that Paul Baran imagined the future internet to embody when he drew his diagram in 1964 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Centralized, Decentralized and Distributed Networks

While we're at it, let's also revisit "End-To-End Arguments in System Design" by David P. Reed, Jerome H. Saltzer and David D. Clark: a design guide that helped manifest and rationalize the internet protocol, which in an ideal world would give us a fully distributed network (C, in Figure 1). Alas, the current internet's implementation is closer to decentralized (B, in Figure 1). As distributed networks go, it's good, but not good enough, because it still subordinates client nodes to server ones, so servers get scale, while clients get little more scale than the servers (and the operators of sphincters in the network itself) allow. We also have a networked world where governments can favor or ban traffic they don't like. Even society itself has to some degree been re-organized and re-centralized by giant private "social networks", such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Back in April 2016, I suggested that our next fight is for freedom from exactly the kind of centralized systems I just described. Fighting for freedom would also get us closer to each of these ideals:

  • General-purpose computing and networking.
  • Decentralization and distributed everything.
  • Privacy.
  • The true Internet of Things.

Now I suggest that we also need to free ourselves from the very mental models that we used to build giant centralized traps from which we need to escape.

There are positive signs. The blockchain, for all its faults, is distributed by design. To come up with blockchain and Bitcoin (which uses a blockchain), Satoshi Nakamoto (or whoever that really is) had to think outside of fiat currency, banks, centralized trust systems and the other familiar boxes that control transactions in the world's economies, nearly all of which are centralized by design. He had to think of ways that a fully distributed peer-to-peer approach to all those things would open possibilities and outperform currency, payments and record-keeping done the old ways. One can criticize Bitcoin and blockchain on many grounds, but what matters is that a distributed system got imagined and implemented causing many other new re-thinks and re-builds in the world.

The problem with mental models is that they work—also that we can't escape the deepest ones that are anchored in our own experience as physical bodies, operating in the physical world.

Ever wonder why good is up (or high) and bad is down (or low)? Why it is easier to conceive of heaven in the sky and hell below the ground, than vice versa? Or why light is good and dark is bad? Or why people say "enlightened" rather than "endarkened?" Or why we "catch" or "grasp" ideas? The answer is, because we are upright-walking diurnal animals with hands and opposable thumbs. If owls or moles were equipped by nature with the means to have moral systems and speak about them, their metaphors would be radically different. Dark might be good, and light might be bad.

We are embodied animals, and we can't get away from that fact. But we are also inherently distributed, and different. At a base level, we are heterozygous. No two of us are the same, unless we are identical twins; and even then we are separate and distinct individuals. (An interesting fact: so are apples. Writes Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, every seed in every apple "contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, will bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents". All the varieties of Apple we know—Granny Smith, Delicious, Macintosh—grow on trees that start as grafts off a single ancestral plant.)

The designs we need are ones that appreciate our heterozygous inheritances, and the fact that we are designed to learn throughout our healthy lives. "Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me", Walt Whitman advises. He adds:


Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance.
Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction,
Always a breed of life.

I love how Whitman puts those together, because none of them fits in a system, other than one even he fails to comprehend, even as he embraces its mystery. I also love "knit of identity", because each life is a thread distinct in its substance and capacity for increase, yet part of a whole that changes as well. Every self, like every species, is a breed of life.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal