June 11, 2012

Power to the People


            The previous Mobile Musing considered how the confluence of pocket-sized processing power and all-digital wireless LTE combined to make 2012 a watershed year in the history of networks. The practical result of this is a network that increasingly cedes its power to its users.

            For the last several decades network activity has been inexorably moving to the network’s edge. With the 2012 watershed such a distributed network is moving to the ultimate edge, the individual user.

            Networks have always operated around hubs where the contents of one pathway were switched to another. The hubs of railroad networks were called switching yards. The hubs of telephone networks were called switches. The hub of the new network is you and me.

            The transition began subtly 30 years ago when wireless cut the phone cord. The revolution produced by early car phones and portable brick phones was that the network no longer controlled the place from which you could access its benefits. The end of place meant the user commanded the network to come to him or her rather than vice versa. As the mobile phone became ubiquitous we began to take this phenomenon for granted. Almost half the people alive today have never known a world where finding a phone and having the right change was a challenge. Separating voice telephony from a specific place was the first step towards putting the user at the center of network activity.

            The next step in the user-centric transformation was the wireless delivery of more than voice. The ability to call forth information on demand was an inversion of the traditional relationship with knowledge; that if you wanted something you had to go and get it. Details about the rein of Genghis Kahn, for instance, were sequestered in a book you had to go discover. Learning was first a process of finding. Now such knowledge can be wirelessly summoned in the midst of a dinner table conversation. This kind of instantaneous access to information increases the demand for information. Genghis Kahn might get buried in the propwash of life’s other activities 10 minutes after the initial demand, but in the new wireless world the moment after the information is desired it is delivered. Mobility has produced a fundamental change in the nature and fungibility of information. Knowledge is changed when it revolves around the consuming individual.

            This brings us to the new network’s greatest change – how each of us has been transformed from a “client” at the end of the delivery path to a “server” at the center of our own network.

            Networks have always centralized power at the point of network activity. Where rail lines converged, urban manufacturing centers arose. New York became the media capital of the nation because it was the most interconnected city in the early days of the telegraph. The hierarchy of old networks cemented the power of a hierarchy of users ranging from information dispensers to product producers. The wired Internet’s anti-hierarchical distribution has been chipping away at such network-centralized power for the last couple of decades. The wireless IP network, coupled with pocket processing, is the completion of that transformation.

            In the all-IP wireless network the flattening of distribution – and thus the flattening of power – has reached its apex. The smartphone portable processing device is the new network hub. A network hub, after all, is a point at which in and out activity occurs to route traffic. This time that node, and the control over its distribution of traffic, is literally in the hands of the individual. Historically the power of the network hub to command resources and information created other derivative powers. The new mobile network means that power is now in the hands of the people.

            What we have come to know as “social media” is just one result of these new network hubs. To consider such a development as either “social,” or “media” is to miss its real impact – the placing in the hands of individuals the power of a network hub to select and route the flow of information.

            Twitter’s 400 million daily tweets (!) are an example of how the network has flattened. News events and opinion were once the province of a curatorial authority that exploited the power of a network hub to determine what would be disseminated. That function is now performed by any individual with a Twitter account.

            The Arab Spring was the high-profile manifestation of the new reality of individual hubs. Wireless devices on the street performed the role previously assigned to hierarchical authority to collect and distribute information. The flattening of the network put collect and connect capabilities in the hands of individuals who then created their own networks that bypassed the choke points of power.

            But the concept of individual hubs is more than Twitter. Any time a consumer accesses or creates information for subsequent redistribution they have become a hub. While the wired IP network allows a degree of such configuration (e.g., blogs), it is the addition of pocket processing and high-speed mobility that adds the last step from network hubs to individual hubs. The provision of health care, for instance, is being transformed from the old hierarchical system where the patient was commanded to come to the provider, to one where a patient equipped with a wirelessly connected monitor becomes a server of information delivered to the practitioner client. Next, of course, is the “social media of machines.” Each point on the Internet of Things can become a unique hub collecting, creating, and serving information to a network of its own design.

            While the one-two punch of portable processing and all-IP wireless networks is just beginning to scale, its future is becoming clear. It is a transformative moment in which the power of the network is moved from institutions to individuals. It brings new meaning to the 60’s slogan Power to the People.