Starfish: A User-Controlled Network

Raffael Kemenczy is an Austrian student, social thinker, and Relations Director at the European Organisation for Sustainability. He was in Ireland this week to speak at the MindField International Festival of Ideas, and also visited the 091 Labs Hackerspace in Galway to give a talk on his vision of a world-wide user-controlled network based on a distributed mesh architecture, which he calls Project Starfish.
The title comes from the book the Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and the concept is that if a spider’s head or limb is removed it dies or is incapacitated, whereas if a starfish is cut in two, both parts will regenerate.

He lists his primary concern as being how to unlock humanity’s potential, and sees the outsourcing of thought and responsibility to government and industry as being detrimental to the well-being of humanity. This, he believes, is largely due to the centralized nature of our communications infrastructure.

“Even fewer people make decisions for an even larger amount of information. We need to think about where we get our information from and who is approving the information? Can we trust these companies and these people to deliver the correct kind of information?”

“Google is not just a search engine, Google is your view of the internet. We all use the same first page, and how many people go past the first page regularly? What you see of the internet is very regulated. We don’t even know what Google’s algorithm is.”

“Do you know who’s watching you, do you know who’s looking into your emails or possibly could?. Do you trust your service provider not to filter your data, or not to look at what you’re sending and receiving?

“What I’m proposing or trying to do, is to move on.”

How he proposes to move on from this centralised form of communication is through Project Starfish, “a structure which is completely distributed. A completely distributive system where each node has several possibilities to reach any other nodes”.

“Imagine you’re on your cell phone. Today, if you want to connect to anybody else you need to go to your provider. But imagine your cell phone has a wi-fi chip, and most of them have it anyway, it creates a local network. Imagine that network is an ad hoc network and can immediately connect with other networks. So all the cell phones we have create their own small networks and become interconnected with each other. That gives you a whole range of possibilities, and because you need no infrastructure externally, you make it by yourself. You have a cell phone, someone else has a cell phone, you just create it; you can have free network access.”

Raffael is quick to point out that this is not as far-fetched as it may seems and that the technology required already exists; the challenge is in making it readily available.

“How can you realise this? User controlled wireless nodes, or wired, it’s up to you. Mesh network technology. This already exists, I’m not talking about anything which does not exist, this is all here, it’s just a matter of packaging it. Every node would then be client and server at the same time, sending and receiving. That’s a whole different concept, not just receiving information, but you’re also able to send it, in your local area, all the time.”

“You have no centralised authority. There’s no third party ever to control your data for you or to control what you see. Then of course you share power, because your node is just as important as any other node to keep the network alive.”

“What you can get if everybody’s house has a router at home, and they all make networks and they’re all interconnected is basically, you make the provider obsolete.”

“Those who benefit from the current system are, in my opinion, very few. I’m not a big fan of killing the King or something like that, but if you do organise, and I think this can be achieved through distributed systems, you really can have a different kind of not just mindset, but a different kind of economy, an different kind of spirituality, and a different kind of politics.”

The main obstacle in project Starfish’s path is the development of hardware to make a fully-distributed, user-controlled network a reality. Raffael is not concerned that corporate interests would prevent industry producing such hardware.

“I believe, as Michel Bauwens says, that there is a fraction of capitalist establishment for which it is beneficial to develop and invest in things like this that are completely against the market logic. I think there’s a small part [of the industry] that can benefit from it.”

“As we outsource everything, I really think we fail a little bit out of humanity, and would you say your government is doing a great job? Or that the economy is so awesome? It’s not a matter of ‘Do I like this idea or not?’, but also about the necessity to survive. Can we afford as people and individuals to continue to outsource thought? What is the option?”

5 thoughts on “Starfish: A User-Controlled Network

  1. Soon, if it has not happened already, mobile devices will make up a majority of the nodes on the Internet. From a power consumption point of view these devices cannot afford to participate in the Starfish mesh network for long periods of time. I like the notion, but I suspect the implementation will look a lot more like the Decentralized graph than the Distributed graph.


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