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?”

NFC: Using your Mobile to Make Natural Connections

Near Field Communications (NFC) is a form of wireless technology that allows users to receive or share information at short ranges of typically 4cm or less. NFC devices can also communicate with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. It is a technology that has been developed especially to work with mobile phones.

The development of NFC-enabled mobile phones such as the Google Nexus S, has led to the possibility of using a phone as a digital wallet for contactless payment such as that offered by Visa’s Paywave or the
London transport system’s Oyster Card.

NFC technology allows the sharing of information between two NFC mobile devices once they are in close proximity, in a similar way to the way Bluetooth operates, but in a much faster and more convenient way.

In order for two NFC mobile devices to connect, they need only to be within range of each other. Both users confirm the operation, and information may be transferred between the two units.

This can allow users to transfer items such as store vouchers between two “digital wallets” but could also have a transforming impact on the way we engage in social networking.

Two years ago, researchers from the Chair for Information Systems at Technische Universität München developed a prototype application called NFriendConnector which allowed NFC-enabled phones to interact with Facebook.

The prototype, which was submitted to the NFC Forum’s, Global Competition in 2009, came from a desire to, “Use Near Field Communications to map your social life much more easily to your online social life on Facebook,” according to the Munich University’s Philip Koene.

His colleague Felix Köbler notes that, “Just using Facebook or any other social network and sitting in front of a PC device will not be the future.”

He continues, “In the past when people came together in virtual communities in precursors to the social networks of today, people connected online and then transferred their social relationships from online to offline. Now it is basically vice-versa. People map their real social relationships into facebook, so we think that any application that is enabling or even supporting this process is of great help to people.”

The application allows users to swipe their phones alongside each other and download each other’s Facebook profiles to be browsed at a later time. It also contains a function that will match user’s profiles, and generate automated status updates.

“All you have to do is touch the cell phone of the other person and you can make a new friend connection, or you can make a new status message that tells your community on facebook that you have now met this other person. We thought it would be a kind of neat way to map your real life on to your online social networking,” says Philip.

He explains that, “The broad idea was that you kind of have data, for example, that you met this other person in real life, that you’re at a specific location in real life. You can gather this data quite easily because you just have to touch something with your telephone, that’s all that’s basically needed. And then you have an app like NFriendConnector where you can map this data easily on to your social network.”

The application is not available at the moment as it was, “Used from a research perspective actually,” says Felix. “The prototype is basically two years old now so that’s quite a long time when the markets are being filled with applications.

“NFriendConnector was developed in a University setting so with developing it, doing research with it and then publishing it; a lot of stuff happened in that time.”

Philip notes that the speed with which mobile technology is developing also presented a problem, “We developed the NFriendConnector for the Nokia NFC-enabled cell phone of the time which was rather a low key device compared to today’s smart phones.”

A version of the app which translates its features to the Google Nexus S phone is in development. “We don’t have a title, just a working title right now. We hope to bring it onto the Android marketplace when it’s finished just to evaluate it when it’s finished, maybe in a few months,” says Philip.

“What we saw is that people see payment as the big application for NFC, but through our presentations we met other people who see social networking as another possible driver for NFC,” notes Felix.

Philip explains why he his optimistic as to the future of NFC-enable social networking thus, “The whole touch metaphor is extremely simple. If you set the application up right, the user won’t have to do anything else other than touch something and that will then be mapped onto a whole range of social networking sites.”

“It kind of had a slow start, but we believe it’s coming. NFC enables, in my opinion, a very natural interaction with your mobile phone. You just have to touch something with it to start an interaction.”

“The guys from industry always tell us that it’s coming and that this will be the year of NFC. NFC really has a lot of potential and we’re hoping that it’s coming to a bigger market and that we can do broader research with it.”