The world-wide web

October 3, 2008 | 3 comments

Worldmapper’s statistically adjusted maps provide some food for thought. Check out worldwide personal computer ownership, as of 2002, or Internet users from the same year (they’re very similar).

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how Internet technology can promote information flow, and through it efficiency and transparency, in peoples’ lives. When you’re allowing people to publish their opinions and experiences, and then share them in the kind of social mesh that the web is becoming, I think it’s also important to remember to somehow include the people who aren’t part of the mesh, and whose circumstances mean that they can’t possibly participate. The danger is that people who aren’t active in the network will lose out, and be underrepresented in important ways.

This clearly doesn’t matter much in the consumer web, but I believe that the principles proved in the social web will take greater hold in software, and through that to society as a whole. We are becoming more democratic; we have more access to information. Anyone can publish an idea, a news report, a photograph or any other piece of transmittable media, which can then propagate to anyone else. The roots are in web technology, but the effect is clearly felt way beyond the tech sphere; we’re fast getting used to this privilege, but for most of history freedom of expression has been a radical idea.

Ideally, the result of this freedom through technology is a real-life social mesh, more closely-bound on a global level than people have ever been in the past. Through the free flow of information comes transparency, and through that, again, democracy. But this ideal can only work, in my opinion, if everyone feels the benefit. Part of the point of democracy, surely, is that everyone can take part.

So how can we extend the network? And should it even be an issue, given that around 2.6 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation?

It’s a fact that cellphone penetration massively outstrips computers in the developing world, which is one reason why a lot of very large computing names are beginning to focus on handsets (and why the free, open source Android software that Google is peddling has nothing to do with competing with the iPhone). That means that cellphone networks also have a great deal more reach than other forms of network in those areas, and it’s therefore significant that the next generation of ultra mobile PCs – for example the next Eee PC – have connectivity through the cellphone network built-in. The result, I hope, will be a sea change in Internet demographics; from that, I hope many things will follow.

These are my interests. I want to bring the technologies that have been proven on consumer websites and in the tech sphere to places where they can benefit people, and make the offline world a better place. I’m under no delusions that I’m going to have any effect myself, but as the technical head of an open source social networking engine, and as someone who just has a personal interest, I can try and do my bit.

This blog is going to be for the sorts of thoughts – like this post – which don’t lend themselves well to a company-sponsored space. It’s often going to be rambly, and will probably raise more questions than answers. Still, you’ve got this far, which hopefully means I won’t be shouting into the void. Thanks for reading; please let me know what you think.

Most Commented Posts


  1. Good manifesto, Ben. Though cellphone penetration outstrips the (sometimes) old and badly state-run wired telecoms networks, I still am concerned that GSM, 3G, GPRS networks depend on a central bureaucracy – the phone cos – whose interests are not in the democratisation of information flow, but in the channeling of cash flows and their attendant power and authority through themselves. This channeling is tied to global entertainment and info-tainment (and indeed edu-tainment) concerns which, at least in the US, have strong affiliations, through PACs with the incumbent American regime, and often quite explicitly espouse ways of being that are at odds with the vision of “freedom through technology” and the “social mesh”. Some how research has to be funded to prove concepts like secure, massively peer to peer networks – like what the Cybiko hinted at years back and the OLPC is sort of modelling. But such research funding will be hard to come by, given that it might disrupt current commercial interests.

    George Roberts October 3, 2008 (8:07 am)
  2. For sure, although I think that kind of open network is step 2 at the very least.

    I think that kind of model, although absolutely required, isn’t going to come out of academic research. I don’t mean this is a slight to academia; I just think it’s more likely to come out of the resourcefulness of people who either need a fix for their situation, or for the situations of people close to them.

    Ben Werdmuller October 3, 2008 (9:52 am)
  3. Totally agree: step 2 at the least. I don’t necessarily mean academic research, however. There is a lot of work that has to be done if such networks were to become possible, but those in a position to support such research (BBN, SAIC, whatever Bell Labs is now called, and yes, universities and EU Frameworks, etc etc) are not likely to upset the telco applecart. Interesting things are coming out of the US military, who are said to be finding mesh networks the only way they can ensure secure “in-theatre” comms. ARPANET was military. Maybe secure mesh networks will emerge from military R&D. Is it a price worth paying?

    George Roberts October 3, 2008 (8:04 pm)

Leave a comment