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Michel Bauwens
27th May 2011

* Book / Report: Fast Thinking. a Research and Education Network Renaissance. Gordon Cook. Volume XIX, No.s 11-12, XX, No.s 1-5 February – August 2011

(To receive the URL for downloading the entire book,(twenty dollars US via paypal) fill out the request here)

Gordon Cook, who is the driver of a network of communications infrastructure experts via the Internet Cook Report, a mailing list and newsletter, has published a very in-depth overview of the “other internet”. This is the internet that is used to drive massive collaboration global innovation in science and technology. However, it is far from being a technical report, but poses all the important issues posed by an infrastructure for mass collaboration, and all the social and political issues that are involved in building it.

In our third and final serialization of the summary of this work, Gordon Cook links the major network initiatives, with the shift towards planetary cooperation, a vital need to solve a number of pressing issues. Please note the request for support at the end. Making sure that these global infrastructures benefit all of us, especially grassroots civil society, will require a conscious and sustained effort. If you want to support Gordon’s work, please buy the book, and email him for the next steps in pushing this agenda forward.

You can reach the author via [email protected] .

* Part V. A Future Goal — an interconnected Collaborative Civilization

What’s Happened and What is Possible

“Let’s recall what has happened. Physical highways still exist. However the globe has been encircled many times over with glass highways. The small band of men and women honored in this book have taken what they have learned about packet networking and applied it to fiber and the light paths that replace electron streams. Their doing so has banished the old world of bandwidth scarcity based on copper and dependent on all manner of electrically hungry equipment to shove bits down those relatively resistant copper pathways.

This book describes the collaborative research ecosystem that is emerging. It shows how they have woven together an intelligent canvas called by various names of “grid” or “e-grids”. This is a canvas that, right now from the individual user’s point-of-view, is more like a star network than a mesh network that the term “grid” calls to mind. It is however an environment that is unlike any environment on the commercial Internet today. This uniqueness is because, from the ground floor to the penthouse, it has been designed for collaboration and for social networking by facilitating the formation of groups of people with like interests gathered into virtual communities. It offers such groups a portal into a global community numbering probably hundreds of thousands if not millions.

The fortunate inhabitants of this new world can gain entry through authentication and authorization provided by their affiliated community. Once they join, they will have the opportunity to see the disciplinary grids offered by the organization. In talking with their local experts they may select one or more of these grids. They will be given then the proper instructions for accessing them. At the present moment, their access will be pointed to a physical server that is a part of the infrastructure of their home institution and country in which they live. However this does not always have to be true. In any case software, in what you might call their home node, speaks to many other nodes that are gathered together to assist researchers in this particular community. Furthermore, in the case of the LHC the offering is likely well into the hundreds of thousands of computing cores spread all over the world and linked by optical fiber at bitstream speeds so high that for most practical purposes they could all be in the same room. The grid fabric could be thought of as an organization – like a department store or a library – to be used as a foundation for the building of human knowledge. The basic idea is to take the grid software stack, whose various components are discussed throughout the chapters of this book, then to modify it in ways that enable individual users to work with versions tailored to their interests. Yet, the network technical folk are finding that they must do much more work in order to make these intelligent systems scale. It is easier said than done. That said, as has been shown by the organization of FTP repositories into the searchable World Wide Web, it can be done. Most importantly, it can be done in a variety of environments, such as University R and E communities or at the level of the US UCAN libraries.

Right now this global eco-system is in its beginning stages and requires a lot of manpower to make it work. Work is ongoing to develop a user interface that is more intelligent and needs much less mediation by people who are both computer and subject matter specialists. The goal is to refine it in such a way that it is much more amenable to questions from its users and can guide them to connecting the resources they need in the most expeditious way. Achieving this is the 21st century equivalent to the duties of a reference librarian in the 1980s.

The US UCAN “Grid” must give its user communities the means of organizing and networking on a social and intellectual level while being connected to the services they require. These services may range from those that focus on the sciences of the atomic and molecular level all the way up to the ecological level of the surrounding world and the global level of tectonic plates and weather patterns to the universal intergalactic level of radio telescopes. With access to instruments, they also have access to data collection into huge data stores measured in terabytes and petabytes. The system will enable them to catalogue these data stores, find them, retrieve some, send them where desired for the application of various forms of high-performance computing, retrieve the results, visualize the results, and finally discuss them in videoconferences – locally, regionally or globally. The are doing this on a grand global scale and with leadership can adopt to the needs of their localities.

In Whose Interest is the global collaborative OS?

At the R and E level the ability to do all of this exists right now. It is being worked out and refined in a self-organizing way that is fascinating to observe. At this level the movers and shakers not surprisingly have been the computer and network people. Scientists have been working alongside them to explain the abilities of the tools which they desire. But by now these abilities are reasonably well understood and a second and absolutely critical phase is beginning. This is one that is designed to reach out to entire scientific communities and show these communities what is available and how it is in their interest to begin to adopt them.

Of course this will involve some problems of training and serious fundamental issues of getting these research disciplines to adopt toolsets that will, in all likelihood, be mandatory both for enabling them to do what they need to do, and for solving the problems they need to solve. But at this point the innovators have no immediate proof. All they have is yet more tools and concepts for the rank and file researcher to master. Consequently the problems of adoption and transition are not small. In fact they are on the same level of importance as those encountered in the transition from hand-written books to the printing press. This is just one more set of devices that the human mind has developed to be able to use the information it acquires and make it into meaningful stores of knowledge.

Consequently what is happening is not well understood. Therefore in order to create appropriate evaluation and measurement criteria in setting priorities for the use of capital and resources, it is necessary to think about this in terms somewhat different from those of 20th century capitalism.

We are building a infrastructural system for the circulation of knowledge. We’ve all come to understand the infrastructure of highways, water and sewage services, and electric grids. Although there has been much discussion in the last 5 to 10 years of Internet as infrastructure, I submit that there is a new operational ecosystem described in this book. I consider it to be an enabling system for the continued creation of knowledge infrastructure.

I see this mechanism for building knowledge as something that is so basically uniform in what it does that it makes absolutely no sense to think of it ever becoming a private corporation. Would you try to make photosynthesis into some ones intellectual property? I would not. Lights, road systems, water systems, electric systems — you name them. They are all parts of a single global system of basic civilized infrastructure that cannot be isolated into the ownership of one company or group of people because basically they are natural monopolies. It is so basic and so uniform that it makes absolutely no sense to even try to define let alone think of a competing system. It would mean building something huge and expensive twice when doing it once is quite adequate. After all, humans may have two hemispheres but they possess only one brain.

We have the opportunity to create collaborative eco-systems of people who are working within their communities and with their colleagues to define and redefine on a community-by-community basis the necessary knowledge creation systems. It is imperative that we understand from community to community such systems are vital. But they are not mass produceable they are more like a living system that must be tailored to their different environments.

In the United States it is imperative that we seize the opportunity of US UCAN to bring these tools into their respective communities at a level where they are understood and developed by the community as infrastructure. They must not be thought of as new package of soon to be commercialized Internet services that would pump capital into corp[orate coffers outside the community. They are the glue that makes the community a community and they will be, in their own way, unique to the people and the values of their respective communities. These community infrastructures will be open and run on uniform interoperable standards that can be tailored to the preferences and needs of their local users.

What this book is talking about and what it is seeking to articulate is an understanding of the development and emergence of something much better thought of as a global collaborative operating system. This is an OS that can be embedded in the values and points of view and interests of each of its communities and in no way is defined as something that can be packaged and merchandised and sold and delivered top-down from any commercial organization to purchasers at the edge.

Can you imagine a world established by means of a communication mechanism that connected all its knowledge makers, its teachers and its curious citizens who wanted to understand more about their own environment into a learning system for research and discovery? How about a communications environment that has made possible a grid on which its inhabitants could self-organize to accomplish their tasks? This is what has been happening over the past 15 years or so in such a quiet a way that most people are entirely unaware of the significant changes and developments outlined in this book.

Becoming somewhat aware of what was happening, I wanted to understand it in its totality which, at the end of about two years of solid work, I now do. But I also believe that, outside the small circle of implementers, few people are aware of the significance of what has been done. It may have been the case in times of prosperity before 2008 that it served the cause well to fly under the radar. I would argue however that in the very different environment of 2011 with the global rush toward austerity it becomes vitally important, if this good work is to be kept alive and benefit all of us, for a much broader public to understand it, talk about it and help in its implementation and support. These goals were another reason for writing this book.

* Part VI. Summing Up and Request for Help

The Situation in Late May 2011

As I have pointed out, we now have a global set of largely open-source, collaborative tools running on high-end optical (photonic) networks that, while using IP, often are effectively circuit-switched at layer 2. These tools, over the last five years especially, have been designed to launch a global network of collaborative, data intensive, fourth-generation science that is available now to accredited researchers in perhaps 50 or 60 different nations in all the world’s continents save for Antarctica. Powerful projects ranging from the Large Hadron Collider, to radio astronomy, to global warming, and microbiology are fueled by these networks and are largely dependent on them.

All this exciting and inspirational material comes with one small problem. Most people are absolutely unaware that these networks, tools, or processes even exist because of the tools’ dependence on high bandwidth fiber in the “last mile” and because their users have never depended on out reach. Furthermore they are accessible to relatively few people right now. On a global basis, at some future point at most 20 million people, spread among not more than 500 universities.

No one knows the precise number because the networks, while growing, are changing all the time. This is a largely federated movement not centrally guided or directed. It is a movement that has never been explained before. I do so in this book because I’m convinced of its extraordinary potential power. Furthermore, when I say 20 million people in perhaps 500 universities, this is a potential audience. Right now I would guess that the global level directly involved is more like 20,000 people. The federated users of these tools realize that the justification for their existence depends on their outreach to a global community of scientists — many of whom are only just now learning how to use them in professions where their use is not yet strongly rewarded but where successful first-time users can achieve things that are otherwise impossible.

So, as with all new technology, we see a painful process of outreach, recognition, training, and bridge-building to researchers who can benefit but who also may be unaware or rather poorly informed of the potential gains and losses involved with their decision to devote sufficient time to adopt and embrace the tools. All this is underway. The questions are where and to what end?

The Position of the United States

It was only nine months ago that NTIA announced — as stimulus grants designed to bring broadband Internet to more Americans — some $1.5 billion involving a nationwide dedicated 100 Gb backbone and several dozen middle mile network builds for the creation of what is called the United States Unified Community Anchor Institution Network (US UCAN). This network is to connect, mostly by fiber some 200,000 so-called community anchor institutions to a state-of-the-art national network that – in concept at least – can become the first National public Internet as opposed to commercial internet that we have ever had.

The prospect of US UCAN is encouraging. It holds out the possibility of a very desirable paradigm shift in the way some of the most significant organizations of our society will be able to communicate with each other during a time of ever more rapid change and financial stress. The opportunity here, with appropriate education and outreach, is to connect schools and libraries and hospitals in such a way that they could enjoy state-of-the-art information flow and participation in everything “near and dear” to the users of the peer-to-peer foundation list, wiki and blog. Why make a fuss? Because a well executed US UCAN could be the circulatory system enabling resilient communities to function on their own when the next economic crisis hits.

But the problem is this $1.5 billion expenditure is a part of the Obama administration’s stimulus plan with strict guidelines that every penny must be spent within the next 24 months. We have something that could — with adequate planning and coordination — yield an outcome that could be very useful to our communities and strengthen our children’s education. But it is more likely something that US UCAN may become a prime target for chopping down to size and doing things the way they’ve always been done. Why? Because for a corporatized society, the latter is the way of least resistance.

Between January and June 2011 I have communicated with most leadership behind this effort and with many of them face-to-face an the Internet2 international meeting a month ago. However, I regret to say I see a unique opportunity very possibly being wasted because — for political reasons — the orders are just: get the money spent to build the networks you promised to build and we will figure out how to pay for and how to operate them — later. Once they’re built, we will think a little bit about how to train potential users what they’re good for. All of it is haphazard and slapdash to a potentially tragic degree.

Basic hypothesis – With Internet2 and US UCAN, one possible tool set is there for us to use in solving our problems. However because of the enormous complexity, the demand for speed on the part of the US government as well as the insularity of Internet 2, the outcome may be poor. But all eggs are not in the US UCAN basket. That is good. There are also two other programs getting underway. Neither of these involve internet2. One known informally as Gig U is completely private sector and involves setting up a buying consortium where as many as fifty universities may buy bandwidth from carriers and use that bandwidth to provide high speed connectivity for their entire surrounding communities. The other is US Ignite where OSTP and NSF are aligning forces and are suggesting that high bandwidth applications may materialize if one creates a testbed where communities like Lafayette, Louisiana; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Cleveland Ohio and one or two more places are connected via a high speed R and E backbone. The situation in the USA is not good but it is encouraging that there are many talented people who in the presence of many obstacles refuse to give up.

Some of the Builders of the Global OS Tell Me That Given Vision it Could also Run On US UCAN

I have described in detail the global, University-based what I chose to call “collaborative operating system”. One month ago at the Internet 2 meeting as part of separate 30 to 45 minute conversations with three of the key builders, I asked three major questions. First I outlined verbally my understanding of the global, optical network based, and grid computing based ecosystem they have launched and said to each of the three people “do I understand correctly what this is and how it works?” All three of them said “yes you do.”

And then I said “what you appear to be focused on over the next five years or so is to make it more user-friendly so that your average scientist can use it as easily as he would use Microsoft Office e-mail and the web.” They agreed and I continued that: you are also “extending the operation of all of this into a high-speed wireless cloud that will incorporate user mobility as well as all manner of sensor networks.” They affirmed that that was also correct. The final question was “is there anything that were an effort to be made would prevent the use of this ecosystem of collaborative tools by the hugely larger community of those 200,000 community anchor institutions?”

They said it “would take a conscious effort but that with training in the fiber-based infrastructure being built for US UCAN that there was nothing of a technology nature standing in the way.”

So there you are — a huge opportunity that will be lucky to live up to 1% of its potential. Why? Because it’s being built in the dark while people are basically asleep — although if you know where to look it’s being built very openly. But the people who can benefit from it may well not because they don’t know it exists.

Achieving an operational infrastructure based on any kind of common understanding of the potential good that can be offered by this networked collaboration is at this point not very likely. Why? Because at this point the command is “just get the damn thing built and we will think about what to do with it later.”

So what do I want to do right now? Undertaking the necessary editing and publication to revise this 440 page encyclopedia in the way that it can create the broadest possible understanding of the potential gains. And then to market, educate and do outreach that otherwise will not be done. A foundation could be helpful here as well as money from the same or perhaps a different foundation to put together at least one proposal and carry it out to validate the ideas and concepts that I have explained in my book “Fast thinking a Research and Education Network Renaissance. ”

Perhaps there are other things that need to be done? With this in mind I would like to use the p2p blog to submit my work to the collective intelligence of this group. Please help me in the fine-tuning these ideas and in getting access groups of like-minded people with the necessary support so I can gather together a group of people, sharpen and focus the agenda, and go out and make sure this opportunity is positively and well-fulfilled.

However, I have done what I have so far largely pro-bono. Without monetary support, I cannot afford to continue. Ideas, suggestions and introductions will be appreciated … as will suggestions on where I may find an affordable editing service for the book. While a strategy needs to be shaped, a significant part of the problem is that there is an expectation – especially among the most wealthy – that if it is published on Internet, it should be free. This is one reason why, for those who would like to read the entire volume, I have created a URL at the front of this entry where, for a PayPal donation of $20, I will send you the URL that downloads the entire volume. “

(To receive the URL for downloading the entire book,(twenty dollars US via paypal) fill out the request here)

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