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Archive for September, 2009

Castles in the Air: Or, a DNS of the electromagnetic spectrum

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Blogging from TPRC 2009. Kevin Werbach has given us an excellent paper titled Castles in the Air but I think it could be titled reversible spectrum policy.

As all of our communication devices have become computers, Werbach points out that it is now possible to create a domain name system (DNS) of the air. Just as the DNS resolves a human-readable name to a unique numbered address, Kevin’s castle would provide a distributed database that resolves requests to transmit with the available spectrum.  The nice thing about this proposal is you could change your mind about the allocations or the allocation system at any point without building and distributing all new transmitters and receivers.

The idea of this kind of spectrum server is not new, but it is just now starting to seem possible — politically and technically.  For this to work you’d need to make some of the holders of underused spectrum let go of some of it — quite a political challenge.  You’d also need to solve some hard technical problems that haven’t been solved.  But looking up and into the future this castle in the air seems possible.

gagilas flickr photo of receivers

(Thanks to gagilas for the photo.)

I wonder: to what extend does this castle already exist?  In unlicensed spectrum I previously argued (in The Return of the Broadcast War) that when there was no price for spectrum there often existed informal arrangements.  I’ve since called this phenomenon spectrum vigilantes.  Users of unlicensed actually make their own frequency tables and stick to them even in the absence of any requirement that they do so.  I wonder what lessons these empirical data hold for Werbach’s plan.

I was talking about this with someone (I think it may have been Ben Singer) and instead of spectrum vigilantes he thought that this kind of thing should be called spectrum kangaroo courts or even the Jim Crow laws of the spectrum.  That is, the devolution from central authority is an opportunity for people to conspire in secret and to pressure each other in ways that are not fair or legal.  So clearly an advantage of Werbach’s plan is that by “centrally decentralizing” the system a lot more transparency (and data for researchers like me would be) would be created.

Werbach sidesteps the overheated, predictable, ideological debates about spectrum allocation by proposing a procedure that can accommodate any rule set and not really saying what rule set would be the best.  (property rights!  NO! commons! NO! … zzzzzzzzzzzz)  That’s OK with me but I wonder to what extent the rule set can be separated from the debates.  Perhaps Werbach thinks that if enough spectrum is made available in a hybrid system that includes the possibility of both priced and free we’d get the supercommons anyway as the price will fall to zero.  That would be nice!

Risky though if it doesn’t work — Werbach would then be the architect of a coming spectrum property lockdown.  Based on his past writing I think that’s not a title he wants.  I would call Kevin Werbach the Chris Anderson of the electromagnetic spectrum but in fact Chris Anderson is the Kevin Werbach of everything else.  And is Werbach’s title meant to reference to Don McLean or Sigmund Freud?

Hay Rockets and Phone Sheds

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

For the class “Communication Technology and Society” I asked some of my students to drive to Illinois Amish country (about 40 minutes) and investigate communication technology among the Amish there.  All sorts of gripping things have been written about the Amish and communication technology (like Howard Rheingold’s short thing a few years back Look Who’s Talking about Amish cell phone users).

Interestingly, if you want to contact the Amish in my area you can call 1-800-45-AMISH.  Note that I did assignment with the full cooperation of the Amish hosts.

The Amish are fascinating because they are not Luddites in either the correct or the vernacular meaning.  They seek out and embrace high-tech at times, but only if they decide that it would enrich their way of life.  There is a process of consideration before new technologies are used — an idea that is very foreign to most of us, especially me.  So the Amish are big fans of advanced solar power because they don’t believe in the centralized power grid, for instance.  But paradoxically they use this sort of high-tech solar to do things like operate running lights on low-tech horse-drawn carriages.  New plastic rollerblades are OK.  Being in pictures is not OK.  Taking pictures for other people is OK.

Here’s an Amish telephone box.  They historically didn’t allow landline phones in their house (low-tech) but check out that awesome solar panel (high-tech).

My students learned facts:  the telephone was adopted in Arcola, Illinois in 1994.  Lots of facts.  Students took some very creative approaches to their questions, too.  One tried to figure out how the Amish in Arcola figured out about the 9/11 attacks without direct access to the media.  (It took them about 1 day to hear the news via word-of-mouth).

One student asked a lot of questions about rumspringa and I gather this really pissed off his host.

They also uncovered some Amish technofetishists.  They found a really tricked out horse-drawn carriage.  Instead of Tuner Cars or Low Riders I guess you could call them Hay Rockets? (groan. sorry.)  This WSJ article reports dark-velvet lined carriages equipped with showy LED lights tooling through rural Pennsylvania, so maybe this is not so unusual.

The best part of the assignment for me, though, was the student writing about awkward conversations and the feelings that this encounter provoked.  It was a very popular assignment but in the description there was a lot of fascination, shame and embarassment. One student wrote that she desperately wanted to ask her Amish host questions about which celebrities she knew but became paralyzingly embarrassed and could not do so. It wasn’t, I think, that the students saw the Amish as deprived or pitiful.  Not at all!  If anything they were very impressed.  I think what embarassed them were the incredible efforts that the Amish have taken to organize their lives around ideas that they thought were important.  Most college students don’t have something quite so forceful to work with or push against.  Maybe they should.

Here is the assignment I wrote.  Here’s a nice response: You Can’t Even Imagine the Evil Things That Are Done With Cell Phones.


Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

First post here.  Hopefully I will not end up a one post wonder (1post1der).

Multicast is a good name for a blog about media and technology and society because it is (1) a technical term in computer networking and (2) a metaphor for the interesting things that are happening to media and communication these days thanks to computer networking.

Discarded names for this blog:

  • Bloggy (taken)
  • I have a blog (really taken)
  • Boomzilla (taken, unbelievably)
  • Punchdown Block (sounds like it is about fighting.  it isn’t.)

As I said, multicast is a good name.  In comparison, broadcasting is an old word from farming. The word “broadcast” used to refer to scattering or throwing (casting) seeds — if you broadcast something, everybody gets it.  Here’s a nice image of broadcasting from the wikipedia template for pages about computer routing:


Unlike broadcasting (above), when people write about the Internet they usually conceptualize it as a point-to-point network as that is what it was mostly designed to do (in networking they might say unicast, below picture).  As in: I send an email to my friend.  I request a web page from the server.  That sounds more like this picture:


But (metaphorically) what is happening in the media these days is confusingly multicast. We just don’t understand the pattern yet.  The technical definition of multicast emphasizes that a multicast is a message sent to an arbitrary set of recipients who elect to receive the information.  The arbitrary set could be large, it could be small.  Everybody doesn’t get everything — instead we communicate something to the people who want it.  (Or at least to an arbitrary set of people.)  That could be just like broadcasting if the set is large, it could be more like what media industries used to call narrowcasting if the set is small, it could be unicast if the set is one.  Perhaps if no one gets the message we could call it a nullcast (my own coinage) — I don’t have a diagram for that one.  Imagine a dot.

Here’s a picture of a multicast, but technically all of the other pictures could be a multicast too.  The Internet doesn’t really use multicast routing very often — keep in mind I’m speaking metaphorically.


The big question if you are interested in communication is what exactly that pattern turns out to look like after the Internet.  That is, which picture will describe which kinds of content, and the important question: Who gets to be the red dot?

You can describe that last picture in all kinds of ways.  To some it looks like freedom and the long tail, or we could label the same thing pejoratively and call it fragmentation or niche culture (Joe Turow); maybe the caption should be “the twilight of common dreams” (Todd Gitlin) or the The End of Television (why not add The Death of Newspapers?).

You’d think all of this would be settled by now.  Here it is about 18 years after the birth of the Web browser.  It’s been 15 years since Rob Kling was throwing around the ungainly word disintermediation in the mid 1990s (he coined social informatics too).  James Beniger noticed that writing about this kind of media transformation claimed it was imminent way back in the 1950s.

So who exactly gets to control what everyone pays attention to?  And how does that work exactly?  We know some people will be listeners, some will be listened to, and some will be left out.  But we’ve got no answer yet on the details.  We’re still working on it.  So here’s a new blog that will be working on it.

As a closing note, I’m stunned to find that this is actually my 1,929th blog entry and somehow I’ve written 216 unpublished drafts.  I started blogging in 2003 but all of my past blogging has been pseudonymous.  (Or maybe I’m lying.  You’ll never know.)

My motto:  “I’ve been Web 2.0 since Web 1.0.”

Okay, everybody.  Let’s get started.

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