3 weeks without an internet connection at home, and my work grinds to a halt. True, I am living on the edge of town, at least 20 minutes walk from the nearest shops, and a long way from an internet cafe or any of my friends. True, I don’t own a car. But it’s a little worrying that access to the internet has become as essential to my life as most people’s cars are to theirs.

It certainly proved that the Android running on my “netbook” is as useful without a net connection as a car is without fuel. It’s also brought to my attention how fragile our electronic links are with the outside world, and how important it is to have local copies, or even hard copies, or important information. Personal computers have always been more than just an internet terminal, and with the rapidly increasing storage capacity, they can do more still. Not only can they be used for desktop publishing, graphics, and media-making without being networked, they can also serve as local storage, allowing my housemates to get access to the sort of information we have become accustomed to looking up (phone directory, bus timetables, recipes, healing tips etc) without having to have it all in print.

I’ve been pondering for a while about the implications of Software as a Service, and thinking about infostructure that allows local and online versions of datastores to be easily synchronised. There are two main categories of data we might want to synchronise. Reference data (the bus timetables etc mentioned above) and personal data, like the paper I’m meant to be writing for a conference in December. With personal data, the online version is like a virtual briefcase, allowing changes to data from anywhere with an internet connection. Yet without a connection, work can still be done as long as you are in front of a PC with a local copy, then synched with the online version when a connection is available.

This becomes complicated when you are dealing with data that is used collaboratively, such as a wiki, where changes to the the online version are being made by multiple users, and all versions must somehow be kept synchronised. This could be solved by giving users the option to view changes made by others since the last synch before uploading their changes. On larger wikis, users could be given different priorities, so the edit made by the user with the highest priority becomes the latest version of the page, and edits made by other users becomes part of the edit history.

All this certainly raises security and privacy issues, but no more than any other use of the net. The only way to keep information totally private or secret is not to digitise it, or at least keep the computer storing it disconnected from any network. Once you decide to connect your computer, there are different levels of precautions you can take. Using https, tls, pgp, and other forms of encryption properly may keep idle snoopers out of your internet transmissions, but still, the data is only as secure as the place your keep the computer, the trust you place in the people operating the server storing your online data.

The bottom line is, I will definitely be taking steps to make sure that next time I can’t get my head in the cloud, I can still get some useful work done while I’m not on the phone to the helpdesk.

Update 27/05/2011: Since I wrote this I have discovered a number of initiatives to allow users to synchronise their personal data between multiple devices, meaning that the data is stored on the devices, as well as being archived online. Two examples are Ubuntu One, and Firefox Sync.

Filed October 22nd, 2010 under Uncategorized

This weekend the FreeCulture2010 research conference is being held at the Free University of Berlin. My paper ‘Free to Know or Free to Own: Convergence of Free and Slow Culture in Global Relocalisation‘ has been accepted as part of a panel session on ‘Perspectives from Practice’, on Sunday morning, German time.

I was hoping to raise funds to fly to Berlin for the conference. It would have been an fantastic opportunity to meet other researchers in the free culture field and discuss the core theme of my paper - the potential benefits of greater mutual understanding and co-operation between activists in both free culture and slow culture (regenerative, community-driven environmentalism - exemplified by permaculture projects, Transition initiatives, and Slow Food International).

On the other hand, the passenger airline industry is one of the largest, and most unneccesary consumers of fossil fuels, and it seems silly to be funneling money into it when video conferencing technology is becoming increasingly available. In the end I decided to abandon my fundraising, and offered to give a presentation over the internet instead.

Speaking of videoconferencing, the Signs of Change e-conference is bringing together Transition advocates from around Aotearoa, using  digital link-ups between conference venues in six major cities, two in Te Wai Pounamu, and four in Te Ika a Maui. This is exactly the sort of convergence of internet technology and regenerative environmentalism that I am investigating in my paper. I encourage anyone interested in the future of the human species to consider attending.

Finally, I also encourage you to consider making a ‘deposit’ (or a ‘withdrawl’) at the Bank of Real Solutions. The goal is to build up a commonwealth of  community-based economic models which have worked in one or more communities. People can build on these models to help with the Transition to post-peak local economies in their own communities.

Filed October 8th, 2010 under transition initiatives
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