On the edge of the mesh

A “professional n00b“: that’s how I introduced myself at the OHM2013 convention last year, and ever since that’s how I’ve taken to introducing myself whenever I encounter a gosu. My hacktivist colleagues tell me that I’m being too hard on myself, since I do have a determination to learn (albeit in fits and starts, time and money permitting). However, I do actually see it as something good, since it’s people like me who have an interest in cutting through the technical arcana of engineers in order to bring important digital and technical tools to journalists, entrepreneurs, and the general public.

My life as a professional n00b began in the summer of 2011, shortly after the mysterious explosion of Abadan in Turkmenistan. I was approached by some, let’s call them helpful folks, who wanted to know whether mesh networking, or “meshing” for short, would be a useful way to circumvent surveillance and censorship in the country. Oh boy.

Mesh-Top-Thumbs-Full-NewFor those of my readers who have even less technical expertise then I do (and congratulations to you, because I’m an idiot), think of meshing as Bluetooth on steroids. Fundamentally, it’s a way for devices — including, and quite importantly, handheld ones like your mobile phone — to establish networks between each other using nothing more than the signals antennae already built into them. My own pseudo-hip shorthand for it is “D2D communication”, i.e., device-to-device. Seems like a simple idea, but the implications are huge.

A certain kind of weirdness runs through Schwartz veins. When I was a teenager, my brother, a madman earning a degree in lasers, told me about meshing. He described it as a really interesting but ultimately doomed initiative of radio engineers who dreamed of a world whose signals could be liberated from mass-scale infrastructure and hence freed from the control of corporations and governments — kind of like a Hertzian or Teslan analogue to the soul’s desire to transcend the body. So, I was very surprised to discover that it had been resurrected by wireless engineers. I asked for more information, and was quietly directed to the Serval Project, based in Australia’s Flinders University.

The Serval team was interested in developing the technology for humanitarian purposes. Imagine if there were a major catastrophe — natural, such as a severe cold-snap or tsunami, or man-made, say, an ablation cascade or a revolution — how would the citizens of a modern society, who have become so dependent upon telecommunications, stay in touch with each other?

The only real solution is to make their telecommunications resilient enough that it can withstand the loss of much of its fundamental infrastructure, not necessarily permanently, just long enough to pass through the initial and most disruptive phase of the disaster. The people themselves would be able to gather information from each other and organize their own response while waiting for their local authorities or the international community to reach them. The key isn’t to keep them connected to the outside world; that would require the infrastructure that has been destroyed, and anyway, the outside world may not be able to get to them in time — or at all. No, the key is to connect them to each other, and to keep them connected as continuously as possible.

Considering the gathering storm of mobile phone penetration around the world, meshing handheld devices seemed to the Serval team as a really good bet. So long as the mobile phones would have battery power — which, by the way, can be recharged using car batteries or private generators with only a little tinkering — then a population could mesh. Voila! There remains a concern about meshing over very large areas, but the Serval team is developing what they call “extenders”, essentially ad hoc signal relays that can be sprinkled across a territory, to solve the problem.

Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, after the 1948 Earthquake.
Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, after the 1948 Earthquake.

I soon became the Serval team’s main consultant for Central Asia. The region is prone to earthquakes of both the geological and political kind, so I understand why the helpful folks who had contacted me had seen a real potential for the technology here. There were many questions that needed to be answered, though. How could we introduce the technology to the calling, sms’ing, Web-surfing Central Asian public, but do it in such a fashion that authorities would not realize its subversive nature?

The solution was quite a puzzle. We needed a mobile phone application for sure, but its communications needed to be encryptable and securable without sacrificing its efficacy. More importantly, it needed to have an elegant and user-friendly graphical user interface with instructions that could guide the user toward the maximum potential of the technology without letting even the users themselves catch on to what was really happening (the main reason being that normal people tend to shy away from scary concepts like encryption, evasion, and counter-surveillance).

Fast forward to today, and it’s a problem we still haven’t solved. Why? Basically, because of lack of financing. One needs to be able to reliably eat and shower to solve a complex puzzle like this, and if instead one is constantly scrambling after grants and freelance gigs, the power to concentrate is sharply reduced.

Neither non-profit donors nor for-profit investors want to get involved, donors because the technology is too vague and mysterious, investors because there’s no way to monetize it (which I’ll explain in a moment). The only serious player at the moment is DARPA (and, broadly-speaking, the United States government/military-industrial complex), which has been quietly examining the utility of the technology and has beckoned a few of its most promising designers to Washington.

One would think that anything DARPA touches should make eyebrows raise, but it isn’t in the case of meshing. In fact, the lack of interest in this technology is so bad that at the start of this year none other than Wired magazine declared a need for the world to finally “take seriously” its potential. The author of the article lists many reasons behind the apathy, but I think it fundamentally comes down to the ultimate ramifications of what meshing really represents.

I immediately grokked these after talking with the Serval team: what would really be happening wouldn’t be D2D communication, but in fact D2D infrastructure. Put another way, if the helpful folks that had led me to Serval believed this could be a technological foundation for a new generation of citizen-journalism, what the Australians were really at the brink of creating would be a way of establishing citizen-infrastructure.

This has already happened in the case of Rhizomatica. In some Mexican villages, this group appears to have effectively transplanted corporate/governmental telecommunications with effective and efficient grassroots-built alternatives, including meshing. Some of their models and projects are potentially scalable to a mass level.

I, myself, have thought about designing a new generation of handheld devices that were only D2D — in essence, a super-walkie-talkie, not limited to mere two-way transmission, and with all the multi-functionality and connectivity, people-to-people as well as to the Internet, of a contemporary smartphone or tablet. Indeed, such devices would be practically indistinguishable from the handheld creatures we know today. If done right, they could quietly supplant telephony.

Serval Mesh Extender
Serval Mesh Extender. It looks scarier than it really is.

Now you can see why investors aren’t interested: because at its heart, meshing doesn’t lend itself at all to a for-profit model (at least none that I can see, and I’ve been debating it with potential investors for two years). There is very little that can be patented: the software is open source, the necessary antennae hardware is simple and ubiquitous, and selling the handheld devices themselves, whether traditional phones with the app or my super-walkie-talkies, would eventually have limited returns. Developing countries already use enormous amounts of mobile phones recycled from the West, and even in the West, the hype cycle favors those whose timing is right, not who’s in the race first or even in the race best.

One could try to patent the specific software architecture of the app itself. However, the viability of app patents is debatable. Besides, very quickly an app would be cracked anyway, with pirated versions released into the wild. As for the extenders, at first glance they may appear as a kind of choke-point in a mesh, and hence a service that could be provided for a subscription fee. Unfortunately, though, an extender is insanely easy to assemble with scrap parts from one’s garage or local hardware store.

As far as I can see, the only possible avenue of profitability arises at the continental- and global-level. It remains uncertain how or even if meshes could operate at such a vast scale, or whether some kind of non-grassroots infrastructure may be needed. However, this is quite the gamble to take right now. It would require an enormous commitment of both resources and emotions on the part of investors when the technology is still decade or two away from reaching a stage wherein meshers would need to link across oceans.

For myself, what this all boils down to is a strange sense of being, well, ahead of the curve. This frustration — being able to envision not only a new world but more or less the way to get there, yet being unable to convince anyone to help you bring it into being — must be what it’s like to really be on the frontier.

Sooner or later meshing will take off, but unfortunately, it will probably be someone luckier and in a better position than me — some crazy American journalist living in the ‘Stans, with hardly a few hundred dollars to his name and with none of the right contacts in the right industries — who will finally launch it. All I can do is take heart at least I was out there, on the horizon, on the edge of the mesh, before most other people. And I was out there without any intrinsic right to be, because I’m not a techie, not even in the slightest.

Like a neanderthal beholding a starship, I had a glimpse of a future the inner workings of which were beyond my ken. For such an opportunity, I’m grateful to God.

One Reply to “On the edge of the mesh”

  1. “Like a Neanderthal beholding a starship” is a great turn of phrase. In fact, the whole sentence/paragraph is great. Love, Dad


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