Ming the Mechanic:
Grassroots TV Networking

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Grassroots TV Networking2004-10-07 15:36
18 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

Via Slashdot a couple of excellent articles from Mark Pesce on Big Media versus Peer-to-Peer Media. Redefining Television and Rolling your own Network. Years ago Mark was the main inventor of the VRML standard for 3D graphics. He's an inspiring fellow in many other areas now, like here on media activism. His last name is said like "Peshee", btw. I only met him once, and I accidentally called him "Pesky". Anyway, he's in Australia now. So, first of all, there are some media organizations that actually are starting to do the right thing:
The BBC doesn't have the bandwidth to netcast its programming to all 66 million of its viewers. Fortunately it doesn't that kind of capability, because the BBC has cleverly designed the Flexible TV application to act as a node in a Peer-to-Peer network. Anyone using Flexible TV has access to the programs which have been downloaded by any other Flexible TV client, and can get those programs directly from them. All BBC need do is provide a single copy of a program into the network of P2P clients, and they handle the work themselves. More than this, because of the P2P technology used by the BBC .. a Flexible TV user can get a little bit of the program from any number of other peers; rather than going through the process of downloading an entire program from one other peer, the Flexible TV client can ask a hundred other clients for small sections of the program, and download these hundred sections simultaneously. Not only does this decrease the amount of traffic that any clients has to handle, it also means that it produces a virtuous cycle: the more popular a program is, the more copies of it will exist in the network of peers, and therefore the more easily a peer can download it.
It seems so logical. There are powerful distributed networks out there, which makes it possible to quickly locate and download video or audio content, with little burden on the orginal distributor, no matter how many people download it. There's really no reason you shouldn't easily have access to any piece of media ever made whenever you feel like it. No reason other than that a small number of very large media companies would like you not to. But, as he says, Fuck 'em. They'll either have to provide something like that themselves, or regular folks will, and who cares if it is illegal.

He goes on to describe how very simple and cheap it is to capture broadcast TV shows on a computer and to share them on the net. Not news to techies, but the details might not have sunk in for everybody. So, here's a bit on BitTorrent, one of the best approaches to file sharing.
How is this bit of technological magic achieved? Through the use of a new technology known as BitTorrent - something some of you may have already used. BitTorrent is a P2P filesharing system specifically designed to prohibit one of the biggest social ills which plague P2P networks - a phenomenon known as "leeching". A leech grabs files from a P2P network without providing anything in return. With BitTorrent your download speed - how fast you receive your data - is determined by how much data you're sharing. This means that a torrent starts slowly - because you haven't much to share - and then increases nearly exponentially; as you have more of the file, you have more to share, so your bandwidth increases, until the file is fully downloaded.

BitTorrent was also designed to avoid one of the biggest technical issues which affect P2P networks - the fact that peers come and go at will. BitTorrent creates a "tracker" - a list of all peers which have the file you're downloading - and gives you access to all of those peers. The file itself is divided into smaller sections, and each of these sections can be downloaded from any peer, in any order. If a peer goes off-line while transmitting a section of the file, BitTorrent simply requests that section from another peer. Whenever there's more than 2 or 3 peers, this is sufficient to guarantee a hassle-free download. When there are tens or hundreds of peers - which is often the case - file transfers can happen very quickly and efficiently.
Works really well. Makes it painless to download DVDs full of .. whatever. And, yes, with tools like that, any of us can put up our own TV network. And we can see what we want to see, when we want to see it. And to the degree that BigMedia tries to stop us from doing that, they're on their way out.
Within a decade - and perhaps a lot sooner - the television networks will have been deprived of nearly all their pre-produced programming. Television will become a live medium - as it was in its beginning, so it will be in its old age. Sports, news and event programming (terror attacks and awards shows) will be the staples for broadcasting in the 21st century. Advertisers will love live television - because it's where the people are - but never again will a television broadcaster be able to dictate to you what you can watch and when you can watch it. Those days are already past - at the price of a small crime of copyright violation.

All this means that as the Internet rises, broadcast television falls. That means cable as well as free-to-air broadcasters, because cable will also be competing against this Internet-based television. As more and more material becomes more consistently available to the TV viewer, the trend will be away from the circumscribed choices offered by the TV channel (five or five hundred channels, neither are very alluring when compared to the near-infinity of programming available over the Internet already) and toward the Internet.

Which gives all of this triumph of the media megacorps the flavor of a Greek Tragedy: when they reached their zenith of power, at that moment the seeds of their downfall were sewn.
But even though the tools are there, it is still a bit technical to find your favorite TV show on the net. And if you want to share something, there are a number of different tools you need to put together, and you need to be even more technical. It is just a matter of time, but so far it is not yet easy for just anybody to do it.
What we need is a single tool to wrap it all up in a nice, easy to use form. We need a tool which makes publishing content into this media stream no more difficult than selecting a audiovisual file. We need a tool which makes finding the programming you're looking for as easy and straightforward as Google. And we need all of this to be one single tool, so that we can forever erase the false distinction between producer and audience, between professional and amateur which has kept most voices silenced as a few have used their positions as professional producers to push a pack of lies down our throats.

When we get that, it's game over. The networks will no longer matter, they will no longer determine our diet of pre-digested truths. The truth will return to its natural state: crazy, anarchic, contradictory, subjective and as wildly mercurial as a manic depressive who's gone off his meds. In place of a few well-controlled voices, we'll have hundreds, then thousands, then millions of competing points of view, and our job will be to figure out how to find some signal in the midst of all that noise.
But at the same time there are corrupt politicians in a number of countries who're trying hard to figure out to make it illegal to share things. Preferably altogether illegal to use methods of data sharing that possibly, potentially could distribute media that is somebody's intellectual property. No, they don't care about your particular intellectual property, it is the property of a dozen media companies we're talking about. But, as it is often said: the internet sees censorship as damage, and routes around it. So, yes, most likely the media landscape has changed irreversibly, and it is just a matter of time before the change will be ubiquitous.

A key piece will probably be the distributed production of media, so it truly isn't about ripping off movies without paying, but about communicating. The blog world again demonstrates some good principles there. I really would have little interest in distributing other people's copyrighted articles in full in my blog. All I want is to pick out a few things, remix them, and say what I have to say. And I'd generally much rather have somebody's personal story and views than BigMedia versions. So, if we added the capability to produce audio and video as easily as we can produce text, then we'd be getting somewhere.


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18 comments

9 Oct 2004 @ 17:59 by Paul Hughes @24.176.188.191 : Counter Culture 2.0
I just left the first commend on Lessig's blog about how he says we are loosing the copyfight. I pointed out that legislatively we will probably loose, but that those people who produce non-DRM media will ultimately out compete the DRM cartels. Just like linux, how will hollywood be able to compete with free?

Although I know you are aware of it Ming, here is the article for the rest of your readers - {link:http://www.futurehi.net/archives/000109.html|Counter Culture 2.0}, where I detail why non-DRM content will ultimately come to dominate our culture, relegating the DRM cartels to the dustbin of history.  



9 Oct 2004 @ 18:16 by ming : Open Media
How about if the free non-DRM media started adopting features that the BigMedia guys couldn't possibly have. Like, providing the re-usable pieces at the same time as the result. So, if you did some computer-generated movie, you'd provide the 3D models and the different tracks of sound at the same time. Facilitate that the users can do whatever they want with these things, more easily.

I.e. we need the source code, in an easy-to-understand modular fashion. Well documented, commented, etc. There's an important point there. It isn't just about whether you get the finished product for free or not. It is fine if you don't. But if you get all the building blocks at the same time, and you're free to use those as you please, then it is a very different product.  



12 Oct 2004 @ 14:39 by Jon Husband @24.87.28.145 : Very Interesting Little exchange ...
... and I want to know more about this. I guess I should read the article to which Paul linked first of all.  


12 Oct 2004 @ 21:30 by ming : Free pieces
It seems like that if there were enough free (or freely available trough Creative Commons licenses) content, available in small enough pieces, and the tools were there to reassemble them at will - things might change. Critical mass. Large numbers of people who can put zillions of pieces together any way they feel like, any time they want to, should be able to easily outcompete big slow-moving companies that need to first have lawyers negotiate contracts. We're talking about liquid microcontent.

Of course, enough of it has to be of good enough quality so one actually can make something with it.

But I can easily imagine that it at some point will become unthinkable to sell stuff that isn't modular and recombinable. Like selling a car that only can drive four different pre-programmed routes, and you'll need to buy another one if you want to go somewhere else. Some probably scenarios will make DRM look like that. So, if the competition is a car construction set that lets you easily assemble a different car every day, with modules you just downloaded, and you can go wherever you feel like it, they'll of course be out of business.  



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Other stories in
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