A few years ago I wrote about the need for fractional horsepower HTTP servers. Today, they exist. We take them for granted. They're everywhere. Now we're ready to go to the next level. The fractional horsepower news network.
If you recall, the fractional horsepower idea originated with Steve Jobs. That's how he rationalized the Apple II, which people had a hard time understanding because we were in the Big Iron period of computers. He was selling a small computer that looked like a typewriter. He argued, correctly, that people needed computers, not just huge companies and public institutions and the military. I was saying the same thing so when I saw the Apple II, I knew it was for me. Without a moment's hesitation.
When I fell in love with the web, it was the same thing. Here was networking so simple anyone could do it. And look what happened. Everyone did it! Yeah. So what comes next after the web? Ahhh. That's the thing. I think it's the news network. And I think we're still in the Big Iron phase there, but about to enter the Fractional Horsepower stage.
I had dinner the other night with Joe Hewitt who works at Facebook and was one of two guys who started Firefox (the other being Blake Ross). We get together to talk every few months. It's interesting because Joe is so smart, and in some ways reminds me of myself 25 years ago. In other ways we're vastly different. Joe is quiet and I'm anything but. He's quiet but when he speaks he says interesting things.
He suggested that Time may have known what they were doing when they chose Mark Zuckerberg as man of the year. I stopped in my tracks to ponder that. I suppose it's possible. Could have they forseen what would happen in Egypt? I don't see how. But it's an interesting question.
Zuck is just the current last guy in the chain of people who made this all work. There will be more. So it's okay to focus on the individuals, it's the natural human thing to do, but -- it would be like focusing on the gold miners instead of the mine. Or the mystery of why men needed gold to bootstrap an economy. And why we needed an Internet to get us to stand up for each other. The naysayers are right to say the spirit always existed in us, but sometimes magic happens, and it tends to happen when new empowering technology comes fully online.
However, please, before the glow wears off, let's think about what's next.
It's great that Facebook and Twitter did so much for us. But the despots will figure out how to work around them both technically and politically. They're too easy to disrupt. Facebook could go down on its own, the same way Julian Assange can be discovered to wear dirty socks, have four children, and be unkind to cats (in someone's opinion). This justifies shutting his servers off and putting him in jail. (Sorry for the sarcasm.)
They can do the same with Facebook that they do with Assange. There's all kinds of crazy stuff you can do at a firewall to make one site appear to be having technical problems. Real technical problems (but fake ones nonetheless). There are consultants calling on generals all over the world, right now, selling them wonderful Internet dashboards that selectively and randomly make sites appear to have problems of their own, not caused by the government.
Anticipating this, we have to create communication networks on the Internet that require that the whole Internet be cut off in order for them to be cut off. The reason is simple. The people who are being manipulated will know they're being manipulated. In a centralized social space, there could easily be doubt. I know this is a complicated idea, but the intellects are at work, I promise you. They are smart, we have to be smart too.
It's important that people learn to manage their own infrastructure. It's going to happen, but we can do it. We can make servers much easier to set up and maintain, and do more stuff that's meaningful to people like the people in Egypt fighting for freedom. By spreading out we're harder to stop.
The development of the Amazon and Rackspace clouds (and probably others I haven't looked at yet), and virtualization, have made it easy, almost shrinkwrap-easy for people to setup and run servers. Now it's up to guys like Joe and me (and you!) to create server software for those users.
In my new EC2-for-Poets howto (version 2), at the end you're left with your own news aggregator, one that you could share with a workgroup or a community. This is the beginning of a news system that scales down to very small and focused communities. We've got a few users, some real hearty souls, who are working with me step by step. And I just invited a very respected geek friend, Joe Moreno, to join the community and he did. Very slowly, one step at a time.
These moon mission projects are the best. When we know what we're doing has immediate relevance, that's when it's the most fun to create new stuff. The most important thing now is to create something small, fun and easy, a fractional horsepower news network.
A fractional horsepower news network. To me that's the most beautiful idea I've ever heard.