Addresses and Power

I’ve been thinking a bit about Jim and Brian’s article, and trying to better understand (and triage!) my concerns.

What I’ve been thinking a lot about is addresses, or more properly, unique universal names (some early thoughts on cell phones numbers as names  here).

Here’s my most recent stream of thought. This is a PogoPlug:

Now, PogoPlug is a very cool device, because it’s part of a movement to making the cloud personal (Purists will say a home-based cloud is an oxymoron. It isn’t.) The idea here is rather than paying Dropbox or fees, or screwing around with MediaFire or DivShare, you just hook up your USB drives to share files, using the interface to set permissions, and become your own cloud, with all those files now accessible through a URL PogoPlug provides you.

But let’s think through what exactly PogoPlug provides. It doesn’t provide storage — you have the storage. It doesn’t provide the connection — you have that too. And the software is trivial, the bulk of what this does runs on software pretty much in existence for twenty years.

What PogoPlug provides is a unique address.  It gives you a linkable URL on the Internet that can always reach your USB drive, no matter how many times your home internet provider switches out your IP address from under you. And if we look at a lot of the darling services of the web right now, be they Dropbox or SoundCloud or what have you, we find that the real value-added in many of these products is the power of stable addressing. There are other interface features, community stuff, etc., but the big draw is storage space with a stable reachable address.

That’s an incredibly powerful thing, but I guess the question is how we reached a point where, 20 years into the web, we need PogoPlug to distribute a stable address to us.

I wish I knew more of the history of public infrastructure, but it seems evident to me that we understood early on that things like street addresses needed to be defined by governments. My street address is not supplied by FedEx. It’s *used* by FedEx, and UPS, and the USPS, and political canvassers, and the Church of Latter Day Saints. But the democratic (and frankly, free market) element of it is that anyone can use that address, that address is not dependent on my continued relationship with a corporate entity. The zip code I use on hundreds of sites to localize information was not bought from Kinkos.

That’s better for a market economy and better for individual empowerment. New competitors in mail, politics, and religion don’t have to invent personal addressing systems to enter into competition, and the stability of my address is not dependent on some sort of vendor lock-in.

Jim Groom has talked about this for a couple years, it’s not a new thought, certainly. But I think it’s helpful to tease out the different parts of our reliance on corporations. At the moment I’m not so stressed about using Google software or storage. Free tools, especially those designed for loose coupling, can be pretty empowering to students. I helped bring down a politician using Blogger in 2006 — and a lot of that sequence of events might have not happened if I had had to set up a server and a WordPress instance. It would have taken me away from my core concern, and probably hurt my efforts.

But the naming bothers me. All those posts I made in 2006 are all filed under the address and those articles are referenced by news stories, etc. I worked hard to get them to the top of search results under that URL. Should Blogger ever go Ning on me, I’d have zero options. I’d either have to pay up, or lose the connections those articles have built up in the four years since I posted them.

That’s extremely dis-empowering, and it’s a story that happens again and again as we build up our reputation under commercially provided addresses.

Dave Winer  posted somewhat recently on a publicly provisioned space that would have nothing but pointers that translate web requests to your domain into references to the corporate or non-corporate cloud services you were using:

The thing we’ve always needed and didn’t have is a place to get a user id and password that wasn’t owned by a big company and was still as simple for the user as the ones operated by the big companies. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

Ponder that for a moment, and imagine what would happen in the app space if each developer could count on say 10MB per user of storage, enough for a lot of pointers into space managed elsewhere. Sort of like what Twitter was planning with annotations, but not owned by Twitter. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

And stop there. Identity with a small amount of storage. The API should be DNS. We need to make it easy for people to get their own domain for life. We could even come up with a new TLD for it, somthing like dot-id. That would be me.  Permanent link to this item in the archive.

This to me seems the big point. I don’t mind Google managing my mail, or even Blogger managing my blog posts, but I do mind them owning my identity. And the social and market effects of corporations being the people that control addressing are wholly corrosive to both competition and democracy.

I’ve wandered a bit here, I suppose. But a lot of the reaction I’ve seen to Jim and Brian’s post has been that it’s a sort of No True Scotsman claim, that those that don’t follow openness down to the end of the FLOSS road are not truly open, and therefore can’t speak to openness.  But I don’t think the article advances dogma, at least as I see it. And what it has spurred in me is a desire to really reflect deeply on what my core concerns with the use of corporate software in education are. Address lock-in is one of those.  Ad-supported service is a second (somewhat lesser) concern which I’m still thinking through, which maybe I’ll write about next week.

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