What If #2: No Internet Infrastructure

Two Different Scenarios

There are two basic ways that a computer could lose its access to the internet.

The first way is by physical damage to the connection. This a the “disaster” scenario. The infrastructure itself is built to supply redundant connections. That was one of its original design criteria. However, the end user with a connection using telephone wires, other communication cabling, or a wireless connection via a cell or wimax tower does not benefit from that level of redundancy. That user is relying on the smooth operation on all the equipment and lines between his device and the internet backbone. He (usually) pays for the privilege (?) of having access to this infrastructure, and has tended to assume that it will never fail him. But is this true?

This leads to the second possible failure scenario: The user gets blocked, or banned, from the system. If you had something you wanted to communicate to a lot of other people, but someone in some position of control over the internet infrastructure disagreed that you should be allowed to communicate that data, you could theoretically be “ordered” off the internet. Though this scenario seems less likely to happen, it is something that those who recognize that an information war exists in our society see as a distinct possibility. So far it has mostly happened only to major information providers (like Google) in regions that are very sensitive to what information is available to citizens (such as mainland China).

Two Different Infrastructure Paradigms

1. Centralized. One way to provide services to the public is via a centralized system. This is a very traditional approach and conforms to certain basic laws of organization and control. We have centralized government, centralized banking, centralized power distribution, water distribution, mail distribution, sewer systems, etc. And the original computing model was also centralized. The central computer in a system was known as the “mainframe.” The primary argument in favor of this model is that it is “more efficient.” The unspoken but clear corollary to this argument is that it provides the controller of the system with a measure of control over all those who rely on it for their survival.

2. Distributed. It is known by other names, including “decentralized.” The concept here is one of self-sufficiency. To the extent that survival systems become less centralized, the organism, in theory, becomes more robust. A portion of it can be damaged without threatening the survival of all the other portions.

We see both these models used in nature. A unit organism usually runs on centralized systems. But the community can be organized in a very distributed manner. Traditionally, this model has been seen as inconsistent with “advanced” social organizations. However, the robustness that it can provide, particularly in times of hardship, is a persuasive reason to make a place for it.

Peer-to-Peer Networking

On PC Authority’s Australian site, Paul Nesbitt wrote an article entitled “Is Mac the future of computing?” (May 31, 2010). In it he stated:

When the 21 year old Steve Jobs introduced the Apple II in 1977 at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, it was more than just a piece of hardware; it was the embodiment of an idea that computing should be personal, autonomous and programmable. In other words, your computer was yours to do with as you pleased.

The introduction of the personal computer into our society lead to an explosion of computer use. Today this has gone so far that many of us would not be able to operate – might even be open to physical harm – if it weren’t for our personal computing devices.

But in the beginning the personal computer created a need to develop a whole new method for connecting computers together so that they could communicate with each other. And out of this came peer-to-peer networking. In an “old style” network, the mainframe controls all network functionality. It was called the “host” or the “server.” The connected consoles were “dumb” terminals. They were the “clients.”

With the introduction of personal computers, it became desirable to create a system that would allow a PC to be either a host or a client, as needed. This system is called “peer-to-peer” networking. It is a system that allows for a lot of communication and provides for very little security of the data being communicated or of the devices being used in the network.

While this system worked great for a small group or office, it was not popular in the corporate world. There the stakes were a lot higher, and that meant access control and data security. In this “modern” world, the trend towards a centralized computing paradigm has almost completely overtaken the distributed model started by the personal computer. On the “consumer” level it is assumed that no one really cares about these factors, as they are all basically invisible in the average “user experience.”

However, the personal computing movement remains alive, if not that well, in these “modern” times. And the distributed peer-to-peer computing paradigm still exists and can still be implemented on a personal computer. This allows for the possibility of an “unofficial internet” coming into existence. What is most important to us, in terms of survivability in a disaster or in a police state scenario, is that such a network could be used to stay in communication in the event of loss of access to the centralized infrastructure.

Basic Elements of a Distributed Computing System

1) Independent, preferably mobile, power source. Half of this power system is the rechargeable battery. Most of us have devices that run on these. The other half of this power system is an off-grid source of electricity. Few of us have access to this technology. The most obvious choice for this application is solar power, though there are other possibilities. Obtain a good portable panel!

2) Communication system based on electromagnetic waves or similar. We are assuming that you will not have wires available to transmit across. Walkie-talkies have been in use for years, and this is the same basic idea. You need some sort of transceiver that can send and receive some sort of energy-based wave with information encoded into it. The technology is out there, but other than wifi, which does not have a good range, it is not inexpensive. It includes both radio and laser solutions. It is not usually a “snap” to transmit computer network packets using equipment that is not specifically designed for this purpose. So this area is in need of development.

3) Computing device loaded with the proper software. Personal computers with a real operating system and plenty of hard disk space for programs are better choices for this work than small mobile devices. This computer will need, minimum, web server software that can listen on Port 80 and serve up a file in HTML or TEXT format upon receiving a proper request. It also needs the client software (browser) and the protocol stack (TCP/IP) but those are virtually universal these days.

Fallback Systems

I was just at a briefing where I learned that the Mormon church uses a network of ham radio operators to stay in touch when regular comm lines fail. Ham radios can work on a car battery and are still quite common. Citizens band (CB) is about the same thing. “Hams” have been important resources in many recent disasters.

However, if the disaster is not too widespread, chances are that cell phone or wimax services will remain operational. Regular wired phone lines may even continue to operate. They are designed to switch to battery operation if central power fails.

Ordinary AC electricity is the most likely service to be interrupted in the event of a disaster. That’s why it is wise to have battery-operated alternatives, including ways to recharge the batteries. A working automobile can also charge batteries via its own electrical system if you have the proper adapter.

In the police state scenario, power is not so likely to be the problem. So having access to an alternative communication device becomes critical in this case.

The ultimate alternate communication technology is telepathy, which is an ability we all have, but would require considerable effort to return to use.

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