"Rip. Mix. Burn." ...
By Thom Gillespie, Café TECHNOS Maître d¹Igital
My title for this article was found while I was into my 23rd minute on the elliptical strider at the Y. I was just entering cool down when my heart speeded up. I had found my title on the back cover of an old Business Week magazine. There, on stark white, was an object of pure techno-lust, Apple¹s new iMac in a sky-blue, off-white combination with attached headphones, CDs of the music variety, and not a keyboard or mouse in sight. Just: "Rip. Mix. Burn." titling in a 36-point Times New Roman font. The subtitle was the grabber: "The new iMac with iTunes + CD-RW. Take your favorite songs, put them in the order you want and burn a CD. After all, it¹s your music."
No kid in his or her right mind wants to rearrange their own CDs. They already have them. What they want to do is use Napster, Gnutella, Bearshare, or iMesh to find and trade mp3s of songs and create totally new CD arrangements for personal amusement or dance re-mixes for parties. Apple knows this is how kids will use this technology, but an ad suggesting buying a Mac to rip off the music industry is not a real good idea in these litigious times.
Regardless, I had my title to think about peer-to-peer technology.
I knew I wanted to do something with the idea of peer-to-peer for this column simply because I also love playing with Napster, Bearshare, iMesh, and other P2P applications. I¹m constantly amazed at what I can type into a search window and find that is sitting there for download from all corners of the globe. I teach at Indiana University, which means the most intellectually interesting commons these days is no longer the university library or eatery but the large 24-hour scratch server, which all universities seem to have now. At IU, the 24-hour scratch server is a big, common hard-disk area where students all over campus can, at their own risk, save files and projects, which are too big for zipdisks and student lockers, for up to 24 hours. I say "at their own risk" because everything on these scratch servers is viewable by everyone else and is also "throw away-able" by everyone else. At IU, 24-hour scratch is not stable or even reliable, but it sure is interesting in these times of changing copyright.
In the Eye of the Beholder
A few months back I was browsing the 24-hour scratch server early in the morning. (I browse at that time because this is before the IU administrators have had a chance to delete as much questionable material as possible, hopefully preventing IU from getting sued by every media outlet in North America for copyright violations.) It is not unusual to find every song recorded during the 1960s and 70s in a single folder on 24-scratch early in the morning. You have to understand that few students do any homework, most of them don¹t read, and a lot of them don¹t even watch TV so a good use of an evening is downloading all of Motown. Usually by 9 a.m. the scratch drive is clean and not too interesting just term papers and other boring stuff. This day was different. I¹m browsing through the scratch, and I see two files named "snatch1" and "snatch2." Now, I¹m a guy, so my first thought is that this must be porn, but I noticed that both files were half a gig in size, which means the equivalent of a CD-ROM. I then thought, "This is a lot of porn," so out of manly curiosity I copied the first file to my desktop, which took about 15 minutes because of the size. I clicked on the file to see what I thought was going to be the biggest porn file known to humankind, but I was surprised.
There on my screen on my desktop was Brad Pitt in a funny hat talking really weird. I was thinking how odd it was to have Brad Pitt in a porn movie, and looking so scruffy. What¹s going on here? Then I realized that he¹s talking with an Irish accent and there were Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen - and then that I wasn¹t looking at porn but at the first half of the movie Snatch, which had probably been subtitled for distribution in China. I quickly checked the date on my computer and realized that Snatch had yet to open in Bloomington, Indiana, but that I already had it on my computer. I then went back to 24-hour scratch and downloaded "snatch2" and proceeded to watch interactive high-definition TV a lot sooner than even Dubya might imagine or condone.
I didn¹t really enjoy watching the movie on my computer because my chair wasn¹t too comfortable (it¹s designed for writing articles, not watching HDTV), and I had all these students coming in and saying things like, "Hey, cool. Brad Pitt. Snatch. Saw it last week on Bearshare." The Internet and peer-to-peer technologies give a whole new meaning to the idea of "advance preview."
Most folks have heard of the trials of Napster and its problems with the music industry, but few realize that the big problem isn¹t so much with the music industry as with the media industry in general. Napster has attracted at least 50 million downloads and has been adopted faster by the general population than NCSA Mosaic (the daddy of Netscape), Hotmail, and even ICQ messaging, (the mommy of AOL Instant Messaging). Napster is aimed at music online, but it is obvious that anything that can be digitized is open game for transport by peer-to-peer technology such as Napster.
Tim O¹Reilly recently published a book of readings on peer-to-peer technologies, which is subtitled Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies (2000). Peer-to-peer technology is a seriously disruptive technology in the same way that the computer, email, computer games, the Internet, and most anything digital has proven to be disruptive at the tail-end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century. Bits and bytes allow for very fast change and very fast many-to-many communication not possible with TV, print, and/or the telephone.
What Is Peer-to-Peer?
When we are connected to the Internet, we are usually connected via Netscape or Internet Explorer. This is basically client/server technology. (See "P2P: Technically Speaking, It¹ll Rock Your World," on page ??.) Our browsers are clients, which allow us to connect to a server such as AOL, MSN, the Library of Congress, or Pizza Hut. We make a connection and we make a request, which the server processes and then sends a response back to our browser (our client) and it appears on our screen. Client/server assumes that we have a PC, which is not constantly connected to the Net and to a server. In a client/server environment, requests are answered in time and in some order, usually first come, first served. The general assumption on the Net has been that PCs are second-class citizens who receive information sort of like TV viewers receive it. The disruption on the Net is that peer-to-peer, or P2P, expects that these millions of PCs can also serve data rather than just receive data. This means a major change in bandwidth traffic.
When universities started to ban Napster access from their networks, it wasn¹t because all the college students were downloading music files. It was because all the college students were leaving their machines on all the time and were allowing others all over the Internet to upload music files directly from their hard drives, which were on the university networks. This immediately created a major traffic jam because many of those PCs were very slow and not designed as servers. The client/server model is basically a business model that assumes producers and consumers a mostly one-way flow of information from server to client. It¹s basically business as usual: book industry, film industry, radio and TV industry.
Universities, unfortunately, had bought into this model and were not prepared for students becoming media producers overnight. P2P seriously disrupted the mission of the university, which had never given any real thought to how students would use all this new technology. If anything, the unstated assumption was the old education assumption regarding students: milk bottles to be filled. This is definitely not true in the 21st Century. Students are taking control of their music and their media and I¹m willing to bet that they are going to use P2P technology to take control of their education in ways never imagined before. Picture the modern university as a charter school, and you can glimpse some of the possibilities.
The Next Wave: Radio.UserLand, the new Open University, and EduCommons
While doing this article I subscribed to the decentralization list on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/decentralization. I posted a message to this list asking about potential applications of P2P technology to education, and I received this reply from John Robb, president and COO of UserLand Software, which is developing Radio.UserLand:
We think that the killer app in the P2P space is not file transfer. It is personal publishing. Within that context of personal publishing, file transfer is a utility. Imagine if everyone at Indiana University had a publishing tool on their desktop/laptop that let them publish a Web log and post documents and pictures. Imagine if you could subscribe to the Web logs of everyone at school you were interested in reading (teachers, students, and groups). All the data and control would be on your desktop. That is a killer app.
John and I corresponded via email and discussed Radio.Userland. It is designed as a P2P publishing tool for anyone with something interesting to say and a community to say it to, such as a class or a school. Essentially, all information would be mirrored from connected desktops. Currently, Radio.Userland is attracting attention from knowledge management circles as an alternative to Lotus Notes, which is difficult to use and very centralized. John pointed out that his current PC is stronger and has more disk space than 80 percent of the servers on the Web at this point and that there will be an additional 50 million PCs of equal or greater power on the Web in less than three years. The power is there already for serious P2P. (John can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the entire email can be found at this article¹s Web site www.indiana.edu/~slizzard/p2p.)
I have to admit that at first I didn¹t get it. But the more I looked at what Radio.Userland offers, the more I began to see possibilities way past Napster and Gnutella, both of which are really just file transfer utilities to share files. (See "Napster and Beyond," on page ??.) Radio.Userland offers an entire context to share information in context directly and easily from one desktop to another. This is a really powerful idea, and it gets more powerful if you think about some of the edges of modern education, such as the recent incarnation of the British Open University in the United States.
The United States Open University is the sister institution of The Open University chartered more than 30 years ago in the United Kingdom. Recognized as the world¹s leader in part-time education and training for working adults, The Open University has become a model for distance learning programs throughout the world. Currently, more than 200,000 students in over 41 countries study with The Open University. More than 30,000 employers worldwide, such as Ford Motor Company Ltd., IBM, Hewlett Packard, Smith Kline Beecham, Motorola, Xerox, and Pfizer, have provided tuition support for students in Open University courses.
The Open University has always been very flexible and totally dedicated to teaching and meeting identifiable student needs. Imagine an Open University that embraced P2P technology like Radio.Userland, where students and teachers can use this technology to connect each other together directly. This is very different than having a Lotus Notes administrator or a Web site with syllabi in html. You wouldn¹t even need html documents you could just make your Word and Word Perfect documents available in the Web log along with any other media you thought would enhance understanding and learning. It could happen.
I also talked with Dave Wiley, a Postdoctoral Fellow of Instructional Technology at Utah State University, of EduCommons.org about his P2P project, which is directed at empowering educators by creating a platform for sharing digital educational resources, aka "learning objects." This would be a combination of open source P2P and the development of learning-objects standards that would make it a simple matter for any teacher or student to share contextual knowledge in as direct a fashion as possible: through lesson plans, syllabi, lecture notes, research article drafts, book reports, essays, etc. EduCommons is exploring a partnership with the Cisco Learning Institute to look into some of these issues. Dave¹s real hope is that if nothing else, the system will force some educational reform in which teachers everywhere move to more authentic and personalized styles of instruction.
When I asked him what would happen when EduCommons is used alongside real-time, campus-based education, Dave had this reply:
Traditional teaching falls down, hopefully. When the same mindless, regurgitative homework assignments are given year after year, as are the same mindless, regurgitative tests, EduCommons will become a place where students can turn for very effective study help *wink*. I¹m hoping that if nothing else, the system forces some educational reform in which teachers everywhere move to more authentic and personalized styles of instruction. On the other hand, teachers will have unprecedented access to the corpus of existing work their students will be drawing from.
EduCommons currently has some funding from the National Science Foundation, but they are hoping to attract folks interested in developing additional platform ports of the EduCommons application for Linux, Windows, and Mac. (Dave¹s project is at www.educommons.org; our full email discussion can be found at this article¹s Web site at www.indiana.edu/~slizzard/p2p.)
P2P technology is here and messing everything up because for some bizarre reason, no one expected P2P, even though the original Internet was always designed as P2P so that no single node could bring down the entire Net. The e-commerce folks figured they knew the Web business model and that it was going to look a lot like business as usual: we make it and you will buy it (or at the least look at it). P2P goes completely around the portal idea and allows individuals to create their own communities to inhabit for whatever reason.
Dave Wiley warns: "My message for policymakers at educational institutions is this: prepare for an application where the ´IP owners¹ (I think the term is an oxymoron, but they¹ll know what it means) freely share their own content themselves, and the network traffic is directly aligned with your institutional missions."
The Internet as we know it with the AOLs and MSNs is not going to disappear, but it is about to be reconfigured. And, if AOL and MSN can get reconfigured by P2P, then education is also going to get reconfigured. The trick with education is, who does the reconfiguring? I don¹t expect it to be the folks in charge, any more than the music industry will do the reconfiguring with music online. I looked a bit at Radio.Userland and EduCommons.org. Both are interesting but neither is complete in itself. Radio.Userland is hard to use and does not have a firm education focus. EduCommons.org is still non-existent but has a definite focus on education, maybe too much of a focus on academic, theoretical education. What will be interesting in the immediate future will be if a John Robb from UserLand calls up a Dave Wiley from EduCommons and says: "Yo, Dave, wanna do lunch?" I just hope they invite me, too.