Developing P2P Networking and Nonlinear Dialogue: Part One

This is a personal creative manifesto. I hope to serve all people’s interests via priorities and processes outlined here. This text is openly licensed via Creative Commons CC BY 4.0. — Greg

Our Common Challenges

We the people of Earth all share many needs, potentials and problems.

Humanity must develop broadly tolerant, compassionate culture and sustainable energy systems while we inevitably automate all clearly predictable labor. Failure to develop compassionate culture and sustainable energy during these critical times would almost surely result in dystopian collapse or global extinction.

An Imperative: To meet humanity’s urgent shared needs, I believe that we quickly must unlock the boundless potentials of peer-to-peer (p2p) digital networking. We’ll need p2p tools and techniques to inclusively redesign our overly centralized, exploitative systems into communities which are sustainably distributed and locally adaptive.

If we unlock our p2p networking potential, we will slowly but surely marginalize the violence, coercion, confusion and fraud which ravage our lives, families and ecosystems. Communities of genuine common cause will build resilience to compassionately face aggressive forces and make them irrelevant to everyone, even their sources! We’ll develop increasingly just intentional communities, based on voluntary membership, which truly reflect Earth’s limited distribution of natural resources and our unlimited power to create and share media resources. We’ll build such communities on all scales of society, up to the level of global citizenship.

Once p2p networking technology is generally known and understood, attempting to outcompete or eliminate it won’t work. It’s too deeply powerful and essential to human potential. Suppressing p2p networking would be like suppressing the invention of the wheel.

Our existing centralized governments — historically inevitable, but grossly outdated — could play crucial roles in our required transformation. With reasonable, well-focused pressure from activists, governments could act more clearly and responsibly than before as last bastions against unjust forces. Regardless, communities will work together to reduce, transform or eliminate the roles of existing governments. Pursuing cooperative evolution instead of violent revolution, we’ll increasingly count on freedom of information, expression, association and action as shared resources to creatively build truth and justice in all of our (personal, cultural, economic and political) relationships.

It won’t be easy, of course, even if everything happens as I’d prefer! P2p technology can, at best, illuminate pathways to truth and justice: pathways which we must each choose or reject freely. It will be up to us, in true communities, to ensure that no people are intentionally lost or sacrificed to our common problems.

Many problems, both obvious and obscure, imperil our astonishing shared potentials.

For example, we all face escalating systemic crises including wealth disparity, armed violence and burgeoning ecological stress. Many people recognize and discuss such problems.

We also face deep cultural obstacles to our community-building potential. Some people confront this. They fight dehumanizing propaganda, and focus on empathetic concepts including minority rights, social safety nets and nonviolent communication.

We also face deep problems in communications technology. A small but significant, growing number of people confront this. They work to improve the infrastructure, fairness and transparency of digital media applications and platforms, so that we can communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Some people work regularly on all of those fronts. However, people promote projects and organizations which they or their friends control. In many cases, creators legally ‘own’ and seek to profit from their projects — and from my perspective, all of those efforts seem to miss the deepest potentials of p2p networking, which no one could ever own or control.

Written communication itself can fundamentally evolve, right now, to become a much better partner to our limited but ineffably rich tools for spoken communication.

Ages after the origins of written languages, it’s still sunrise in the realm of nonlinear dialogue.

Dialogue “versus” Writing

This section compares pros and cons of live spoken dialogue to our (currently available) written and recorded communication techniques.

The Elephant in the Room: Written communication holds innate advantages, but it’s always been a woefully deficient substitute for spoken dialogue.

That may have been obvious throughout most of modern history, when handwritten letter exchanges took weeks or months. However, we’ve been seduced by the growing but terribly immature power of social networking tools. Intoxicated by the ability to message friends and strangers whenever we want to, we want online exchanges which mimic the rhythm, flow and functions of live spoken dialogue. This temptation causes misguided signals and alienating exchanges. Constrained by weak and fundamentally deformed digital tools, we have deformed interactions.

Live spoken dialogue creates organically gradient pace, rhythm, emphasis, inflection, body language, and timely (at times interjected!) questions and concerns.

Live conversation enables fluidly interactive, finely granulated dialogue. This constant capacity, for all participants, discourages extensive unsolicited monologues by any participants.

We consistently underestimate these innate advantages of live spoken dialogue. Efforts to closely simulate spoken dialogue in writing, which lacks such advantages, are like building a house without a foundation.

Spoken dialogue favors physically impressive, charismatic, quick and confident speakers. Such traits can enhance the persuasive potential of (often irrational) emotional appeals, and of coercive and deceptive behaviors — especially in private unrecorded exchanges, since those can’t be reviewed later by potentially concerned parties.

Additionally, live dialogue has an immense innate disadvantage: live dialogue doesn’t scale inclusively and interactively to large groups of people.

People aren’t good at parallel processing. We can each only listen and respond effectively to one speaker at a time. Because of that, we’re only able to quickly, inclusively exchange densely-detailed thoughts and feelings in very small groups.

The aforementioned “scalability limit” of live dialogue influences our written and recorded exchanges. However, writing and recording enable an unlimited number of people to consume, process, and to eventually interact with each media resource, including all shared messages.

Such massively scaling information processing and nonlinear interactivity are, and have always been, the transformative power of written language. We can store, sort, search, edit, compare, contrast, duplicate and distribute texts. This flexibility applies somewhat to all media. Stored information can be repeatedly analyzed and synthesized. Data, and simple ideas, can even be (rather crudely) processed by automated algorithms.

Information processing and nonlinear interactivity developed slowly but deeply for ages. In fact, the history of all major disciplines has subtly depended on privileged “experts” — specialists — who have (with personal and institutional biases) analyzed and authoritatively reported on media resources. Information processing is developing much more rapidly now — but problematically.

Written and recorded communications have limited bandwidth.

Many forms of recorded information, including all written versions of spoken languages, have greatly reduced detail, and almost all recorded communication has greatly reduced dialogue.

These technical problems are terribly amplified by polarizing media metrics, information overload, redundancy and inefficiency.

Written language removes the seamlessly gradient pace, rhythm, emphasis, inflection, and body language which we unconsciously integrate into spoken exchanges. Written language also normally (but not inevitably) eliminates our ability to provide finely nuanced and selectively focused feedback for others’ statements.

In the absence of such natural detail, our readers — and our co-written dialogues — creatively (and often aggressively) fill in the blanks.

With our increasing use of online messaging, we habitually interact with people who may or may not promptly receive, read and respond to our messages. This may not seem problematic in some close relationships, which develop mutually understood terminology and conversational ‘shorthand’. However, the unpredictability of online responses (or lack thereof) often encourages us to compose monolithic messages, instead of engaging in organic dialogue with timely question-and-answer exchanges.

For example, when we email someone, we’re often tempted to address many issues at once. This can be be practical for some subjects if our messages are efficiently and accurately constructed. However, we often build monolithic written messages (monologues) upon false assumptions about our intended readers’ current interests, attitude and resources — including how much time they can spend to contemplate our messages and related assumptions.

Even in live spoken exchanges, we often withdraw from dialogic interaction and resort to monologues built out of assumptions and overly confident declarations. These tendencies reflect mainstream language and social forms, including parent-child and leader-follower types of relationship. However, our monologic tendencies often increase sharply when we interact via online writing — irregularly and discontinuously — with unlimited numbers of friends and strangers.

Some of those friends and strangers, of course, “drink the same Kool-Aid” that we drink, and reinforce our personal biases and dogmas. This often results in the social media bubble where biased pronouncements reign unchallenged as supposedly objective facts. We increasingly dwell in such bubbles, or seek to pop others’: glorifying allies and disparaging opponents, in vicious cycles of dehumanizing propaganda.

Nonetheless, we should recognize that effective monologues can be deeply valuable! They require strongly integrative thinking and compositional skill. However, communication (and language itself) grew out of dialogue: the rapid exchange of ideas; comparison and contrast; thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Effective communication must strike a balance between personal reflection, exchange, and the incorporation of evolving ideas into discussion and decision processes.

Such rich interactivity, unfortunately, is precisely where our written exchanges have failed us! With developing digital technologies, however, that problem is no longer inevitable. (More on that later.)

The massively scaling social potential of our online interactions has been corrupted by the prominence of simplistic media metrics. The prominence of simplistic metrics has fundamentally favored the use of controversial, polarizing media to promote ideas, activities and products.

For example, both amateur and professional media sources seek numbers such as pageviews and the supremely simplistic like (or heart). Controversial media gets lots of likes for an almost ridiculously simple reason: controversial ideas will receive strong support from specific interest groups, regardless of how much they alienate many or most viewers!

In the absence of more nuanced feedback metrics, the pageview and the like have tragically become the main fuels for media development.

By contrast, some media networks use the upvote/downvote instead of the like. Such binary feedback may improve social accountability somewhat; however, the simplistic negativity of the downvote manufactures misinformation and hostility. To reduce (or at least, depersonalize) such potential hostility, the use of the downvote is almost always limited to anonymous inputs. By contrast, real human relationships have always been built by a broad range of direct social signals, including positive and negative feedback of nuanced intensity and color.

Simplistic media metrics create cancerous new social currencies, married to our ubiquitous commodification of mass media. Simplistic metrics motivate the constant pursuit of tribal, polarized and aggressively competitive popularity contests. That social disease is amplified by the financialism which afflicts all publicly traded media corporations.

Even within the inherently reduced bandwidth of written communication, we’re all swamped with way too much information and too many ideas from too many people. Personal attention has always been a precious resource, and the attention economy is an increasingly crucial subject.

Additionally, recorded media which is high bandwidth and densely-detailed — such as video — has been especially hard to search, sort and filter for specific elements of form and content. This is partly due to the typical monolithic bulk of our separately identified messages. For example, media network users often must respond to entire (long) video clips, instead of responding directly to specific elements which they want to focus upon. While it’s true that text commentary can enable respondents to verbally describe their intended focus point(s), that’s a terribly inefficient work-around for a basic technological deficiency. (Our inconsistently applied and formatted descriptive text is, like most online text, immensely difficult to effectively search, sort and filter.)

It’s increasingly possible for us to share great ideas globally, and to adapt them as needed to local contexts. However, we constantly experience colossal redundancy and inefficiency in media networks. This partly reflects a supply and demand problem: countless media creators try to capture limited attention and economic power (usually money) from each clearly identifiable audience. In the realm of complex ideas, people keep trying to reinvent the proverbial wheel, “perfect” it, rename it, trademark or otherwise “own” it — and profit — ad infinitum.

Desires to brand, monetize and monopolize ideas result in herculean persuasive efforts. People spend immense amounts of precious time and energy debating how much or how little they support complex unscientific (unprovable and unfalsifiable!) arguments — often reaching falsely dichotomous “you’re with us or against us!” conclusions.

I believe that our shared mediascapes already offer way more than enough cleverness, convoluted argument and emotionally imploring rhetoric! Instead of adding to it, we desperately need to identify reasonably shared focus and priorities, in each community of sincerely shared ideas. We need tools which help us to identify mutually valuable ideas and modular systems of ideas and information.

Part Two describes some ideas for addressing these shared challenges.

P2P networking design, consciousness-raising and practivism. Protocols>platforms, communication>control. https://github.com/gcassel