Dust Net

by David Dvorkin

Note: This essay has been expanded into a book.
For details, click here.

Governments want to control access to the Internet in order to remain in power. Corporations want to control access to the Internet in order to make lots of money. Both of them can maintain such control only as long as citizens/consumers are forced to access the Internet through a relatively few bottlenecks. Those are the points where government can choke off access; those are the gateways for the use of which corporations can charge exorbitant fees.

Political activists in countries with repressive governments have devised ways — e.g., dialup access to proxy servers — to bypass government barriers to Internet access. Direct communication with satellites is another possibility; this is already popular in some countries as a way to watch television programs the government disapproves of. However, for the foreseeable future, communications satellites will be under the control of governments and giant corporations, so they aren't a reliable and untrammeled avenue to the Internet. Proxy servers depend on the existing Internet backbone, which merely moves the possibility of government/corporate control one step further away from the person trying to get online.

Technological evolution will continue to provide new ways to evade this control, and governments and corporations will continue to evolve ways to block each new avenue of evasion. But two particular evolutionary trends are coming that will change this warfare between offense and defense in a fundamental way. They will change society, too, in profound and disturbing ways.

The first evolutionary trend is the increasing miniaturization and power of Internet–connected video and sound recording devices. They'll soon be undetectable. Police won't be able to arrest people for recording them in the act of, say, abusing peaceful protestors because the police won't know which bystander is recording them and instantaneously uploading the video to YouTube. The increasing availability of WiFi hotspots and Internet access via the cell phone network also means that there are ever fewer physical locations where such abuse can take place without recordings being made and uploaded.

Except, of course, inside police stations or secret CIA torture camps. But hold that thought.

The second evolutionary trend is the shrinking of computers.

Some day, nanocomputers will be part of the nanotechnology tidal wave that will overwhelm us with technology indistinguishable from magic. The world will change. Human beings will change. But we don't have to look that far ahead to glimpse the sea change I'm talking about.

Perhaps the efforts to create quantum computers will succeed, bringing us immensely powerful computers smaller than a human cell. But even if that technology never does come to fruition, powerful small computers are inevitable. Maybe they won't be smaller than a human cell. Maybe they'll be as big as a human cell, or as big as a speck of dust. That's small enough to do the job I have in mind.

Major steps have already been made in that direction. The US military, as well as a consortium of universities, has been working for at least ten years to develop smart dust — clouds of microscopic machines, wirelessly connected to each other, able to perform military tasks, espionage, exploration, and rescue. The last two sound wonderful, but no doubt far more money and brainpower are being poured into the first two.

In any case, microscopic networked intelligent machines will soon exist. Then, smart dust will quickly evolve from networked microscopic sensors with some computing power into powerful, microscopic networked computers.

Within a few years — ten at the most, but probably no more than five — invisible clouds of such computers will be drifting in the winds and floating on the seas. They will be present almost everywhere in the world. They might be powered by sunlight, or the energy of wind or waves, or changes in barometric pressure, or they might draw all the power they need from the manmade microwave energy bathing all of us all the time. Many of them will be military devices, gathering intelligence, keeping watch on other countries and on citizens. Many will be corporate machines, gathering information designed to make very wealthy people even wealthier. These machines won't need the Internet. They will form their own networks. Since I've described two categories of machines, let's call their two networks Gov Net and Plutocrat Net.

Increasingly, mixed among these clouds of drifting, floating dust–speck computers will be others produced by small groups of individuals with no connection to government or to the corporatocracy. Technology, especially electronic technology, behaves that way. Neither the government nor big corporations can keep control of it for long.

This third class of dust–speck computers will constitute a third world–wide network far greater than today's Internet. Let's call it Dust Net. Its purpose won't be repression or profit but access to data, opinion, and like–minded human beings.

At this point — let's say five to ten years from now — all those who have smart phones or other WiFi–equipped devices, almost anywhere in the world, will have complete access to Dust Net. Their governments won't be able to block them, and corporations won't be able to charge them. Dust Net will be an immensely powerful force for freedom.

But something else will be happening at the same time.

Let's return to the evolution of tiny recording devices. I believe that that technology will be integrated into the microscopic servers making up Dust Net and its government and corporate equivalents. Smart dust was intended for data collection from the start, so copious data storage capacity is inherent in the design of the machines. Dust Net will become an infinitely distributed, infinitely replicated, infinitely accessible database containing full sound and video recording of everything that happens everywhere on Earth.

Of course, the same will apply to Gov Net and Plutocrat Net. They'll be watching, recording, and storing everything, too.

No place in normal life is truly dust free. It's frightening to think that every moment of your life will be recorded, stored away, and accessible to anyone who cares to view the recording. We'll be living in a global village where not only do none of the windows have blinds but all the walls are made of glass.

Fortunately, we'll have Dust Net. While governments and corporations watch us, we'll be watching them. There won't be any more secret meetings in Washington, DC or anywhere else. Like it or not — and they won't — plans by governments and corporations to control us and limit our freedoms will be out in the open and known to all of us ahead of time. All governments and all boardrooms will be truly and completely transparent.

They'll try to fight Dust Net with dust–free rooms. But even if they go into those rooms naked, they'll bring the motes of Dust Net in with them — inside their ears, their noses, their lungs. They'll try to destroy Dust Net by hardware or software methods. The immense redundancy and constant checking and comparing of data between dust motes should defeat both approaches.*

Premeditated crimes will largely disappear. Spur–of–the–moment crime will be virtually certain to be punished. Graft, corruption, and collusion will largely disappear. So will the very concept of privacy. And all this is coming whether we like it or not.


* Here's an interesting sidelight. The hardware fight against Dust Net will probably include hunter-killer machines of the same size as the Dust Net, Gov Net, and Plutocrat Net severs — i.e., the size of dust specks. Moreover, other governments will also be releasing their own Gov Nets. It will be hard to tell where the civilian use of these networks ends and military use begins. They'll all have their own hunter-killer dust specks, and their primary targets will be the computers of other countries' Gov Nets; Dust Net will be secondary. A silent war of immense consequence will be raging far beneath the horizon of our senses. Perhaps it already is. Perhaps control of the world is being determined right now in a terrible battle in the corner of your living room.