HBO Might Have Accurately Envisioned the Future of the Internet

And it may be closer than you think

Pied Piper's new internet is in the works IRL.

In Season 5 of Silicon Valley, which wrapped up May 13, Richard Hendricks, CEO of fictional startup Pied Piper, and his plucky band of misfits worked tirelessly to bring their new kind of internet, PiperNet, to market.

But while the product itself isn’t real—Pied Piper’s website looks real enough—there are a number of players actually trying to make this fictional internet, one that is decentralized so users don’t have to rely on intermediaries like Google or Facebook, a reality.

Holochain, Blockstack, the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), MaidSafe and Storj are among the real-life Pied Pipers working on such decentralized projects. In addition, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, which runs like an app on the internet and provides an interface for end users, is leading a project at MIT called Solid that seeks to build decentralized social applications. (He was not available for comment.)

What is a decentralized internet, and why are we talking about it?

A decentralized internet uses peer-to-peer communication—think your smartphone to my smartphone—to enable users to store and exchange information without an intermediary.

On Silicon Valley, that intermediary is tech giant Hooli. In the real world, it’s companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which have web servers that store information and serve applications to end users.

In a peer-to-peer network, however, there is no central authority, which arguably yields a number of benefits.

The most obvious, and perhaps most important, is that without gatekeepers, no one gathers data about consumers to sell to advertisers.

“We created an internet where the way you make money is by watching everything people do—essentially stalking them and selling all the knowledge of how to most effectively manipulate them to the highest bidder,” said Matthew Schutte, director of communications for Holo, which is building a distributed cloud via peer-to-peer application hosting. “I don’t think any of those advertisers are evil—they are trying to effectively market their products—but the architecture is like an arms race. If you haven’t gotten to understand your consumer better than anyone else, you will lose.”

Inside the new internet

According to Schutte, Holo’s Holochain is a new way of building and running applications that operate on users’ devices that would eliminate this practice. It has about 2,000 people in its online chat community.

There’s a bit of a libertarian streak here. A peer-to-peer network means no platform controls how users communicate with each other. The rules, then, are established by the inmates instead of the asylum, like, say, Twitter, which dictates the number of characters you can use.

“[Platforms like Twitter] control the form of the information that we’re sending to one another,” Schutte said. “They dictate how we can speak with one another on their platforms.”

“To me, it’s a little like a couple of hippies dancing in front of a German tank. Maybe it will take off, but Facebook and Google are very well entrenched and very, very, very big.”
IT pioneer Ted Nelson

And without the watchful eye of Big Tech, these networks are also (allegedly) self-policing. Schutte likened it to a card game among friends in which players uphold the rules if someone tries to steal a turn.

“This is how Holochain works,” he said. “It enables us to play a game together without necessarily having any one party designated as the referee.”

Schutte argued users could be relied upon to root out problems—and we’ve sort of seen this already on Amazon and ebay, where customers decided for themselves what a five-star rating means. Of course, we’ve also seen the opposite, and we call that vigilantism.

“Suppose, in some peer-to-peer Twitter replacement, some people perceive problems with abusive behavior or user impersonation,” said Steve Bellovin, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University and one of the founders of early online community Usenet. “What ability do I have to block people, to alert people to the impersonation, to prevent the impersonator from claiming I’m the impersonator?”

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