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13 February 2006

Balkanization of the Parallel World

A number of sources have pointed to the following piece of satirical micro theatre.

Regrettably, this is not the first time such a thing has been discussed. In fact, it is almost a planning factor for those in the community forward leaning enough to anticipate future challenges; let alone those that listen to outsider sources in speculative fiction.

Bruce Sterling wrote about the potential for autonomous, mobile communication networks based out of a small package on the back of a motorcycle in peril of careless damage by ignorant local law enforcement in his version, a warning by an early activist for digital property rights. While his vision was modeled on the bulletin board systems technology of the day, like many things in the world of computing these things come full circle.

A relatively obscure and anonymous author whose work is no longer appears to be extant (having been authored online in the long vanished days of the public spam free Usenet) wrote about “webstates” and the impact and eventual importance of virtual nationalities in the early days of the emergence of bounded “premium” networks such as Compuserve and AOL.

Neal Stephenson mentioned the impact of exclusive communications networks on social interactions, and the problems such networks would pose for surveillance systems (whether government sponsored or otherwise.)

In our own modern reality, we face compounded layers of darknets, competing and incompatible protocols, and increasingly exclusive ways to utilize what previously was considered the information commons. Much of this is driven by corporate profit motives – sometimes for the eventual benefit of the overall marketplace, sometimes to irrational and short-sighted ends.

Your authors fear that this Balkanization will inevitably occur. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” proves that if not entirely technically feasible, it is at least within the realm of bureaucratic attempts. For those willing to build entire new networks from the ground up and mandate their exclusive use, it is actually fundamentally easy – as numerous government systems familiar to us all prove.

Discussing this future for the “public” Internet is not just a matter for privacy advocates or copyfighters. This will fundamentally alter the casual interactions and low barrier to entry connectivity which has done more to advance the literature and profession of intelligence than anything in American history short of Congress’s first appropriations during the Revolutionary War.

It will be a sobering and difficult challenge to face an era of Balkanized networks. Predictive analysis starts now, and it may take a generation to evolve robust collection platforms and effective analytical tradecraft to understand these environments when they emerge. It certainly has taken longer in the age of a more or less uniform singular "Internet" environment; which to this day one could strongly argue is still not properly understood. It should go without saying that in the Long War and its aftermath, this time will be a luxury we will not enjoy.