Slowness and networks

Matt has written an interesting post about slowness in networks. He refers to an article talking about minority views and the time it takes for these views to be heard in a system, and relates that to a project he’s working on about online participation.

This reminded me of an ad-hoc workshop I led at a conference at Banff NMI last year. The conference was about networks, mobility and public space, and I brought up an idea that had been at the back of my mind for a while – Public Caches. I’d been fascinated by the distributed patterns of physical media along transport systems – for example the ‘Metro’ newspaper that is given away free at UK train stations. It seemed like such a good way to distribute information – piggy-backing on the dynamics of people’s commuting, and the letting the carriers leave the information, meme-style, lying around on trains for others to pick up. I commute for over 1.5 hours a day, and picking up someone else’s copy of the Metro or Evening Standard can be a godsend on a delayed train.

I started thinking about this in relation to PDAs, and thought of the idea of installing ‘Public Caches’ – stand alone devices embedded into street furniture or trains that people could use to upload or download content. You could send an e-book or avantgo article that you had finished with, or browse the cache to see what people have left behind.

Streetbeam have been doing this for a while with their infra-red beaming stations in street furniture, but they seem to see it as a broadcast distribution network, rather than the decentralised, P2P network that fascinated me.

Anyway, in the workshop, the group got really interested in the idea, but kept insisting that the individual public caches would also be connected to the internet, so that you could upload content remotely. I wasn’t at all interested in this, but in re-introducing a physical aspect to a digital network, something like a Human Computer Transfer Protocol, where individuals with their PDAs are the packet carriers between a number of disconnected storage nodes. Most of the group thought this was pretty pointless, as it runs against the whole point of digital networks – speed and connectivity. But there was something there that intrigued me, something about the contrary and serendipitous network of people-connected nodes that seemed valuable. These values might be:

Slowness, and the reinforcement of community
In such a network, information would have to travel physically between people’s devices in order to jump from cache to cache. The cache on your train or street corner would be full of stuff that only people who physically travelled through or visited your neghbourhood could access. This would mean it would take a long time for ‘memes’ to migrate through a network, but it would also increase local specificity, and so enhance a sense of place and community.

No economy of scale
In highly-connected networks, there is a huge economy of scale – it is as easy to send information to 1000 people as it is to send it to one. In the HCTP public cache network, there is no economy of scale, as you would have to physically travel to each Cache location to upload material across the whole network. The effort increases proportionally for each additional node if you try to broadcast information in a ‘one-to-many’ manner. On the down side, this resists the rapid development of ‘memes’ and other power-law related behaviour. On the upside, it makes it a spam-free network, as would-be spammers face a gargantuan physical task in flooding a network.

Certain individuals who regularly use the caches would become super-connectors, responsible for a significant proportion of traffic between particular caches. There might be a DJ who regularly travels to Europe, downloading MP3s from European Caches and uploading them in the Caches near his home. Or there might be high degrees of connectivity between suburban Caches and ones in the city as people commute to and from work. Some interesting dynamics of exchange would develop out of this.

But why bother?

This is the question the group ultimately hit on, and I can’t say I have the answer. I was really just being perverse, and thinking about where slowness in a system might be an asset, as so much of our network culture eulogises speed. Interestingly, we came up with no examples where slowness itself was an asset, but a few of the effects of slowness were interesting. One was privacy/security – the Public Cache network most closely resembled the physical networks of drop-boxes and other intelligence/spy techniques. The process of uploading/downloading should be anonymous, like the messages left under park benches or empty trees in many a cold-war spy story. More recently, attempts to close down the financial support for terrorists stumbled on the decentralised, trust-based Hawala system that can allow the transfer of millions of dollars without a paper trail, using a trusted network of individuals.

So there seems to be some value in deliberately slow networks, but these seem to be antithetical to our current economic, political and cultural interest in digital networks. Matt’s post about slowness just scratches the surface. I think we need to reintroduce physical timescales into our thinking on networks, and stop being slaves to the artificial acceleration of our technologies. Pure information might be able to travel at the near the speed of light, but things like trust and community build a lot more slowly.


  1. Andrew

    The idea of public access points to download or upload data is nice. I recall in Berlin in 2001 sometime, there was a piece of public art which was a large text screen in the subway. People could post messages on it via SMS. Not exactly uploading complex data or files, but that idea could be extended into, say, a public bulletin board for a specific place.

    Even the idea of public downloads on their own seems like a good idea: an open download cache at a bookstore which posts a new e-book there weekly, or downloadable music at a record shop. That kind of thing might drive traffic into the stores.

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