My Date with the Gnomes of San Jose

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

From: Lucas Gonze (
Date: Wed Oct 18 2000 - 09:52:42 PDT

A take on the Intel P2P WG by Cory Doctorow of Open Cola. See

Pick quote:
"[P2P is] faery infrastructure, networks whose maps form weird n-dimensional
topologies of surpassing beauty and chaos; mad technological hairballs run by
ad-hocracies whose members each act in their own best interests."


My Date with the Gnomes of San Jose
A First Person Account of the First Meeting of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group
by Cory Doctorow

The worst day in short history of modern peer-to-peer computing was the day that
some wag coined the banal acronym "P2P." On that day, an entire field of
wonderful, mind-bending, world-changing networking models were reduced to a
single, oversimplified acronym-with-a-two-in-the-middle (AWATITM).

The other AWATITMs -- B2B, B2C -- were used to make simple ideas (selling stuff
to people and selling stuff to companies) excitingly complex. Entire PowerPoint
cosmologies were constructed around B2B and B2C, and MBA programs rejigged their
curriculum to explain the theory and practice of AWATITMs. The dirty suits
grabbed ahold of the idea, pumped and dumped billions of dollars in bad paper on
the NASDAQ and then hastily declared B2B and B2C dead.

Turning peer-to-peer computing into P2P implies some common lineage with B2B and
B2C. It places peer-to-peer computing squarely in the safe and comprehensible
realm of the monetized, commodified Internet of Superbowl ads and Times Square
billboards. But peer-to-peer computing isn't a business model, it's a
technological one. That's not to say that you can't make money with peer-to-peer
technology. (You can. People will. Lots of it.) But peer-to-peer computing isn't
a way of making money per se, any more than packet-switching or error-correction
is a way of making money.

What peer-to-peer computing is, is a way of making really cool decentralized
networks. In a peer-to-peer universe, servers are irrelevant. Peer-to-peer
networks are composed of personal computers tied together with consumer Internet
connections, each node a quantum zone of uncertainty, prone to going offline
whenever its owner closes his laptop and chucks it into a shoulder-bag. In
peer-to-peer computing, reliability is ensured through massive redundancy;
bottlenecks are dealt with in the same fashion. Peer-to-peer networks aren't
owned by any central authority, nor can they be controlled, killed, or broken by
a central authority. Companies and concerns may program and release software for
peer-to-peer networking, but the networks that emerge are owned by everyone and
no one.

They're faery infrastructure, networks whose maps form weird n-dimensional
topologies of surpassing beauty and chaos; mad technological hairballs run by
ad-hocracies whose members each act in their own best interests.

In a nutshell, peer-to-peer technology is goddamn wicked. It's esoteric. It's
unstoppable. It's way, way cool.

But you sure wouldn't know it from the agenda at the first meeting of the
Peer-to-Peer Working Group (PTPWG). Held in a San Jose Hyatt ballroom last
Thursday, the meeting was convened by Intel, one of the five founding members of
the Working Group. Intel had originally expected a mere 60 attendees, and had to
reschedule and find bigger digs when more than 100 applied; even then, the
260-person facility had more than 300 people in attendees. In attendance were
the press, clots of dirty suits, nerd firebrands, and representatives of a
multifarious knot of companies that, in one way or another, qualify as

And there we were, crammed butt-to-belly, standing room only, waiting for the
inauguration of the standards-setting body that would ensure interoperability
between all the players in the drearily neologistic "P2P space." It started
pretty good. Bob Knighten, Intel's "Peer-to-Peer Evangelist," kicked it off by
lauding us for our vision, expressed amazement at the sheer numbers in the room,
and popped his tie-mic with every plosive syllable. Bob's got the right
look-and-feel for this thing, he's an engineer with a fringe of hair and
horn-rims and an earnest nerdiness that's as sincere as packets.

Then Bob introduced Earl Neid, a lawyer from Intel, and things went to straight
to hell. Neid's an Intel lawyer, and he took us through the proposed structure
of the P2PWG. At the top, there are seven steering committee members ("The
Central Committee," I hissed at my seatmate). Five of them are appointed by the
founding corporations; two are elected from the "Contributors" who pay $5,000
for the privilege of "contributing." That seems a little steep, but the
Contributors have got it easy -- the Steering Committee members pay $25,000 each
for their seats. Underneath it all, there's the great mass of $500/head
"Participants" who can only be on technical committees by invitation. The
Working Group would be unincorporated, "for simplicity's sake," and this
hierarchy would ensure that the decision-making process would be streamlined and

Neid has the lawyer mind-control drone down to an art. Though he spoke for a
mere 30 minutes, it seemed like an eternity. The hairfaces and ponytails in the
room began a full-body, Palm-and-cellphone collective fidget, waiting for some
actual technology to be trotted out for examination. It wasn't until he finished
and called for questions that the room woke up. The first questioner thanked
Intel for all their hard work, but wondered aloud at the necessity of having
such a centralized, hierarchical decision-making body at the helm of a
decentralized, non-hierarchical technology. There was an appreciative chuckle.

Then Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly and Associates, publishers of the finest
technical books in the universe, stepped up to the mic. O'Reilly blasted out an
indictment of the entire show, declared his disgust with Intel for foisting
their stodgy, last-gen thinking on the world, and stepped down to wild applause.

From that moment on, there was blood in the air. Intel was no longer a good
corporate citizen, donating its efforts to the peer-to-peer movement. In a hot
moment of exercised open-source rhetoric, Intel was transformed into a scheming
Illuminatus, a Gnome of Zurich plotting to secretly co-opt and control the
uncontrollable. It was like crashing the first meeting of the Trilateral
Commission as they divvied up the world.

Every aspect of Intel's Working Group infrastructure was called into question:
Why were they using a dumb old mailing-list for the working group when slash,
the engine behind, provides an open-source means for fast and
furious communications with idiosyncratic filtering options? Why this sneaky
pyramid business with only seven decision-makers at the tippy-top? Why did they
think it would take years to arrive at standards? Could a hardware vendor's slow
technology lifecycles match the breakneck pace of innovation in the peer-to-peer
software world, where new networks spring up faster than the business press can
acronym-ize them?

Most damning were the examples of other standards bodies in the Internet world.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), whose standards underpin the basic
structure of the Internet, is a mad ad-hocracy, an organization whose membership
consists of anyone who claims to belong, an organization whose committees and
working groups are weird, emergent-consensus flamefests that hammer out
standards and protocols at speed. The IETF's anarchic free-for-all is eerily
similar to peer-to-peer technology itself, and here Intel was, proposing an
old-fashioned Supreme Soviet at the helm. What were they thinking?

Intel tried. They really did. Intel's organizational babus took the mic and
announced that they were surprised at the popular sentiment, and they'd be happy
to re-think the whole hierarchy thing. They'd present their ideas after lunch.
And they did. Here it is: people with a better idea can email it to the Working
Group over the next week, and the Trilateral Commission would deliberate in
secret, pick a winner, and announce it within 30 days.

Needless to say, the room was hardly mollified. Even a presentation from UDDI,
the joint industry group that's been working on a kind-of Ur-standard for
peer-to-peer computing, hardly made a ripple. The GRID distributed computing
project, presented by a quiet, self-deprecating academic got its biggest
reaction when the presenter, Ian Foster, took a poke at Intel's proposed

And the peer-to-peer world moves on. O'Reilly's sponsoring its own peer-to-peer
conference, and Tim O'Reilly has used his company's site to explain in detail
why Intel shouldn't be at the helm of peer-to-peer. The proposed slash-based
message board inches towards completion. And in San Jose, Intel abides,
collecting its $5,000 fees from "Contributors" as they sign on.

b i o :
Cory Doctorow won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer
at the 2000 Hugo Awards. He is the co-founder and Chief Evangelist of openCOLA,

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Oct 18 2000 - 09:59:31 PDT