It’s long been a truism of the net that free information flow and freedom have a lot to do with each other. You see it in cases like the recent revolution in Egypt where the Egyptian government tried to stifle dissent by shutting off the Internet, and again in the current situation in Libya. E-books and other long-form digital reading matter are one point on that information spectrum, but so are forms as small as tweets or as large as digital video broadcasts.
TechCrunch has an interesting post by guest author Shervin Pishevar, founder of the OpenMesh Project, in which he talks about that project’s genesis and goals. Pishevar talks about discussing information freedom with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January of 2010, then taking part in passing along information from Egypt in January 2011.
I was staying up for days sharing and tweeting information as they happened. I had two close personal friends of mine in Egypt who were passing me information when they could. The day Egypt blocked the internet and mobile networks my mind went back to what I had said to Secretary Clinton. The only line of defense against government filtering and blocking their citizens from freely communicating and coordinating via communication networks was to create a new line of communications technologies that governments would find hard to block: Ad hoc wireless mesh networks. I called the idea OpenMesh and tweeted it.
Shortly, he was in touch with volunteers who were willing to turn the idea into a reality, and a company that was willing to kick in the designs for a tiny mobile router that could be hidden in a pocket and manufactured at a cost of $90 per unit.
The idea is to create mesh networks between people with computers or other wifi-connected devices and others with these pocket-sized routers, so the information can hop along until it can find someone near enough an uplink to the outside world to get the information through.
Open Mesh networking is a type of networking wherein each connected node in the network may act as an independent router or “smart” device, regardless of whether it has an Internet connection or not. Mesh networks are incredibly robust, with continuous connections that can reconfigure around broken or blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until the destination is reached, such as another device on the network or connecting to an Internet back haul. When there is local Internet available, they can amplify the number of people who can connect to it. When there isn’t, mesh networks can allow people to communicate with each other in the event that other forms of electronic communication are broken down. Devices consist of most wifi enabled computers and run on existing Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, and Linux systems along with iPhone and Android mobile devices. An open source mesh network further offers a scalable solution that retains low costs while avoiding path dependencies and vendor lock-in. Combined with open hardware, these networks facilitate long-term maintenance flexibility and improvements.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is the same type of networking technology that the OLPC XO-1 was equipped with, to network together the students equipped with them and provide network access to all even if only a few were near the uplink to the outside world. And as the OpenMesh Project demonstrates, the idea has potential outside the field of only education. I wish them the best of luck.
Of course, this is just the beginning. As the technology improves—and getting it into widespread use will drive improvement—we could be on the way to the sort of everything-is-networked future depicted in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. Won’t that be an interesting world to live in? Hopefully once such widespread information to access becomes available, it will be harder for tyrants to keep their people down. (Of course, they’ll probably still find ways anyway, but we can dream, right?)