Tag Archive: mechanics

Breaking (and Using!) the Chains That Bind Us

Due to my recent Internet connection issues, I won’t be able to publish any sort of podcast for the next couple of months. Naturally, this stalls the progress of this podcast, but I’ll try to capture my thoughts with a few more regular blogposts (and concentrate on the other work I need to get done!).

In this case, I’ve become acutely aware of the fragility of receiving and uploading podcasts, given that both aspects of it are being blocked by the fascist administrators running the IT department of my lodgings (in the name of “bandwidth management”; lots of bandwidth available when no content is delivered!).

(I’ll try to keep the vitriol to a minimum, but this issue has my dial cranked up to “really annoyed”. Hey: if I weren’t passionate, I would be less worthy of listening to, right? ;))

So, back on topic: fragility. When libsyn.com got blocked, I was aghast: suddenly, I realized how much dependence I had on a single company, both for receiving podcasts and for producing them. When apple.com got blocked, I realized I depended on them for finding podcasts, or at least for finding out more information about podcasts.

This is a problem of single point of failure, an appalling heavy dependence that computer science graduates are very aware is a distinct form of sin.

Imagine if the power to your home were dependant on a single, easily-interruptable wire? It seems that way, ultimately, but it’s not easy to interrupt. And anyone who’s had a simple power outage knows that, while there might be temporary interruption, power is usually restored in short order, automatically, as the network reorganizes.

There are other podcast hosting providers out there, and podcast directories, too, but the market is still small. Rather, the ability to easily choke off the consumption or production of podcasts from a few rules seems improper — maybe even illegal.

I’ve tried to suggest that the blocking policies are incorrect and inappropriate, but I’ve met with no sympathy and no movement. Not knowing what avenues I have for recourse, I decided to think of it differently.

Is there a technological solution to this?

Some podcasts can be delivered by Bittorrent, which decentralizes the source, meaning that delivery is no longer dependant on a single place.

But Bittorrent can be blocked, and fairly easily. So we are dependant on a single protocol, as well! And while it can be used to bring podcasts in, it doesn’t (as far as I know) do anything for uploading podcasts.

It’s not just to defeat petty and/or moronic adminstrators that we need to think of this, either, but as a general robustness problem. A plurality of solutions is the way that the web survives — it is built into the very fabric of the Internet, in fact — and we should embrace that in every facet in order to fully be modern.

One method of avoiding these sorts of blocks is through proxies. Since HTTP is the only sort of general-use protocol that seems to be allowed on almost every Internet service, we should consider it our carrier. Since it is easy to block any given name or IP address by rule, we have to have the capacity for a large number of sites — both direct and indirect — that will simply be too big to block.

Alternatively, of course, we could “simply” have so much money that we pay the administrators not to block it, or find the political power to make such blocking illegal. (I, for one, would welcome a “Universal Internet Bill of Rights”, which properly casts it as the immoral act that I feel it is, and makes such blocking internationally illegal.)

But, short of that, consider this: what if your podcast host or web host participated? The power of podcasting seems to be in the community that it builds. What if we can make this not a problem of individuals, but a solution from the collective?

If every podcaster put up a proxy — somehow specifically for podcast transmission (up and down), at least in this initial context — then the number of avenues would grow immensely, and the blocking lists would not be able to keep up.

We would take the community to a whole new — and meaningful — level.

What do you think?

  • Am I just acting out of my own bitterness in my local situation?
  • Is this sort of thing feasible?
  • Is there a better solution?
  • Should the communication of podcasting be considered important enough that blocking it is immoral?
  • Are there technical reasons why this cannot be done?
  • Was I too emotional? I admit, having this particular problem has infuriated me, but also highlighted what must be — or could be — a very big problem.
  • Was this article meaningful? Have I strayed too far from my topic?
  • In case you are wondering, I’m looking into solutions like proxytunnel as a potential avenue for relief.

Some things we learn because someone told us what they are. Other things we learn from experience, and we give that experience a name — in fact, the people who told us what things are might have learned them this way.

The question at hand, of course, is “what is podcasting”? What do I mean when I ask that question? Why does it seem even interesting?

First attempts at answering this question are usually something like what Wikipedia currently cites (and the first definition I cited in my presentation):

A podcast is a series of digital media files (either audio or video) that are released episodically and often downloaded through web syndication.

A later section cites work that I’ll look into further where a four-part definition of podcast is used:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I have a problem with these definitions: they don’t actually answer the question — except in a very surface way.

Or, as I have come to call it: these things are the mechanic definitions of podcasting.

It’s understandable, really; from what I’ve learned about learning styles and the process of cognition, humans generally move from the more concrete descriptions of the world to the symbolic and abstract. It speaks not to the skills of the definer that these definitions lack any sort of real meaning, but rather to the newness of podcasting itself.

But this mechanical definition really gets us very little, and it’s not the question I’m asking anyway. One could have made a similar description about a car, describing the elegant dance of hardware, instrumentation and control that gives this hunk of plastic, metal and chemicals its forward mobility. It would be accurate, at least for a while — when the technology changes, this mechanical description either gets broader, changes, or simply gets abandoned.

But the “real” meaning of “car” is far more than the particular make and model, the parts and the construction, the history and the price. A car means providing vast mobility in a world previously ruled by rail and horses. A car means transforming cities to wrap them in ribbons of concrete towers to allow traffic to flow in a semi-orderly manner. A car means giving independence to millions who would have otherwise depended on the services of others to provide them with goods, and choices of where goods and services can be bought. A car means an increase in the use of and reliance on fossil fuels — or at least some energy supply. A car means having a portable office to some, a mobile house to others.

I could go on, but I think my point becomes clear: it’s much more than simple mechanical definitions that I’m after here: it’s that deeper meaning that I’m curious about. What is the impact of podcasting? How has this very young medium already shaped things (if at all)? How can it continue to do so? What should we seek to do with it, and how can we bring about such a future? Does podcasting deserve a seat at the big table with older, more established media, or is it resigned to the kid’s table alongside Youtube, flickr and Twitter?

That said, I will probably cover the mechanics of podcasting, both in a basic way (“here’s how a podcast is created, delivered, consumed”) and in a more explorative way (“how can we deliver podcasts differently?”).

But I see podcasting as much more — or at least, potentially so. Podcasting has, for me, entirely changed my pattern of media consumption. Podcasts are probably close to 80% of my media intake on any given day. (That’s a rough guesstimate; I’ll try to actually work out a proper number later.)

Have I answered my own question? Probably not. 😉 You may find that my inquisitive nature tends to raise more questions than it answers…

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