On HBO’s Silicon Valley, startups promise to “change the world” by tackling silly, often non-existent problems. But this season, the show’s characters are tackling a project that really could. In their latest pivot, Richard Hendricks and the Pied Piper gang are trying to create new internet that cuts out intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and the fictional Hooli. Their idea: use a peer-to-peer network built atop every smartphone on the planet, effectively rendering huge data centers full of servers unnecessary.
“If we could do it we could build a completely decentralized version of our current internet,” Hendricks says. “With no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying, information would be totally free in every sense of the word.”
But wait: Isn’t the internet already a decentralized network that no one owns? In theory, yes. But in practice, a small number of enormous companies control or at least mediate so much of the internet. Sure, anyone can publish whatever they want to the web. But without Facebook and Google, will anyone be able to find it? Amazon, meanwhile, controls not just the web’s biggest online store but a cloud computing service so large and important that when part of it went offline briefly earlier this year, the internet itself seemed to go down. Similarly, when hackers attacked the lesser-known company Dyn–now owned by tech giant Oracle–last year, large swaths of the internet came crashing down with it. Meanwhile, a handful of telecommunications giants, including Comcast, Charter, and Verizon, control the market for internet access and have the technical capability to block you from accessing particular sites or apps. In some countries, a single state-owned telco controls internet access completely.
Given those very non-utopian realities, people in the real world are also hard at work trying to rebuild the internet in a way that comes closer to the decentralized ideal. They’re still pretty far from Richard’s utopian vision, but it’s already possible to do some of what he describes. Still, it’s not enough to just cut out today’s internet power players. You also need to build a new internet that people will actually want to use.
On the show, Richard’s plan stems from the realization that just about everyone carries around a smartphone with hundreds of times more computing power than the machines that sent humans to the moon. What’s more, those phones are just sitting in people’s pockets doing nothing for most of the day. Richard proposes to use his fictional compression technology—his big innovation from season one—to free up extra space on people’s phones. In exchange for using the app, users would agree to share some of the space they free up with Pied Piper, who will then resell it to companies for far less than they currently pay giants like Amazon.
The closest thing to what’s what’s described on Silicon Valley might be Storj, a decentralized cloud storage company. Much like Pied Piper, Storj has built a network of people who sell their unused storage capacity. If you want to buy space on the Storj network, you upload your files and the company splits them up into smaller pieces, encrypts them so that no one but you can read your data, and then distributes those pieces across its network.
“You control your own encryption keys so we have no access to the data,” says co-founder John Quinn. “We have no knowledge of what is being stored.”
Also like Pied Piper, Storj bills itself as safer than traditional storage systems, because your files will reside on multiple computers throughout the world. Quinn says that in order to lose a…
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