The Last Mile
Futurist Bruce Sterling and Austin Unleashed's Zane McCarthy on the potential tangles of wireless
Did you know there was a new Zen restaurant on Guadalupe? Hey, neither did we, but Austin's celebrated author/futurist/
dad/SXSW Interactive party maestro Bruce Sterling did, and he also knew they had Wi-Fi installed to boot. (The parking lot, on the other hand, was still being painted.) We sat down for a bite and a chat with Sterling and his pal Zane McCarthy of Austin Unleashed Wireless Internet. The food was hot, but it was the duo's unsweetened take on the future of Wi-Fi that really got crunchy. Here's a sampling of Wi-Fi's suddenly dark future via Bruce almighty and Zane, "my Wi-Fi guy."
Austin Chronicle: I remember the last time we talked, you had mentioned the possibility of installing Wi-Fi in your Hyde Park home and "splashing it all over the neighborhood" so that others could use it. Did you?
Bruce Sterling: Well, the worst thing about Wi-Fi is you're going to roll it out and immediately some guy's going to start doing illegal shit. I mean, otherwise I'd just have the free Wi-Fi at my house, but I'm afraid somebody's gonna drive up in a friggin' van and just spam the living shit out of everybody, or launch a virus attack, or
AC: Isn't there any way to block that sort of thing?
Zane McCarthy: There are ways to block that sort of thing. You can block 99 percent of the casual malicious users easily. Somebody who's really slick, that can be really tricky to block.
BS: The slicker at it you have to get, the more it favors organized crime as opposed to teenage assholes.
ZM: And organized crime has really moved into those sorts of scams.
AC: But isn't that the way the Internet has traditionally flowed? It all flows into porn, scams, and spam?
BS: Well, yeah, it's an ugly scene. It's like Woodstock to Altamont in one presidential administration.
AC: Still sort of that wild, wild West mentality, right?
BS: It's a lot more like the wild East these days. I don't think Wi-Fi would have boomed anywhere near the way it has if it weren't for the last-mile problem, and the last-mile problem is a political problem. You throw all this stuff out there, Al Gore-style, and have an information superhighway that goes into every school, and it's run like the highway system with highway patrols and policed after a fashion. Well, they never actually carried it the last mile! They suddenly realized that if they put broadband in every school they'd lose all the music and all the movies and all our intellectual properties, so they just recoiled at the last minute and then the dot-com thing blew out on top of that. So you've got all these little bread-mold-type networking guys springing up all over the place and just jamming stuff into corners with Wi-Fi that goes 100 yards this way and 100 yards that way. It's a joke.
AC: Why do you think Austin's suddenly such a center for the Wi-Fi movement?
BS: Well, the reason we get championed on that is because we have industrial policy in the City Council.
ZM: The city's really open to community groups, though, because Austin's a more community-centric city for its size than just about any other place I've lived in. And so when a bunch of citizens come in and say "We want to get free wireless in the parks," they go, "Sure."
AC: Which is pretty much unheard of anywhere else.
ZM: Yeah. And someone's going to raise the false specter of "What if someone spams on it?" Well, you know what? Someone can make a crank call and threaten the president's life via a pay phone, which is a federal offense, but really, are you going to blame the phone company for that? It's impossible to track, and you can take measures to limit that, but then it's no longer free or open because you have to have a key. You can either lock it up completely tight or not at all.
BS: It's dumb not to wire the parks, though. It doesn't cost anything. And I've got a Web-surfing tan now.