OSI Model Layer 1 and 2, Freedom and Democracy

So let’s look at the first 2 layers of the OSI model.  These are the “Physical” layer and the “Data Link” layer.  These layers are separate and distinct, but in practical application they are usually part of the same implementation.

The physical layer (layer 1) is, as it implies, concerned with the physical elements of a connection.  Voltages, pin-outs, mechanical considerations, connectors, etc.  In the case of fiber optics, it deals with wavelengths and supported configurations such as single or multi mode.  Because it is physical, this layer tends to be focused on local networks or networks with fewer participants.

Because of the radically different technologies out there at the physical layer, there is not really a standard unit of data.  It can be very different depending on topology.

The IMP router
The very first router. While it technically includes layer 3 functions, this is the first device that let computers communicate at layer 1 and 2. (1969)

The Data Link layer (layer 2) defines the formats of data that will be communicated on top of layer 1.  How data is divided up into chunks, how things on a local network will be  addressed (such as MAC addresses), and how a system will know what chunk of data belongs to which device.  These are usually called “frames”.

For layer 1 and 2, most people will have used twisted pair ethernet or various forms of WiFi.  If you used a computer at work in the 80’s or 90’s, you may have used other forms of Ethernet or even Token Ring.  If you’re really fancy, you may have fiber ethernet coming to your house.

Whatever the case, the implication for freedom and democracy is interoperability.  Layer 1 and 2 ensure that your devices can talk to each other at the most basic level.

Ethernet Frame
An Ethernet Frame. When your coffeemaker talks about you to Alexa, this is the picture it uses.

Information is very important to freedom and democracy.  Indeed, it’s why the 1st amendment exists and has been upheld and bolstered as technology advances.  Being able to consume and produce information freely is vital to the concept of liberty.

We forget than not too long ago our television, our record player (or 8-track!), our camera, our phones, and anything else all lived in separate worlds.  You couldn’t listen to a podcast or stream a news channel across the platform of your choice.  Or, more importantly, you couldn’t make a podcast or vlog from the platform at all.

Layer 1 and layer 2 interoperability allows your phone to stream a video connection to loved ones.  It allows you to listen to a podcast.  If you don’t like the selection of news channels, you can download and view another in the local medium of your choice.

You could buy a bunch of cool stuff in 1989, but very few things talked to other things. Src: radioshackcatalogs.com

It makes it extremely easy for manufacturers to create cheap and reliable tech that allows all of this.  If one tries to make things too proprietary, other things wont’ work with it.

(Having said that, you can also see the creators  intent and values of layer 1 and 2 technology.  If you’ve ever setup an ethernet network or even a more modern WiFi network, it’s still a pretty localized technical process.)

Layers 1 and 2 are important because they are closest to us.  And the bring the concepts of electronic freedom into our living room.

The OSI Model, Freedom, Democracy, and Message

If you got this far past the title, you’re either a techie, or really bored, or both.  But I think it’s a really important juxtaposition in understanding the current state of things.

Marshall McLuhan coined the term “The medium is the message” in the 1960’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  I haven’t read this book yet, although I’ve ordered it.  I have watched a few of his interviews.

iphone is the message
There are many people who say that we’re just now catching up with McLuhan’s ideas.

McLuhan’s point was that the overall effect of a communication medium is far more important that the specific message conveyed.  The effect of television on humanity is for more important than a television show.  An example I can think of from my generation is that MTV’s effect on youth was not so much based on the content, but on the overall effect of television’s ability to capture the attention of people our age and change our thoughts and values.

This thought emerged from the primordial ooze of electronic communication in the 1960’s.  How profound is the message today?  Just look around at people staring at their phones, or the number of phones hoisted in the air during a concert.  Is what the people recording or reading nearly as important as the effect the smart phone has had on everyone?  I look forward to reading more of McLuhan’s work.

cell phone mona lisa
At the last minute, a 500 year journey from canvas to eyeball can be interrupted by another person’s attempt to capture a moment. The war of mediums.
Photo: Jill Evans

I have personally found this assertion directly observable in the creation of this blog.  Even after 2-3 blog entries I’m experiencing an increase in wonder and learning that I had back 20 years ago when the blog concept first manifested.  This form of electronic medium seems to have a positive effect on me, at least.

So to connect dots with McLuhan,  I am delving into my own related theory of tech with this blog: The intent of the creator, and values of the creator, have significant effect on the capabilities of a created technology.  And further, if we understand the intent and values of the people who created the technology we can apply this info in ways that help us fulfil our own goals.  This seems obvious but hopefully I’ll demonstrate that it isn’t always obvious.  (It’s probable that none of this is original thought.  I just haven’t found it illustrated anywhere else yet.)

USB was intended to improve interoperability of peripherals. The creators also wanted us to know we could fail a 50/50 chance 100% of the time.

The 3rd critical idea that enters this arena is the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model.    The OSI model is a conceptual model that helps design and explain interoperability between systems.  It is a good way of separating and identifying the technologies that are a part of nearly every aspect of our lives ‘these days’.

Because the OSI model describes 7 layers of communication medium, we can use it in concert with the prior concepts to start to figure out what happened, what’s currently going on, and where it can all lead.  We can do this at all 7 levels.  (And I’ll argue that there’s an 8th.)

Let’s squish all this together.  We can parse the building blocks of our electronic experience using the OSI model.  We can then use some of McLuhans ideas to analyze the effect of each of these aspects.  We can also look at the intent and values of the creation/creators to gain further insight into how the mediums can be implemented or re-implemented.

Maybe we can identify some of the negative things happening, and come up with ways to fix them.

How it Started. The Early Phases of the Internet and Freedom

From a conceptual standpoint, the Internet developed from the ground up starting in the early 1900s.  It started with theories of information and hard science (voltages, frequencies, and the like), that went really deep into math and science in ways that will give you tremendous respect for that $99 router at best buy.

Claude Shannon
One of the creators of information theory, Claude Shannon, explains why your neighbor’s microwave shouldn’t interrupt your Netflix stream. Photo: Nokia Bell Labs

The efforts then moved into methods of connectivity as the Cold War started in the 50’s and 60’s.  It was during this time that a middle layer of building blocks was created, which ensured robust connectivity and flexibility in the network.  After many different efforts and competing theories, the TCP/IP standard was implemented on January 1, 1983.

Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn
Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, creators of TCP/IP. And destroyers of the poorly dressed computer scientist archetype.
Photo: The Franklin Institute

When the Internet was opened to the public, the upper layers developed in earnest.  Some early protocols like SMTP (email) and FTP (file transfer) were updated and still exist.  Others, like Gopher, were replaced by HTTP and the now-ubiquitous World Wide Web in 1991.  Protocols that were easy and effective survived.  Others were updated or dropped.

NeXT First Web Server
The very first web server. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT server.

(Techies out there will see that this process was really about climbing the ladder of what is now called the OSI model.)

The takeaway here is that the Internet developed like this:

  • How can we make something that works using physics, electricity, and connectivity?
  • How can we arrange this thing so that it works well even when powerful entities don’t want it to work at all?
  • Now that everything is connected, how can we share information in a way that accessible and easy on a huge scale?

It was in this 3rd bullet point where things started to go really well.  As we shall see in subsequent posts, it was also where the seeds of censorship were sewn.

As the use of the Internet via the World Wide Web quickly (but also slowly) exploded, finding information was about to become an issue.   The Web was a library of documents with no organization and no index.  Think of a stack of 100 unlabeled books in a dark closet and all you have is a flashlight to find what you’re looking for.

The problem was so obvious that multiple entities began solving it in multiple ways when the web was but a flicker in a PhD’s desktop.

Jumpstation went live in 1993 when the total number of websites was less than 200.

Webcrawler, Lycos, and Excite followed in 1994.  When the total number  of sites grew to around 20,000.

Altavista and Yahoo started in ’95-’96 when the total number of sites was still well below 500,000.

An archive.org screenshot of Yahoo from 1996.
Yahoo was originally called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”.

Dogpile and AskJeeves started around ’96.  And, of course, the 1-Trillion-plus gorilla of Google started in 1998 at the dawn of the d0t-com era.  By then the number of web pages was well into the millions and tens of millions.

An undefinably large amount of work by brilliant individuals had created the ultimate information sharing tool.  In around 80 years, humanity had gone from theory on a page to an invention that had the potential to fundamentally change the direction of our history.

But it would also do so by subtly changing fundamentals and definitions that had been taken for granted for quite a while.  In making so many connections, we had created a very dynamic vessel for defining and changing what things mean.

This change could include the very intent of the invention and purpose for inventing it.




On a Return to Blogging

I was reading through my old blog archives the other day.  As I parsed through the slow slog of daily entries, I realized just how bad things have become over the last 10 or so years.  The internet used to be a positive place.  Full of interesting things and cool information.

Back then, it wasn’t about likes or re-tweets/shares/broadcasts.  It was just a fun way of putting some things out there that people might enjoy.  There was less concern about how many people were interested in what you said(although you knew a certain number were), and you really didn’t have all that much information on how many did anyway.

I’ve also looked at old social media archives from the 2010 era, and the realization was similar.

This used to be fun….

What in the world happened?

I know ‘blogging’ is dated and all this sure seems like a hackneyed good-ol-days rant.  But I think there’s more to it.

Let’s explore what happened.  And further, let’s NOT resolve to fixing it.  The internet is still an open and positive place if we’ll let it be.  But we can’t build on the things that took it awry.  We have to step back and look at the fundamentals.