THINGS I'VE MADE ARE IN THE 'WORKS' SECTION.
THINGS MORE AKIN TO BLOGS, ARE IN THE 'BLOGS' SECTION.

When Dropbox launched (also, have a look here if you’re interested in 5 year old opinions) it quickly became a big success. Using the internet had already become ubiquitous, smartphones were on the rise, and the time was nigh to be able to transfer files without having to use a USB disk, or struggling to attach a file larger than 5 megabytes to an email, let alone the crazy prospect of using an FTP server or perhaps shared folders on a home computer network.

I remember I resisted using it for some time, being quite au fait with all those more cumbersome ways of transferring files, and having a web server available, I usually just uploaded whatever files I wanted to share to that and gave people the link. I didn’t trust Dropbox to be reliable, and I was frustrated at the relatively small amount of storage it offered for free.

Skip forwards to 2012 and I began my PhD studies at Lancaster University. Dropbox was part of the digital arsenal that everybody was using (also included Evernote, a Macbook, and reference manager of your choice) and I got swept up in it. At the same time the manufacturer of my smartphone had a tie-up with Dropbox offering me 30gb of free space and because I was a student they offered me another 10gb of free space. Hence one of my core objections was removed: Dropbox finally offered a good amount of storage for free.

Skip forwards again to 2015… I’m halfway through my PhD and I’ve come to rely on cloud-based storage a lot. I keep my entire Mendeley library inside Dropbox, so I can access any paper that I may have read or referenced from either laptop, my desktop, tablet, or smartphone. I also use the ‘Camera Upload’ feature in the Android app, meaning that all the image I take on my smartphone are immediately backed up (and also become accessible on my other devices) – this is a feature I use heavily. Similarly any screen shots that I take on my laptop are automatically stored in a Dropbox-connected folder. I frequently use Dropbox to work collaboratively on academic projects, whether it be as a means for sharing large files or just so there is a common and shared repository. I’ve even got a whole year’s worth of musical composition stored on there, along with the digital assets required for a Joe Galen performance. As it happens I took part in a study about how people use file systems on their computers, which used a piece of software to monitor how people used their files and folders. I remember going through the data with the researcher. He was quite taken aback that I basically only ever used Dropbox-connected folders on my laptop. Put it this way, I’m a heavy Dropbox user.

But now, I am abandoning this ever-so helpful piece of software.

Being honest, the catalyst for this is that the promotional free storage I have enjoyed is about to expire. I am about to lose 40gb (~80%) of the space I had. It isn’t the sole reason though, just the catalyst. Another reason is my increasing awareness of who has access to my data (in a kind of post-Snowden paranoia). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an internet libertarian, I am fully aware that by using Google’s services (let alone Facebook, Twitter, and so on) my data is being leveraged in ways I cannot comprehend. However, taking ownership of my files back seems like as good a place as any to start fighting back.

The main thing that galvanised my decision to stop relying so heavily on Dropbox’s brand of cloud storage is a viable, free, and excuse me if I find some kinds of software fanciable… but a sexy alternative. That’s BitTorrent Sync. When the BitTorrent protocol was new, I was similarly enamoured with that. It’s a beautiful idea. For those who don’t know, BitTorrent is just a way of sharing files. It’s a peer-to-peer protocol, meaning that when you download via BitTorrent you aren’t downloading from a single source or server. Rather you are connected to everybody else who either has, or wants to have whatever it is you’re downloading. I won’t go into detail, read up on it here if you’d like to (or watch the video below), but the effect is a resilient network, that offers very fast download speeds, and doesn’t rely on anybody keeping a central server running.

Note that… BitTorrent is often used for sharing pirated content. It is good at that… but it isn’t all bad. Saying that BitTorrent is ‘just’ about sharing files illegally would be paramount to saying that the internet is ‘just’ for watching pornography, or Bitcoin is ‘just’ for buying drugs – those opinions are shortsighted.

BitTorrent Sync uses the same protocol as BitTorrent, but has shifted the use case so that it can do exactly what cloud-storage does. Last night I installed BitTorrent Sync on two laptops, one desktop, my phone and a networked attached storage device. By this morning my entire 25gb of Dropbox data had been copied across each device. If I make a change on my laptop, it is echoed on the other machines within seconds. If I am at home it does all this via my home network. If I go out and connect via somebody else’s internet connection, or even via my 3G connection, then (by the magic of distributed hash tables and relay servers) the changes are still copied across all my devices quite efficiently. I get the same effect as if I was using traditional cloud storage, but this time the data really is in the cloud. There is no central server. I, and I alone, have a copy of my data. A nice side effect is that there are no storage limits, you’re only limited by how much space you have on your devices.

With a utopian hat on, I’d like to think that this is the direction of travel for many internet applications. More distribution. More ownership. Less centralisation. Quite apart from Bitcoin being a perfect example of this in its own right, my design fiction work on Bitcoin and ‘crypto heating’ often lead on to discussions out massively distributed data centres. It kind of makes sense that rather than putting vast arrays of servers in (rather vulnerable) data centres that we distribute this processing and storage task, taking advantage of the network that it serves, and each have a little piece of it in our homes, on our laptops, and in our pockets.

With a less utopian hat on, this does seem unlikely. The power dynamics of the internet are unequal. The majority of people (myself included!) don’t know that much about how it all really works and what really goes on, and we’re several steps behind the large internet corporations. Our ignorance is matched by our love and desire of neat technology, easy to access content, and seamless communication. Jaron Lanier writes about “siren servers” – beautiful yet dangerous corporate network hubs that we’re drawn toward in an almost zombie-like trance. Today’s sirens are the likes of Google, Twitter, Facebook… and, yes, Dropbox.

That became a bit of a rant. Ahem.

I think everybody should install torrent sync, not least so I can share files with you. It could be the sexiest software of 2015.



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