Interstellar Nets

A long-range network sync array on the Interloper, Elora's most distant asteroid moon.

So here's a story. Once upon a time there was something called the Internet. You may understand it as an Earth-wide digital network that linked billions of users and connected computers together for the last part of the industrial era. The Internet was staggeringly complex and remains arguably unsurpassed in scope and scale (remember that, at that time, Earth demographics were at an all-time high and by 2070 the planet had more inhabitants than the entirety of present-day human space). It was so complex, actually, that six hundred years and a Low Age later, its shadow keeps looming over our digital infrastructure. Some of the Internet's elements and design principles were straight-up reused in modern networks, while a few of our modern artificial intelligences coalesced out of Internet remnants.

Modern networks, however, are fractured. They are born of the Low Age and bear the mark of an uncertain, energy-limited time period. An industrial-era time traveller would find our digital infrastructure arcane, impenetrable even. First because a large part of modern shared network are asynchronous. As the geometry drive does not allow for instant FTL communication, exchanges of information between distant star systems occur at the pace of messenger ships, or net-engines. These small, nimble vessels (often cargo conversions of Inyanga or Simurgh frames) are loaded to the brim with hard drives and fly on regular patterns, only stopping for repairs and refuelling. When they approach a planet, they are pinged by orbital platforms that beam data towards them. These platforms are in turn fed data by automated collecting algorithms that sweep planetary networks to create an archive-snapshot of current sites and repositories. These network images are then carried to other worlds and uploaded using the same system. In average, the "refresh time" of the interstellar net is about one month between Communal Space and the Traverse, while more distant worlds may have to wait for several years to get a snapshot and vice versa. In that regard, the interstellar net is much more comparable to early 19th century communications than the industrial Internet. Planetary networks work in isolation, with regular updates as to the activity of extraplanetary networks arriving in waves with messenger ships. It goes without saying that the physical infrastructure that allows planets to rapidly upload petabytes of data to messenger ships are critical. It is not rare for attacks to focus on the beaming arrays, either through hacking or more direct, unconventional means -- exotic adversarial attacks based on interference with the laser lenses causing false packets of data to be sent are not unheard of!

Planetary networks themselves are rarely unified. The local fragmentation of power between communes, cooperatives and syndicates tends to create a wide variety of standards, infrastructure and file formats, even in relatively unified spaces like Terran networks under the aegis of the USRE or Laniakea. Sifting through this increasingly complex weave of isolated social networks, incompatible websites and different codebases requires dedicated software or quasi-AI assistants. There is a constant back and forth between insularity and the unified force of open source endeavours, of which the Biblioteca operating system is a great example. On large planets such as the Earth or Elora, this dynamic is slowly starting to favour unified networks, while the opposite is true on politically scattered worlds such as Smyrnia-Silesia.

The two aforementioned aspects mean that interstellar networks are more similar to the early than late Internet. Social media mostly exists under the shape of forums and boards, that suffer less from asynchronous data transfer than more immediate communication structures, and the most popular massively multiplayer games are real-time space sims where travel times are measured in weeks, even months. 

Our industrial-era time traveller would also be surprised by the extent to which modern digital networks rely on physical media. While hands-free interfaces using augmented reality contact lenses or glasses are very common, modern humans are historically wary of wireless transmission. Though this is mostly a cultural artefact from the Low Age, there are a few good reasons to prefer wired connections and hard drives over cloud storage and wireless exchanges. On politically chaotic worlds, the wireless environments of densely populated areas are packed with data snoopers, self-sustaining viruses and a variety of logic bombs that make confidential wired data transfer vastly more reliable. Furthermore, many planets are subject to geomagnetic conditions that make wireless and cloud storage unreliable -- even on Elora, powerful magnetic storms can knock down worldwide networks several hours or days at a time. Thus, it is not surprising to see people relying on hard drives, flash storage keys and even the odd cassette tapes -- those are very resilient and, while slower than other kinds of storage, can carry massive amounts of data.

Illustration by Jaime Guerrero for Eclipse Phase, distributed by Posthuman Studios under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-alike 3.0 Unported License.

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