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Rob Flickenger

Tapping the alpha geek noosphere with EtherPEG

by Rob Flickenger
May. 15, 2002
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So there I was at ETech, sitting in the back of the Emergence discussion, listening to Rael Dornfest, Cory Doctorow, Clay Shirky, and other extraordinary blogging minds thought about the blogging world.

I was thoroughly enjoying the discussion, but I had to wonder, how were the other 200 people in the room reacting to the proceedings? Response seemed very favorable, but I did see quite a few faces staring down, with accompanying tell-tale key clicks buzzing about the room.

If only there were some way of getting into the collective stream-of-consciousness of the crowd, to gauge their actual reactions to what was really going on up on stage...

If you've never heard of EtherPEG, its a Mac hack that's been around for a while that combines all of the modern conveniences of a packet sniffer with the good old-fashioned friendliness of a graphics rendering library, to show you whatever GIFs and JPEGs are flying around on your network. It's sort of a real-time meta browser that dynamically builds a view of other people's browsers, built up as other people look around online.

The effect was staggering. As I expected, traffic was very light at the beginning (a couple of big news and blog sites were obvious, and strangely enough, the Microsoft Developer's Network.) But as the talk continued, some people were obviously letting their minds (and their fingers) wander...

Early traffic showed a very wandering bent.

I was impressed that when Tim O'Reilly stood up to ask about whether bloggers were building a city or living in their own ghetto, virtually all traffic stopped. Evidently, this was something that almost everybody in the room was interested in listening to. And once Tim sat down again, the pixels began to flow once more.

After a little while, the atmosphere took on a bit of a dark turn. Lots of images of law enforcement agency websites, some american flags with an angry eagle bursting through, and possibly darkest of all, a Britney Spears fan site. The theme continued as Clay Shirky was discussing "maps and non-player characters" and the downward gothic spiral expanded...

Further down the spiral

It became obvious that the crowd could be viewed as a living organism, with its own cycles of activity and rest. The chaotic effect of random images plastering themselves on my screen gave me a unique point of view-- it was a sort of mental feedback (much like audio feedback, even with the accompanying headache, only this headache was in some bizarre fourth dimension.)

The End

By the end, the dark forces had definitely descended. I was treading on some very dark back waters of the collective geek subconscious... Think Evil Dead and PDAs in Washington DC. I had definitely descended into a sort of techno hell, the sixth circle of hades, where the damned are only given t-shirts after they listen to a short marketing presentation.

EtherPEG isn't for the faint of heart, especially at a technical conference. The gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and inquired about how he could prevent me from watching his traffic... The technical answer is easy: run application layer encryption (ssh tunneling, vtun, ipsec, pptp) to a point outside of the wireless, and then your traffic will at least be protected from neighboring wireless eavesdroppers. But the philosophical answer is much simpler: I have stared at the sun, and for the sake of my sanity, will never again look directly at the consciousness of the online ueber-geek collective.

Unless I really want to...

Rob Flickenger is the O'Reilly Network's Systems Administrator

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