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Netrunning – can it be salvaged?

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The Net in 2020

[Netrunning is probably the part of Cyberpunk 2020 which troubles the GM most. It’s neither very realistic, nor does it work fast. It also forces the GM to either focus on the netrunner OR on the rest of the party. James tries a more realistic approach, which might be more in tune with todays internet, but also requires a deeper technical understanding of the working of the internet.]

Author: James Lownie

This is a description of the basic features of the internet as it *may* function in 2020 (or any near future setting, see assumptions). It is intended as a framework upon which detailed rules can be built, and also as guide for players to understand how their characters will use the net, and what they can do on it. Comments and constructive criticism are eagerly awaited.

What is the Net and How is it Used?

Actually, this depends upon who you are and what you want to do with it. Different people have different ideas of what the net is, and because they use different programs they will use it in different ways.

Techs

When hackers and computer professionals use the net, they see the grid, a construct generated by their PC. As they use the net to navigate machines and perform maintenance (or attempt security breaches), they are interested in the nuts and bolts of the systems that they encounter, so they use a browser plugin called a gridreader to visualise the net. They interact by running programs on the remote computer and their own, executing commands and performing other operations. They can truly be said to “see” the net, as they get down amongst it’s plumbing.

Wage Slaves

Business users access the net transparently when they run their internet-enabled productivity applications, which share information and services amongst each other, and access remote databases. They don’t do much browsing and only use a few different applications. These applications perform the various tasks that are required for the day to day operations of any business. There is a lot of business traffic on the net, but it is largely invisible to regular users.

Surfers

People who seek information or entertainment still roam the net with a browser, but it’s capabilities are much greater than those available today. It is capable of revealing the immense VR construct known as netspace. They experience netspace as an alternate reality that they experience rather than a computer program that they use, and are barely aware they are using one. Netspace is stored on a series of servers across the world.

Design Assumptions

I list here the assumptions I made when developing this model:

  • The internet will be huge in terms of amount of content available, the number of users online, and the amount of activity on the net. Because of this it will be very dynamic, things will always be changing. It will be even more difficult to find things, and navigation issues will become even more important.
  • Since bandwidth continues increasing exponentially, it will be pretty close to infinite by then. This does not mean it will be free, someone still has to pay for it all, but access will be very cheap. Also I expect that significant portions of this bandwidth will be consumed by programs developed to exploit this situation (like video on demand, etc) and will use up a lot of this bandwidth, so the net will not be infinitely fast, either.
  • Distributed computing will catch on and a huge variety of devices will be connected to the net. Also almost all programs used on PCs will be internet enabled. This is of interest mainly to hackers, since there will be huge numbers of devices and services to attack, and will also make it easier for them to pretend to be something else (by using it’s IP address).
  • Neural Interface technology has been developed and refined to the point where immersive VR can be experienced using software running on any PC.
  • Parts of the net will be highly commercialised. By this I mean that there will be massive amounts of marketing activity going on, both advertising (which will be close to universal) and the gathering of data, most of it invisible to the user, ie, site usage info will be collected by everyone.
  • The Ihara-Grubb algorithms do not exist.

Personal Computing

In 2020 computers can be found anywhere. They are all networked, usually directly connected to the internet, and they have evolved in such a variety of forms that they are often unrecognisable as computers. Miniaturization technologies have progressed so that computing power can be built into almost any item. The shape and size of the computer is chosen for convenience to the user, rather than for technical reasons, and the desktop is no longer the dominant design.

Personal Digital Assistants

A whole range of devices have been developed that fulfilled the role of a portable PC, grouped together under the description of Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Basically, a PDA is a PC where a trade-off has been made between size and convenience, so they don’t have a bulky monitor and keyboard. All PDA’s have similar capabilities, and they are differentiated by their form, which is usually determined by the user interface devices installed.All PDA’s feature PC level processing power, a USB port (allowing unlimited connection with peripherals), and a built in fiber optic network connection. They all provide the following functions (limited by the user interface, ie, if there is no keyboard or voice recognition then any form of data entry is impractical).

Internet browsing
Electronic banking
Personal assistant, keeps track of contacts and appointments, provides calendar functions
Word processor, database, etc
Tetris and Nibbles.

IEC R-650 Cellular Phone (100eb)

The R-650 is so much more than a phone. Featuring the processing grunt of a Pentium 14 processor, it can run any software that will run on a PC. The primary interface is through a voice recognition and synthesis program, which will allow most tasks that can be performed on a keyboard. The 1.5″ display will allow limited representation of graphical information. The R-650 comes with a full suite of productivity software installed, and a wireless network connection.

Sanyo SmartShades (200eb)

Sanyo’s innovative SmartShades bring fashion and computing together! Featuring 2nd generation retinal projection technology the SmartShades allow the wearer to view their PDA’s output whilst going about their daily business, and no-one around them is the wiser. Featuring voice recognition input, and a detachable earphone that allows audio output.

HalTech Power Board (110eb)

For those who want a computer they can hold, the HalTech Power Board offers first class computing power on a 10″ by 12″ board just 1.2cm deep and weighing only 800 grams. It’s entire upper surface is a touch sensitive high res display, providing easy viewing. Voice recognition and projection are standard features.

Techtronica Black Box (50eb)

Yep, it’s a box. For those who need nothing more than a DNI terminal that can run a browser.

Peripherals

All PDA’s can use the following peripherals, which can be connected by cable or radio (add 50eb to the cost of the device for radio connection, range is 50 feet):

Flatscreen display (17″, 120eb)
Keyboard (15eb)
Printer (A-4 sized, 150eb)
Mouse (15eb)
Speakers (15w, 60eb)
Neural Interface Port (150eb)
GPS Enabling (100eb)
Wireless Network Connection (65eb)
3D Glasses (200eb)
These glasses come in a wide range of styles, and project an image into the eye of the wearer so that there appears to be a 1m square monitor screen floating 1 1/2 metres in front of them. They also feature a camera that can download images and video to the PDA. It can be switched on and off and adjusted through DNI, or from the computer. This item is a favourite of geeks everywhere.

Let’s Go Surfin’ Now

To gain access to the net a user needs two things, a connection and a computer. Connection is through fiber optic cables (which have been installed in all major urban areas), phone lines (for those places still in the dark ages, such as rural and remote areas), or wireless communications (which cover the entire planet by satellite). Wireless connection is much cheaper in urban areas where the infrastructure is cheaper to maintain, but is still much more expensive (and slower) than a cable connection.Any kind of computer can access the net, as long as it can run a browser it’s suitable. The computer can be equipped with either a terminal (a keyboard and monitor) or a cyberlink (which is the default). The majority of people use a browser through a cyber-link, however there are terminal browsers available. All computers are equipped with a fiber optic network connection, modems and wireless network connections can also be added.

There are a few different ways of getting an access account. If the user is willing to pay for access they can go to an ISP (of which there are a multitude for any geographic area) and open an account. This will be very cheap, unless you want extremely fast connections, or lots of server space.

Several companies offer free internet access (which is widely used), but capabilities are limited (usually to browsing and mail only), the user is forced to use the provider’s software, they are subject to a bombardment of advertising, and in using the service give away almost all of their privacy rights. These services can usually only be accessed from big cities.

Free internet access is also offered at libraries, but the services available there are slow, heavily overused, and will be restricted to library members only (ie, people with a SIN and a permanent address). Internet access is provided as part of the service at some trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and hotels, etc.

Jacking In

When the user connects to the net and fires up their browser they find themselves in the 3d environment known as netspace. They can appear anywhere they want at startup. Most users choose to start in a freespace domain, and find themselves in the middle of a virtual world. They have a new body in netspace (they can no longer feel or control their real body) called their ICON. They can look down and see their feet, move an arm, walk, and touch things. What their body looks like and what it can do depends upon the ICON’s programming.ICONs can be quite sophisticated. The stock standard ICONs that are included with most browsers offer a variety of human and humanoid figures, all capable of walking, grabbing things, etc. But VRML allows great flexibility in the construction of ICONS, they can fly, change shape, spin their heads through 360 degrees and disappear at will (they have no control over the environment beyond what is coded into it, however). The design of custom ICONs is an industry in itself, and it is a point of pride for expert users to create their own personalised ICON and not use a stock one.

Doing Stuff

In netspace movement is vector based and movement in any direction at any speed is allowed, however gravity is implemented (but is optional) in most systems, because most users need the plane of reference that it provides to orient themselves. The only restriction in place across all of netspace is that objects cannot be moved through by other objects (including ICONS) unless they have been customised to allow this.A user can “teleport” from place to place if their ICON has that behavior. Teleporting locations can be stored amongst the user’s bookmarks, providing quick access to sites they have been to. Locations are specified as netspace coordinates, which are relative to a domain or a particular system, so changes to a system’s location in freespace have no effect on teleporting. However changes to system netspace may result in object being placed in a location that a user tries to teleport to. The result of this varies as it is handled by the server, and different servers do things differently. Generally the user will end up somewhere near to their intended destination.

Note that teleporting does not bypass security restrictions.

The user interacts with netspace as they would the real world. They can move about, push and pull things, etc. What happens when they do depends entirely upon the programmed behaviour of the object they manipulate, and there is a huge range of objects that have been developed for different tasks. There are a few common commands that all ICONs can perform, and that all objects respond to, such as touch, push, pull, hit, etc. The response to the command can be visual, audio, tactile, haptile (force feedback) or olfactory, but these channels can be limited by the user if desired.

Freespace, Netspace and Domains

Free netspace (or freespace) is the part of netspace that isn’t controlled by any particular system owner, it is organised by groups of system operators that wish to establish some sort of a collective. To the user it appears much the same as any other system, except that there are less objects in it and user tracking is usually turned off. Freespace is divided up into areas called domains, each of which is administered by a particular group. Some are run by non-profit organisations, some by governments, some by corporations.

Users can cross between domains at will. They can also cross from freespace into system netspace. System netspace is the parts of netspace that are created and controlled by individual system owners. They generally run on a single server although composite distributed systems (appearing to the user to be a single system) can be created using the same mechanisms that are used to create domains.

Crossing Boundaries

Although netspace tries to appear as a real world, freespace and system netspace are separate zones, and many things happen when a user crosses between them. They are usually not aware of these things, except when the zones do not interface smoothly, ands strange effects occur (which can be quite disconcerting).When the user enters a system’s netspace their surroundings will suddenly change. They will no longer be able to see into freespace (although some systems have been modified to allow this) so they can no longer see any other systems, and they can now see that system’s netspace (and the other users that are in it). So some things will suddenly appear and others will disappear.

Crossing between domains is smoother. As the user approaches a boundary between domains they will reach a border zone (called a gateway) where they will be able to see a short way into both domains. Somewhere in that zone, the scenery of one domain will change into that of the other. Exactly how this is done depends upon the arrangements the domain administrators have made with each other, but typically there is some kind of merging. When the user leaves the border zone, they can only see into one domain.

In freespace a user’s line of sight is blocked only by boundary zones, and system icons. In system space it may not be blocked by the system’s boundary (but it usually is) and is otherwise only blocked by opaque system objects.

System Netspace

System netspace is where the fun is. It looks like whatever the system’s designer chooses, anything that can be designed in VRML is possible. Most people are comfortable in an environment similar to the real world, where they can easily orient themselves and there are no contradictions in dimensions. But it is possible (and not uncommon) to design structures that are bigger on the inside than they appear from the outside. Note that the layout of system netspace has nothing to do with it’s freespace icon, a system’s netspace is usually too big to fit inside it’s freespace icon and is a totally different shape.In system netspace, other users become visible, and most systems have some sort of chat software operational, allowing conversation. Most ICON’s have speech synthesis built in. Objects found in the system will include various resources put there for the public by the system owner, and non-functional architecture. Mostly the resources will consist of information in various media (text, video and sounds, VR models) but also common are games, services (such as online shopping applications) and databases. Architectural objects are there to reinforce the real world metaphor (or sometimes to completely destroy it, it depends on the system), and also to give some structure to it’s data, ie, by grouping similar resources together. Usually the hardest part of developing a site is designing it’s architecture.

A system can present different appearances to different people. For example, it is possible to create message boards that can only be seen by a selected group of users, to other people the wall will appear blank. It is also common to create areas where access is restricted to a selected group.

Private Netspace and Islands in the Net

Public netspace is accessible by everyone. There are private areas that require appropriate authorisation to enter, including restricted membership clubs and some commercial sites (typically porn sites). These are considered public netspace because with appropriate authorisation they can be accessed from anywhere on the internet.Private netspace refers to a netspace construct that can only be accessed >from the same subnet that the server is on. Access can be restricted either by configuring the network (and creating a firewall), or by physical means (such as not connecting the network with the internet). These are generally built by corporations, although some home users have found a need to build their own little kingdom.

Private corporate systems (intranets) are designed for functionality and not entertainment, so it will usually be less attractive. Depending upon the type of the company, it is likely that few employees use this area much, because for simple productivity applications a terminal is quicker and more cost-effective than a VR interface. However most companies will have at least some small construct in place, for virtual meetings and such.

The Enclave

This system is described as an example of how many domains and systems in netspace are structured..The Pacific Environmental Alliance (or the Enclave as it is commonly referred to, which was it’s old name) is a domain organised by Californian environmental activists. It consists of 17 sites run by various organisations that have concerns related to the environment, including the Californian branch of Greenpeace and a few different local conservation societies, and a Los Angeles alternative media outlet.

It’s freespace model is a valley about 200m by 300m. Cliffs close it on three sides and there is an ocean at the other. If the user walks or flies to the top of the valley, they will find themselves on a ridge back cliff that slopes down to the ocean that surrounds the island. The ocean and sky are infinite. There is quite a lot of detail in the hills around the valley, there are small caves, and animals living in the area. The system designer put a lot of effort into designing the domain.

The sites are widely spaced like a village on the floor of the valley. There are streets between them and a few lamp posts, and a town square in the middle of it where user tracking is turned on, and people can gather and chat. There is also a bulletin board where notices that are of general interest are posted.

There are numerous gateways, a few to other environmentalist and activism domains, one to the California State domain (run by the californian government), and one to the Capitol Hill domain (run by the American federal government). The gateways are in the form of tunnels leading into the mountain that come out in the linked domain. They are all sign posted, and users can touch the signs to get a commentary (written by a few of the domain’s members) about the domain linked to.

The freespace ICON of the Greenpeace California site is a white geodesic dome with the Greenpeace logo around the outside, and a sign above the door that will give more information about the site and it’s contents. The only way to enter is through the door. When the user enters they will find themselves in what appears to be the foyer of an open-plan building. There are plants all around and sign posted pathways amongst the various objects that can be found in the system. User tracking is turned on in this area, so there may be other users to be seen. The site’s administrator, Harry (who looks like an ordinary human male when he’s working, but he has a much more colourful ICON for after hours surfing) may be around, and will often approach visitors and offer assistance. There is a conference area at the back (which can be made private) where meetings of various groups are held. Sometimes there are open debates there.

There are several exhibits around the site, where people can get information on various environmental issues. Each exhibit consists of a few objects related to the exhibit (like little baby fur seals or a power station’s smoke stack) arranged around a pedestal topped with a crystal ball. There is a circle on the floor drawn around the entire exhibit, as a user steps into the circle they will hear a recorded commentary as an introduction to the exhibit. As they approach the pedestal they will be able to see images in the ball. If they touch the ball a silvered panel will expand from it and position itself in front of them.

The panel is a 3d window. It has knobs and controls on it that allow the user to move it around, resize it, have it’s text read aloud, etc. The controls can be removed from it so that the user can move away from it and still manipulate it. The panel can display text, videos, all kinds of information. It supports hyperlinks just like a browser. It is a standardised object that can be found on thousands of sites, and is freely available. In this case it will display information relating to the subject of the exhibit.

There are quite a few pedestals around the site. Some of the exhibits are interactive and feature 3d video footage. There are also some message boards displaying announcements and general information about Greenpeace California. There are many links to other sites, that allow users to instantly move between them and back again. The site was professionally designed and has been steadily added to, so that it contains quite a lot of information. It’s maintenance is a lot of work, and most of the site’s operating costs are Harry’s wages.

Netspace and the Web

Netspace is in many ways the successor to the world wide web. People use it for both business and pleasure, all sorts of information can be found on it, it is free but funded by the consumers. Apart from the attraction of netspace’s interface, it does offer one major advantage over the WWW and that is structure. It is now possible to integrate many sites so that they appear to the user to be one site, and group many sites together, in domains.The Web still exists, but netspace offers all it’s capabilities and more (and you can access the web from netspace, but not the reverse), so it is losing popularity. The main reason why some people still publish on the web and not in netspace is one of simplicity, it’s much easier to produce HTML than VRML.

It’s Lovely, But Why?

(the history of netspace)

Clearly creating netspace has taken a lot of trouble, a lot of money had to be spent on software and hardware development, a lot of people had to be won over for it to become an international system. How and why did all this happen?The development of the netspace construct was triggered by the development of direct interface. Suddenly it became possible to communicate with the computer directly, without bothering with a physical interface. But what is the best way to fully utilise this breakthrough? The most natural environment possible (and therefore the easiest and quickest to use) is one which is as close as possible to the real world. Thus the basic netspace construct (a VR “world” that the user is “inside”) was created as a framework for building applications to utilise the neural interface.

This basic construct was swiftly utilised for various purposes, and a range of VR applications were developed. Amongst them was a simple chat room program where the user simply moved around within an environment and conversed with the other users, and engaged in simple interactions with the surroundings. It was intended as an entertainment program, to demonstrate the capabilities of DNI, and was soon expanded into a MUD. Further games were soon developed.

Entertainment proved to be an extremely popular application of this technology. With infinite freedom to escape the restrictions of the real world VR became the ultimate escape mechanism. A slew of VR games were soon released and became extremely hot sellers. These games were almost all internet enabled, allowing global multiplayer sessions. Chat rooms became more popular and more complex, and people started adding other content to them to support activities other than chatting.

As the popularity of VR chat rooms skyrocketed, commercial chat rooms came into existence, supported by advertising or services they offered. The operators of these sites realised that the scale of the world was an important drawing factor, and that an easy way to increase size was to integrate their site with similar but non competing sites, similar to the concept of the web ring. To facilitate this the domain system and composite systems technology (allowing several sites to be connected so that they appear to be one site to the user) were developed. This was an important step in the new society that has been created, as it allowed the creation of associations between locations. In this way the complex ecology of the 2020 internet was brought into existence.

Behind the Scenes

This section contains a technical description of what goes on whilst the user browses a system, and how the net works. It is included to explain why the system appears the way it does to the user (why there are domains and freespace, etc.). It should also provide background material to describe how various hacking programs work, and constraints upon what they can do.

Communications

When the user connects to the net, their browser attempts to access their starting location. The starting location is stored in netspace coordinates, the browser gets an IP address for these by contacting the nearest public net server (the address of which is set when configuring the computer for the internet connection) and doing a DNS lookup. It then connects to that system.When the user connects to a system their browser identifies itself (including any password authentication) and attempts to download the system’s model. The system model includes all the information necessary to display the entire system (although the area visible to the user will be downloaded first, and the rest in the background while the user browses the system), and may download some applets too, depending upon the user’s preferences. If the system is actually a member of a composite system group (or a domain), it may direct them to connect to another server in that group, either because the other server is closer to the user or because that system is too heavily loaded.

Once the user has downloaded the model, if user tracking is turned on for that system, the browser will be in constant communication with the server, receiving updates on the locations and activities of all visible users, and downloading ICONs as new users move into view. This process is controlled by the server, it determines which users can see each other, and only sends updates to those machines, in order to prevent unnecessary transmissions. If it is too heavily loaded it may decrease the rate at which it sends updates, or make users invisible to each other. The user can request an increase or decrease in the rate at which updates are sent, however the server may ignore a request to increase transmission rate.

When the user attempts to manipulate an object in the system, if that object represents an applet it will be downloaded (if it hasn’t already) and executed. If it represents a resource, and the browser knows how to interpret it (eg, graphics, sound or text), it will connect to the system that the resource resides on (which may not be the one that it downloaded the model from), download it and process it. If the object represents a program residing on a remote system (not an applet), the browser sends a message to that system (which again may not be the one the model was downloaded from) describing the command that has been invoked, and waits for a response from that system.

While all this is going on the browser does it’s best to make it appear as if there is no network time lag, and will allow the user to move around as freely as possible whilst downloads are going on. The session should never freeze up due to network problems, the user will just be unable to access certain objects and areas.

Models and ICONs are cached by the browser, and will be kept until a newer version becomes available (the browser checks each time it encounters an object it has cached) or they are deleted by the user. Updates on the locations of other users are cached by the server so that they can be transmitted in packets of the most economical size. This means that there will be inconsistencies between the POV’s of different users. These should never become great enough to affect the usefulness of the system except in times of extreme load.

Distributed Systems

Freespace domains and composite systems are both organised the same way. They are distributed systems, whereby a single model is shared amongst all members of that group. Users can connect to any member of the group to download the model, thereby spreading the load amongst all the group’s members. Generally it is a condition of entry to the group to provide a server for this purpose.Usually all the members have a table of the addresses of all the other members of the group. When a user connects to the server it checks to see if there is another member closer to the user, and if there is one, will direct them to it. Sometimes a load balancing system is implemented whereby all the servers keep track of each other’s load levels, and direct clients to download from the least loaded server.

An update sent to any server in a domain (the addition or removal of a system, user movement updates) will be propagated to all servers in that domain. This means that not everyone shares the same model, and there will be occasional paradoxical events (systems appearing, etc) that have to be handled by the browser. These updates are usually cached by all systems involved, to improve efficiency.

As can be seen, the network traffic needed to maintain a distributed system increases geometrically with the number of members of that system. This is not so important for static systems like domains, but is very important for systems that have many users on them at once and are therefore sending out many updates. For this reason composite system groups are kept as small as possible and linked to other groups by gateways.

A gateway is a mechanism for allowing a user to move easily from one group to another, whilst appearing to remain in the one system. It is a zone where a user is temporarily present in both systems, and can see from one into the other. To implement a gateway the model has to be modified to include it, and the address of one of the members of the group being linked to has to be distributed to all members of that group that hosts the gateway. When a user enters the gateway, they download part of the next systems model from the system that they are in, and their browser is directed to a member of the new domain to download the full model.

Notes

[1] I don’t think that users will be displayed except on systems, because the bandwidth requirements would be massive, and there is little need for it. People will want to gather inside particular sites anyway. I think this feature could be turned off inside sites as well, also to conserve bandwidth and processing power, in which case there may be certain “chat rooms” where users do appear to each other.

[2] For purposes of speed and efficiency when a user connects to a site (by “entering” it’s icon the information needed to render the entire site will be downloaded, so the user can move wherever they want, “teleport” anywhere, view maps of it’s layout. However on sites where security is an issue (ie, on corporate sites and intranets) the user will have to pass a security check to be allowed to download certain sections.

[3] PDA’s are priced depending upon their interface, and size. Highly minituarised devices are more expensive.