Thursday, September 24, 2015

Am I a Seeder or a Leecher?

Sometimes, small things, incidents or discussions in your daily routine can take on a bigger and more profound dimension. Call them one of those "Aha" moments when you re-think or deep-dive into a lot of the things you'd never really thought about before and you introspect upon your actions to come to a small (or big) epiphany. Such a thing happened (and is still happening of course) to me recently when I was discussing something as mundane as downloading torrents. I was having this discussion with a colleague (as crazy and off the rocker as me) about the technology of peer-to-peer file sharing using the torrent protocol. We were talking download speeds, share ratios and how good a download rate one would get if a particular torrent had a good share ratio.  For the benefit of people who don't use torrents, here's a bit of a primer on the concept being discussed (and for my own convenience, I'm going to use a lot of wiki here)

What is a torrent?A torrent (or a BitTorrent as the original terminology goes) is a protocol for the practice of file sharing that is used to distribute large amounts of data over the internet. BitTorrent is one of the most common protocols for transferring large files, and peer-to-peer networks have been estimated to collectively account for approximately 43% to 70% of all Internet traffic (depending on geographical location) as of February 2009. In November 2004, BitTorrent was responsible for 35% of all Internet traffic. As of February 2013, BitTorrent was responsible for 3.35% of all worldwide bandwidth, more than half of the 6% of total bandwidth dedicated to file sharing. Well, all good so far. But the next question is -
How does it work? To send or receive files the user must have a torrent client; a computer program that implements the BitTorrent protocol. Some popular BitTorrent clients include uTorrent, Xunlei, Transmission, Vuze or the official BitTorrent. A user must also have enough hard disk space to save whatever is being downloaded or uploaded and a working internet connection. A typical user downloads the software (let's say uTorrent), installs it on his hard drive and is then ready to download stuff off the internet. All he or she then has to do is search for what they're downloading, find a torrent, download the torrent file (it's a small file which has a .torrent extension) from a million torrent search engines like torrentz.com, open this torrent file using aforementioned uTorrent and they're good to go! Here's a small infographic that explains the principle behind this -


The colorful dots beneath each computer in the animation represent different parts of the file being shared. By the time a copy to a destination computer of each of those parts completes, a copy to another destination computer of that part (or other parts) is already taking place between users. The tracker (server) provides only a single copy of the file, and all the users clone its parts from one another.

The dynamics of a good download - Now comes the interesting part. People who download a lot of stuff from torrents know that the higher the number of seeders, the faster one can download stuff. If leechers outnumber seeders, the download rate goes down. We know this. We consciously select torrents with a high number of seeders and ignore or are wary of any torrent that has a higher number of leechers. But why is that?

A seed refers to a machine possessing some part of the data. A peer or downloader becomes a seed when it starts uploading the already downloaded content for other peers to download from. This includes any peer possessing 100% of the data. When a downloader starts uploading content, the peer becomes a seed. On the other hand, leechers are just downloading content. Basically, a peer or any client that does not have 100% of the data. The term leech also refers to a peer(s) that has a negative effect on the swarm by having a very poor share ratio, downloading much more than they upload. To put it in a nutshell, peers can either be seeders or leechers. Seeders are good, leechers are bad. 

Now comes the interesting part of our discussion. Both of us agreed that as end-users of this technology we're more leechers than seeders. In this cut-throat world of limited bandwidth where every kilobyte is paid for, we can't afford to seed! Or can we? Then we started generalizing the concept of peer-to-peer sharing - and that's where the first phase of our "epiphany" (for lack of a better word) hit us. Am I a seeder or a leecher? Do I just download stuff or do I give back content to the community when I'm done downloading?

Phase 1 of this epiphany is the digital world. Take the example of something as mundane as the Google Play Store. We all download apps and use them. Before downloading, we check the rating. Anything above 4 is good. We then check user comments and reviews. If most users are satisfied with the app, we download the app and forget about Play Store till we need another app. Classic leecher behaviour. On the other hand, the seeders amongst us use apps, rate them and the best of us review them with helpful comments. That way, the community gets more information about the app. What would happen if Play Store ratings remained blank? What would happen if there were no reviews? We'd have to go by the app developer's word for what a product is and can be. And boy, do we know how reliable that is! Take the example of a million other such communities. The Zomato community, the Maps community, the Goodreads community, the Facebook community, the Google users community and to scale up all these communities; the digital community at large. This world is built upon seeders. Those who share rather than hoard. Those who help rather than leech. And our small epiphany that day was to begin our transformation from being a seeder to a leecher in the digital world. By the end of this month, I plan to review (rate at the very least) each app I use. A more mid-term resolution is to participate more in the communities I'm a part of. Comment on a news article, write more on topics of general interest, edit Wikipedia entries when I know better, suggest feedback on apps I use, edit incorrect maps to suggest improvements and be a more active user. 

And then followed the larger realization of carrying this same principles forward into the physical world. Am I a seeder or am I a leecher? Do I just expect help from others but not help in return? Do I expect civic sense from others but can't exhibit it myself? Do I take or do I share? Do I hoard information just for personal betterment or do I share it freely with others? That is the question. As a human being, am I a seeder or am I a leecher?

Phase 2 is real life. Here the epiphany takes on bigger and more disturbing dimensions. Every resource is finite. Fuel, water, food, land; even knowledge and information. We can either take from the common pool, we can share with the common pool or we can add to the common pool. For every resource in our life, we can either seed or leech. 

Take the example of Turing Pharma that's currently in the news. Daraprim is a standard drug that is prescribed to AIDS patients to tackle a specific parasitic infection. It's been around for 60-odd years and has been priced (as of 2015) at USD 13.50 a tablet. Turing Pharma (a start-up that's been managed by an ex fund manager named Martin Shkreli) acquired the rights to this medicine sometime in September (this month). Overnight, the company jacked up the retail price to USD 750 per tablet! That's a 5455% increase . . overnight! Classic leecher behaviour. It's not enough to earn profits. Turing wants to cash in on a necessity and take advantage of it. Earning profits isn't bad at all. You can earn profits and still help people. That's seeding. But what Turing Pharma has done is the typical behaviour of a leecher. They want to take money from the community (leech) without giving anything back. They want exorbitant profits out of a necessity. Classic leeches. 

Unfortunately, I'm a leecher most of the time. Most of us are. We expect but not give. We want bigger houses for ourselves and our families, we want bigger cars, more money, a better lifestyle for ourselves and for our near and dear ones. Classic leecher behaviour. On the other hand, the seeders amongst us make sure that resources are shared with others, and the best amongst us go out of their way to ensure that inequity is corrected in the distribution of resources in their own spheres of influence. Take the example of a mundane resource like knowledge. What would happen if there were no teachers (the best seeders of all). Where would we be? We would have to learn for ourselves from books and the internet. But if there were no seeders, would books be written? If there were no seeders of knowledge, would there be self-learning tools on the internet? A horrible scenario isn’t it? We can pick a resource at will and find seeders and leechers amongst the users of that resource. Money, land, water, food, knowledge, influence, power . . you name it and you’ll find seeders and leechers for all of these. 

And that brings me to the question that faces each one of us in our lives. The question that should form the basis of all our interactions with other people. The question that we should keep foremost in our mind when deciding on a course of action that has an impact on people around us. The question that shall define our psyche as a culture, as a community, as a nation and as a specie . . . Am I a seeder or a leecher?