A friend asked me what I thought about Doc Searls’ latest essay on the evolution of the Internet and as I happened to be reading it already, I’ve written a few disjointed notes. The short version of my reaction is that it’s sad that everybody with an axe to grind about technology, politics, or business these days seems to think that the Internet has an immutable, Platonic form that’s somehow mystically responsible for all that’s good in the technology business for the past twenty years, and any alteration of this form will screw it up. According to this way of thinking, stuff like Napster that exists solely for the purpose of illegal activity is good (even though new), but DRM (which isn’t really a Net deal anyhow) would be inscrutably bad.
This is sort of a “natural law” argument that’s supposed to persuade business and government to turn a blind eye to abuses of the Net, leaving its regulation to self-appointed do-gooders free of commercial interest. It’s a flawed argument that ignores the fact that the Internet is actually a tool and not a spiritual essence from a higher reality, which like all tools adapts to human needs or is discarded. The strongest proponent of this view is Larry Lessig, whose book “The Future of Ideas” I’ve just read, and the others who argue this line (Searls, Weinberger, Gillmor) take their lead from him. I’ll write a review of Lessig’s book in the next few days, and it’s not going to be pretty. But back to Searls, and the theory of immaculate conception:
The Internet is not simply a network, it’s a means of interconnecting networks. It won out over competing technologies because it was heavily subsidized by the government and more simple than the alternative, the ISO/OSI protocol suite. OSI was a complicated set of international standards devised by committees with membership as diverse as the UN but in some ways even less rational. It contains a myriad of options, many non-usable, and is hard to understand, let alone to implement. In the heyday of OSI, we had a series of “OSI Implementors’ Workshops” to hash out subsets of the protocols to implement for purposes of demonstration, and even that was very painful. Internet protocols weren’t designed by committees, but by individuals paid by ARPA to keep things simple. OSI was intended to take the place of proprietary protocols from IBM, Xerox, and DEC, providing end-to-end applications, whereas the Internet was simply intended to interconnect diverse networks with a basic level of end-to-end capability.
Make a side-by-side comparison of any early Internet protocol with the competing ISO candidate and you see that the Internet offering can be implemented in tinier memory and fewer CPU cycles and with less man-hours of programming effort than the alternative. As if that weren’t enough to ensure victory, the government paid contractors to write reference implementations of Internet protocols and then gave them away for free.
Continue reading “Symmetry, Control, and Progress”