Most people who use the internet don’t appreciate how it came to be and what makes it so special. This post is a very very short history lesson that will give you a flavor of the past, and a taste of the future some of us want to create – it should take you about 20 minutes to get through it, but it is worth it and will likely change how you feel about the word "internet."
First, read this endearing account of an important piece of internet history by Steve Crocker for the New York Times and then come back to this blog.
The critical points are that the internet was designed to be open, was able to evolve, and welcomed participation. Steve Crocker told me “We had no idea when we started that this is where we’d end up.”
Here is an excerpt from a longer talk David Isenberg wrote, that describes what makes the internet we have today so special.
"The Internet derives its disruptive quality from a very special property: IT IS PUBLIC. The core of the Internet is a body of simple, public agreements, called RFCs, that specify the structure of the Internet Protocol packet. These public agreements don't need to be ratified or officially approved -- they just need to be widely adopted and used.
The Internet's component technologies -- routing, storage, transmission, etc.-- can be improved in private. But the Internet Protocol itself is hurt by private changes, because its very strength is its public-ness.
Because it is public, device makers, application makers, content providers and network providers can make stuff that works together. The result is completely unprecedented; instead of a special-purpose network -- with telephone wires on telephone poles that connect telephones to telephone
switches, or a cable network that connects TVs to content -- we have the Internet, a network that connects any application -- love letters, music lessons, credit card payments, doctor's appointments, fantasy games -- to any network: wired, wireless, twisted pair, coax, fiber, wi-fi, 3G, smoke signals, carrier pigeon, you name it. Automatically, no extra services needed. It just works.
This allows several emergent miracles.
First, the Internet grows naturally at its edges, without a master plan. Anybody can connect their own network, as long as the connection follows the public spec. Anybody with their own network can improve it -- in private if they wish, as long as they follow the public agreement that is the
Internet, the result grows the Internet.
Another miracle: The Internet let's us innovate without asking anybody's permission. Got an idea? Put it on the Internet, send it to your friends. Maybe they'll send it to their friends.
Another miracle: It's a market-discovery machine. Text messaging wasn't new in 1972. What surprised the Internet researchers was email's popularity. Today a band that plays Parisian cafe music can discover its audience in Japan and Louisiana and Rio.
It's worth summarizing. The miracles of the Internet :
any-app over any infrastructure,
growth without central planning,
innovation without permission,
and market discovery.
If the Internet Protocol lost its public nature, we'd risk
shutting these miracles off…
Like other great Americans on whose shoulders I stand, I have a dream. In my dream the Internet becomes so capable that I am able to be with you as intimately as I am right now without leaving my home in Connecticut.
In my dream the Internet becomes so good that we think of the people in Accra or Baghdad or Caracas much as we think of the people of Albuquerque, Boston and Chicago, as "us" not "them.".
In my dream, the climate change problem will be solved thanks to trillions of smart vehicles, heaters and air conditioners connected to the Internet to mediate real-time auctions for energy, carbon credits, and transportation facilities.
In my dream, we discover that one of the two billion who live on less than dollar a day is so smart as to be another Einstein, that another is so compassionate as to be another Gandhi, that another is so charismatic as to be another Mandella . . . and we will comment on their blog, subscribe to their flickr stream and follow their twitter tweets."
For visions about David’s nightmares, go read his full speech.
Following up on David’s words and dreams, read this piece written by another David (Weinberger) about my vision of how we can extend the internet’s promise and path, and bundle with technology investments this country is about to make, so that we can start to live the dreams David Isenberg so eloquently expressed.
If you want to understand what it means to talk about radio spectrum, and radio waves using compelling methaphors so that it might actually make sense for you (it did for me), read this beautifully written article by David Weinberger, about David Reed’s recommendation for management of radio waves. How could we as the public evaluate what the FCC does with the public airwaves?
If you are feeling particularly curious, and have a wee bit of nerd in you, I highly recommend this 1 hour talk by Van Jacobson about content-centric networking, which just might be the technical side of the future that I've just glossed over.