There are mistakes and there are mistakes.
Some mistakes we learn from. For example: Thinking that selling toys for pets on the Web is a great way to get rich. We're not going to do that again.
Other mistakes we insist on making over and over. For example, thinking that:
When it comes to the Net, a lot of us suffer from Repetitive Mistake Syndrome. This is especially true for magazine and newspaper publishing, broadcasting, cable television, the record industry, the movie industry, and the telephone industry, to name just six.
Thanks to the enormous influence of those industries in Washington, Repetitive Mistake Syndrome also afflicts lawmakers, regulators and even the courts. Last year Internet radio, a promising new industry that threatened to give listeners choices far exceeding anything on the increasingly variety-less (and technologically stone-age) AM and FM bands, was shot in its cradle. Guns, ammo and the occasional "Yee-Haw!" were provided by the recording industry and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which embodies all the fears felt by Hollywood's alpha dinosaurs when they lobbied the Act through Congress in 1998.
The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,
John Gilmore famously said. And it's true. In the long run, Internet radio will
succeed. Instant messaging systems will interoperate. Dumb companies will get smart or die. Stupid laws will be killed or
replaced. But then, as John Maynard Keynes also famously said, ,
In the long run, we're all dead.
All we need to do is pay attention to what the Internet really is. It's not hard. The Net isn't rocket science. It isn't even 6th grade science fair, when you get right down to it. We can end the tragedy of Repetitive Mistake Syndrome in our lifetimes — and save a few trillion dollars' worth of dumb decisions — if we can just remember one simple fact: the Net is a world of ends. You're at one end, and everybody and everything else are at the other ends.
Sure, that's a feel-good statement about everyone having value on the Net, etc. But it's also the basic rock-solid fact about the Net's technical architecture. And the Internet's value is founded in its technical architecture.
Fortunately, the true nature of the Internet isn't hard to understand. In fact, just a fistful of statements stands between Repetitive Mistake Syndrome and Enlightenment...
The idea behind the Internet in the first place was to harness the awesome power of simplicity — as simple as gravity in the real world. Except instead of holding little rocks tight against the big round rock, the Internet was designed to hold smaller networks together, turning them into one big network.
The way to do that is to make it easy easy easy for the networks to send and receive data to and from one another. Thus, the Internet was designed to be the simplest conceivable way to get bits from any A to any B.
When we look at utility poles, we see networks as wires. And we see those wires as parts of systems: The phone system, the electric power system, the cable TV system.
When we listen to radio or watch TV, we're told during every break that networks are sources of programming being beamed through the air or through cables.
But the Internet is different. It isn't wiring. It isn't a system. And it isn't a source of programming.
The Internet is a way for all the things that call themselves networks to coexist and work together. It's an inter-network. Literally.
What makes the Net inter is the fact that it's just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.
This protocol doesn't specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here's how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.
The telephone system, which is not the Internet (at least not yet), is damn smart. It knows who's calling whom, where they're located, whether it's a voice or data call, how far the call reaches, how much the call costs, etc. And it provides services that only a phone network cares about: call waiting, caller ID, *69 and lots of other stuff that phone companies like to sell.
The Internet, on the other hand, is stupid. 1 On purpose. Its designers made sure the biggest, most inclusive network of them all was dumb as a box of rocks.
The Internet doesn't know lots of things a smart network like the phone system knows: Identities, permissions, priorities, etc. The Internet only knows one thing: this bunch of bits needs to move from one end of the Net to another.
There are technical reasons why stupidity is a good design. Stupid is sturdy. If a router fails, packets route around it, meaning that the Net stays up. Thanks to its stupidity, the Net welcomes new devices and people, so it grows quickly and in all directions. It's also easy for architects to incorporate Net access into all kinds of smart devices — camcorders, telephones, sprinkler systems — that live at the Net's ends.
That's because the most important reason Stupid is Good has less to do with technology and everything to do with value...
Sounds screwy, but it's true. If you optimize a network for one type of application, you de-optimize it for others. For example, if you let the network give priority to voice or video data on the grounds that they need to arrive faster, you are telling other applications that they will have to wait. And as soon as you do that, you have turned the Net from something simple for everybody into something complicated for just one purpose. It isn't the Internet anymore.
If the Internet were a smart network, its designers would have anticipated the importance of a good search engine and would have built searching into the network itself. But because its designers were smart, they made the Net too stupid for that. So searching is a service that can be built at one of the million ends of the Internet. Because people can offer any services they want from their end, search engines have competed, which means choice for users and astounding innovation.
Search engines are just an example. Because all the Internet does is throw bits from one end to another, innovators can build whatever they can imagine, counting on the Internet to move data for them. You don't have to get permission from the Internet's owner or systems administrator or the Vice President of Service Prioritization. You have an idea? Do it. And every time you do, the value of the Internet goes up.
The Internet has created a free market for innovation. That's the key to the Internet's value. By the same token...
If all of the Internet's value is at its edges, Internet connectivity itself wants to become a commodity. It should be allowed to do so.
There's good business in providing commodities, but every attempt to add value to the Internet itself must be resisted. To be specific: Those who provide Internet connectivity inevitably will want to provide content and services also because the connectivity itself will be too low-priced. By keeping the two functions separate, we will enable the market to set prices that will maximize access and to maximize content/service innovation. 2
When Craig Burton describes the Net's stupid architecture as a hollow sphere comprised entirely of ends3, he's painting a picture that gets at what's most remarkable about the Internet's architecture: Take the value out of the center and you enable an insane flowering of value among the connected end points. Because, of course, when every end is connected, each to each and each to all, the ends aren't endpoints at all.
And what do we ends do? Anything that can be done by anyone who wants to move bits around.
Notice the pride in our voice when we say "anything" and "anyone"? That comes directly from the Internet's simple, stupid technical architecture.
Because the Internet is an agreement, it doesn't belong to any one person or group. Not the incumbent companies that provide the backbone. Not the ISPs that provide our connections. Not the hosting companies that rent us servers. Not the industry associations that believe their existence is threatened by what the rest of us do on the Net. Not any government, no matter how sincerely it believes that it's just trying to keep its people secure and complacent.
To connect to the Internet is to agree to grow value on its edges. And then something really interesting happens. We are all connected equally. Distance doesn't matter. The obstacles fall away and for the first time the human need to connect can be realized without artificial barriers.
The Internet gives us the means to become a world of ends for the first time.
So, those are the facts about the Internet. See, we told you they were simple.
But what do they mean for our behavior ... and more importantly, the behavior of the mega-corps and governments that until now have acted as if the Internet were theirs?
Here are three basic rules of behavior that are tied directly to the factual nature of the Internet:
No one owns it.
Everyone can use it.
Anyone can improve it.
Let's look a little more closely at each...
It can't be owned, even by the companies whose "pipes" it passes through, because it is an agreement, not a thing. The Internet not only is in the public domain, it is a public domain.
And that's a good thing:
The Internet was built to include everyone on the planet.
True, only a tenth of the world — a mere 600,000,000+ people — currently connects to the Internet. So "can" in the phrase "Everybody can use it" is subject to the miserable inequities of fortune. But, if you're lucky enough to possess sufficient material wealth for a connection and a connective device, the network itself imposes no obstacles to participation. You don't need a system administrator to deign to let you participate. The Internet purposefully leaves permissions out of the system.
That's also why the Internet feels to so many of us like a natural resource. We have flocked to it as if it were a part of human nature just waiting to happen — just as speaking and writing now feel like a part of what it means to be human.
Anyone can make the Internet a better place to live, work and raise up kids. It takes a real blockhead with a will of iron to make it worse.
There are two ways to make it better. First, you can build a service on the edge of the Net that's available to anyone who wants. Make it free, make people pay for it, put out a tin cup, whatever.
Second, you can do something more important: enable a whole new set of end-of-Net services by coming up with a new agreement. That's how email was created. And newsgroups. And even the Web. The creators of these services didn't simply come up with end-based applications, and they sure didn't tinker with the Internet protocol itself. Instead, they came up with new protocols that use the Internet as it exists, the way the agreement about how to encode images on paper enabled fax machines to use telephone lines without requiring any changes to the phone system itself.
Remember, though, that if you come up with a new agreement, for it to generate value as quickly as the Internet itself did, it needs to be open, unowned, and for everyone. That's exactly why Instant Messaging has failed to achieve its potential: The leading IM systems of today — AOL's AIM and ICQ and Microsoft's MSN Messenger — are private territories that may run on the Net, but they are not part of the Net. When AOL and Microsoft decide they should run their IM systems using a stupid protocol that nobody owns and everybody can use, they will have improved the Net enormously. Until then, they're just being stupid, and not in the good sense.
Could it be because the three Internet virtues are the antithesis of how governments and businesses view the world?
Nobody owns it: Businesses are defined by what they own, as governments are defined by what they control.
Everybody can use it: In business, selling goods means transferring exclusive rights of use from the vendor to the buyer; in government, making laws means imposing restrictions on people.
Anybody can improve it: Business and government cherish authorized roles. It's the job of only certain people to do certain things, to make the right changes.
Business and government by their natures are predisposed to misunderstand the Internet's nature.
There's another reason the Internet hasn't done a great job explaining itself: The Big Money would prefer to keep telling us the Net is just slow TV.
The Internet has been too much like that other Walt who wrote in "Song of Myself": I do not trouble myself to be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize.
On the other hand, the Internet's elementary laws never figured people would build careers on not understanding them.
The companies whose value came from distributing content in ways the market no longer wants — can you hear us Recording Industry? — can stop thinking that bits are like really lightweight atoms. You are never going to prevent us from copying the bits we want. Instead, why not give us some reasons to prefer buying music from you? Hell, we might even help you sell your stuff if you asked us to.
The government types who have confused the value of the Internet with the value of its contents could realize that in tinkering with the Internet's core, they're actually driving down its value. In fact, they maybe could see that having a system that transports all bits equally, without government or industry censorship, is the single most powerful force for democracy and open markets in history.
The incumbent providers of networking services — Hint: It begins with "tele" and ends with "com" — could accept that the stupid network is going to swallow their smart network. They could bite the bullet now rather than running up hundreds of billions of dollars in costs delaying and fighting the inevitable.
The federal agency responsible for allocating spectrum might notice that the value of open spectrum is the same as the true value of the Internet.
Those who would censor ideas might realize that the Internet couldn't tell a good bit from a bad bit if it bit it on its naughty bits. Whatever censorship is going to occur will have to occur on the Net's ends — and it's not going to work very well.
Perhaps companies that think they can force us to listen to their messages — their banners, their interruptive graphic crawls over the pages we're trying to read — will realize that our ability to flit from site to site is built into the Web's architecture. They might as well just put up banners that say "Hi! We don't understand the Internet. Oh, and, by the way, we hate you."
Enough already. Let's stop banging our heads against the facts of the Internet life.
We have nothing to lose but our stupidity.
1. See End-to-End Arguments in System Design (J.H. Saltzer, D.P. Reed and D.D. Clark. Also see David Isenberg's Rise of the Stupid Network.
2. See The Paradox of the Best Network by Isenberg and Weinberger
3. Doc's interview with Craig Burton.