Monday, 5 December 2011

The Internet

In this exclusive interview we talk to Dr. Vint Cerf (Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet"). We discuss the growth of the Internet, together with its role in human culture and society. We then look at the state of the Internet now, and what to expect from the future of this profoundly important technology.

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Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, December 2011

There are many reasons for the astonishing success of our species, but our ability to co-operate is surely one of the most profound. The phenomenon of co-operation is, itself, the manifestation of a gamut of intellectual-technologies (which Nicholas Carr, in his 2011 book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains" describes as being those we use to think with, to find information, gather information, exchange information and so forth). “Intellectual technologies…” explains Carr, “...have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others…

For the majority of human history, such technologies (language, writing and so on) were contained within a small group of the population comprised of the political and social elite, religious figures, scientists, philosophers to name a few. Things remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years but “The last century…” observed Lewis Mumford (in his 1966 essay, ‘Knowledge Among Men) “… has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical sciences upon technology… In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will not only have conquered nature but detached himself completely from the organic habitat.

The past half-century has been an astounding period of cognitive enlightenment where innovation after innovation added new dimensions to the human experience (across all social and intellectual dimensions). Of these innovations, it has been the technologies of mass-communication that have been the most dramatic in their influence. Carr quotes from Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work ‘Understanding Media’ describing how these advances, “…were breaking the tyranny of text over our thoughts and senses. Our isolated fragmented selves, locked for centuries in the private reading of printed pages, were becoming whole again, merging into the global equivalent of a tribal village. We were approaching the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” These technologies of mass-communication have unified with the Internet- an anarchic network of interconnected devices which now links over 2.1billion people (30% of the world population) . Carr describes how the Internet is ‘subsuming’ most of our other intellectual technologies, “…it’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV.” Even the very essence of ‘who’ we are is changing.

… Electronic systems change not only what we know, but how we know it (Posner, 1990). With the steady expansion of cyberspace, the Enlightenment notion of the human subject-unified, consistent, and non-contradictory-is being increasingly replaced by ‘Netizens’, who may occupy numerous, even contradictory social positions and inhabit multiple, overlapping communities simultaneously. Foucault (1986, 22) put it well: ‘We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed…’” (Counterhegemonic Discourses and the Internet’, Barney Warf and John Grime, 1997). So what will be the impact of the Internet on our civilisation?

In this exclusive interview we talk to Dr. Vint Cerf (Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet"). We discuss the growth of the Internet, together with its role in human culture and society. We then look at the state of the Internet now, and what to expect from the future of this profoundly important technology.

Vinton G. Cerf has served as vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google since October 2005 and was previously senior vice president of Technology Strategy for MCI. Prior to rejoining MCI in 1994, Cerf was vice president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). As vice president of MCI Digital Information Services from 1982-1986, he led the engineering of MCI Mail, the first commercial email service to be connected to the Internet.

Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet (During his tenure from 1976-1982 with the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Cerf played a key role leading the development of Internet and Internet-related packet data and security technologies). In December 1997, President Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his colleague, Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet. Kahn and Cerf were named the recipients of the ACM Alan M. Turing award in 2004 for their work on the Internet protocols. In November 2005, President George Bush awarded Cerf and Kahn the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work. The medal is the highest civilian award given by the United States to its citizens. In April 2008, Cerf and Kahn received the prestigious Japan Prize.

Vint Cerf served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000-2007. Cerf also served as founding president of the Internet Society from 1992-1995 and in 1999 served a term as chairman of the Board. In addition, Cerf is honorary chairman of the IPv6 Forum, dedicated to raising awareness and speeding introduction of the new Internet protocol. Cerf served as a member of the U.S. Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) from 1997 to 2001 and serves on several national, state and industry committees focused on cyber-security. Cerf sits on the Board of Directors for the Endowment for Excellence in Education, the Broadband for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Corporation, StopBadWare, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel governing board (2009-2011) and the Intaba Institute (for the Deaf). He serves on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director's Advisory Committee and is a distinguished visiting scientist (it is in this latter role where he is working on the design of an interplanetary Internet) and serves as Chair of the Visitors Committee on Advanced Technology of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. He also serves as 1st Vice President and Treasurer of the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

Cerf is a recipient of numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the Internet. These include the Marconi Fellowship, Charles Stark Draper award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Prince of Asturias award for science and technology, the National Medal of Science from Tunisia, the St. Cyril and St. Methodius Order (Grand Cross) of Bulgaria, the Alexander Graham Bell Award presented by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, the NEC Computer and Communications Prize, the Silver Medal of the International Telecommunications Union, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the IEEE Koji Kobayashi Award, the ACM Software and Systems Award, the ACM SIGCOMM Award, the Computer and Communications Industries Association Industry Legend Award, installation in the Inventors Hall of Fame, the Yuri Rubinsky Web Award, the Kilby Award , the Rotary Club International Paul P. Harris Medal, the Joseph Priestley Award from Dickinson College, the Yankee Group/Interop/Network World Lifetime Achievement Award, the George R. Stibitz Award, the Werner Wolter Award, the Andrew Saks Engineering Award, the IEEE Third Millennium Medal, the Computerworld / Smithsonian Leadership Award, the J.D. Edwards Leadership Award for Collaboration, World Institute on Disability Annual award and the Library of Congress Bicentennial Living Legend medal.

Cerf was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2006. He was made an Eminent Member of the IEEE Eta Kappa Nu (HKN) honor society of the IEEE in 2009. In February 2011 he was named a Stanford Engineering School "Hero" for his work on the Internet.

Cerf holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Stanford University and Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from UCLA. He also holds honorary Doctorate degrees from twenty internationally respected universities.

Q: ‘What’ is the Internet and why did it grow so fast?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] The 'Internet' arose in response to a problem the defence department was trying to solve. We were looking at the possibility of using computers for command and control and the theory was that if you could use a programmed computer, or a collection of computers, to manage military resources- you may enable a smaller force to overcome a bigger one (the force multiplier). The first experiment was called the 'ARPANET'. This was a packet switching experiment. The second experiment was called 'The Internetting' project, started by Bob Kahn when he was the American Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). That project basically said, "...If I can put computers in places that the military uses they'll have to work in aircraft, ships at sea, mobile devices, mobile vehicles as well as fixed land installations...." This meant you had to use satellite and radio technology in addition to fixed circuits to build the networks- and then find some way to interconnect them so the computers on any one of the networks could communicate with any other. That was the TCP/IP design, which was originally done in 1973, published in 1974 and elaborated over a period of several years- finally being implemented operationally January 1st 1983.

The reason the Internet grew so quickly is that it happened to come at a time when workstations were becoming increasingly popular. Ethernets had been around since 1973 and were also very widely available. The research community was enthusiastic about having computer resources closer to the users as opposed to the big time-shared mainframes of the day. During this same period of time, specifications for the TCP/IP protocols were widely and openly available without any intellectual property restrictions on their use. They gained a great deal credibility… because they worked! (Compared to the OSI initiative which was mainly paper, and even though it was initiated by the international standards organisation and apparently endorsed by a large number of countries including the US, it simply did not have the experience in the field). During that period of time from '83 onward, especially after '88- we saw serious commercialisation. We saw routers commercialised around 1986- by Cisco systems and their peers- which made them highly accessible and useful to not only the academic community, but also the private sector. Networking services, which had the province of governments primarily, became commercially accessible- at least in the US- around 1989. That unleashed a substantial demand because people were very interested in using computers for all kinds of things!

There are two things to observe. Firstly, the rate at which the Internet grew... the numbers of computers, users and pieces of equipment on the system doubled every year starting in 1988 for quite a while. Secondly, In 1991 or so, Tim Berners Lee released his "World Wide Web" design which sat on top of the internet and made it even more useful. This became commercially visible in the form of Netscape Communications in around 1994 and as soon as that company went public- the 'dot boom' was triggered, and everybody wanted to invest in the Internet. Fast-forward to April 2000, and this all fell apart- investments were made without sensible business models. People were throwing money around hoping to have another big success like Netscape Communications.... The 'dot bust' happened, which persisted for around five years, but even during that period of time- the Internet continued to grow. Perhaps not doubling every year, but certainly increasing at least 40% per year- as there was still a latent demand for that capability.

Q: How has the Internet changed our relationship with information?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] Humans have always had a relationship with information, and it's always been important to our society and culture. Even if you were a cave man, if you didn't know that a sabre-toothed tiger was dangerous you wouldn't live long enough to affect the gene pool! ...Knowledge was always important, it just got more and more important as society developed. The internet is simply the latest in a series of information sharing capabilities which started with writing and came through major milestones like the Gutenberg press and other mass-media like newspapers, television, radio and so on. It has the interesting property that it permits interactive use, whereas most mass-media mechanisms are one-way through publishing, broadcast television, radio and so on. Internet, on the other hand, allows for two-way and group interaction.

The Internet created an avenue for group communication that hadn't existed before. We could see it very early. Not long after ARPANET's 'email' was invented in around 1971-72, we started to see distribution lists emerge which had very clear social elements to them. In addition to being used for project management and sharing of technical information, they were also used for comments on science fiction stories, observations about restaurants and so on. It was very clear there was a social-element to even very early email! This was expanded over time until we now have these very elaborate systems we label 'social networking’. These ideas have, though, been around for quite a long time. Online chatting, for example, was quite readily in-use way back in the early 1970's. You could meet someone in a time-sharing system somewhere and type at each other, or a group could be typing- and everyone in the group could see. Many of the ideas that people think are 'brand new' to the internet are actually old, but have been incarnated at higher speeds and in different modalities such as audio, video and so on.

Q: What has been the impact of the Internet on the world's economic and political landscape?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] It's plain that politics is all about communication- so we've seen huge amplifying effects that the Internet and web permit. The Arab Spring is a fairly dramatic example of that, but the Obama campaign during 2008 also demonstrated how strongly one could use the Internet and related technologies in order to organise people. Alongside that immediate and obvious observation, but perhaps even more importantly from the standpoint of human progress, the exchange of scientific and technical information has been dramatically improved by having the ability to share data in substantial quantities and to analyse it. Certainly, Google's efforts to scan books and supply technical information through Google Scholar are just two small examples of the ways that information sharing has been possible. The World Wide Web, with all of its pages, blogs and so on- has allowed human expression in ways that would have been uneconomic and out of reach before. The most dramatic effect has been this ability for almost anyone to express himself or herself whenever they want to- and potentially be heard by many others.

Q: Do you feel the Internet has made the world more 'democratic'?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] I think it [the Internet] has the potential to make a more democratic society, but it's pretty clear that governments- now that they've figured out it's a two way medium- are also trying to control it and use it as an avenue for either disinformation or for inhibiting people from finding information out- the Chinese being the classic example, although they are not alone. Many countries are feeling threatened by the ability of people to exchange information freely over the net. You also have the intellectual property community who have gone bonkers in my opinion. Once technology allows information to be digitised, it's very easy to duplicate and distribute. Rather than understanding that, and trying to leverage it- we have the intellectual property community lobbying to produce really terrible pieces of legislations (like the ones in the US).

The Internet Today

Q: What has been the impact of mobile technologies on the Internet?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] In the case of mobiles, two important things to keep in mind are that ‘the mobile’ started out as a telephone, and then- as we emerged into the smart-phone environment (where you could run programmes on the device)- they became mobile computers. When the mobile became capable of reaching applications on the Internet, its functionality and power increased dramatically as you were no longer confined to the computing power of your handset. Twitter, for example, wouldn't work if it were purely mobile based- or at least wouldn't work as well…. The mobile, in this context, activates something on some server on the net which then cascades to hundreds and thousands of mobiles elsewhere... it's this enabling of access to the internet which has created such a dramatic impact. The fact that you can build applications which can run on the mobile, and interact with the net, gives a mutual re-enforcement and once you start internet enabling other things… like office and home appliances, sensor systems, control systems- even to the extent of internet enabling light-bulbs... you suddenly have an opportunity to apply computing on the network to these distributed devices (that can be reached by means of the internet).

It also creates opportunities for third parties to offer managed services by building platforms that run on the internet, but which can interact with these internet enabled devices. I'm anticipating a very dramatic evolution over the next decade, especially in the US with the advent of the smart-grid, and comparable technologies elsewhere in the world.

Q: What are the greatest challenges facing the Internet in its current form?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] Security on the net is unsatisfactory right now. We need to have much better tools to control access. We have to improve people's sense of confidence and safety when they're on the net, so the existence of viruses, hackers, worms and botnets and so on are all things we have to do something about. Some of the things we can do are technical, some are policy and some are personal choices about how we behave.

We don't have national or global norms as to what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour on the Internet. We will have to live through a period of time where we try to decide what is it that we accept and don't accept in terms of use of the net. Some of those decisions will be codified in law, and some of those laws will have to be global in scope as bad actors can be in one jurisdiction, while their victims are in another. Until we have international treaties that allow for enforcement, it will be very hard to either track down or prosecute those [committing crimes].

Not everything that happens on the Net which is 'bad' is necessarily an illegal or criminal act. In some cases we hurt ourselves because of our behaviour. An example of that is the invasion of privacy as a consequence of being able to post video and imagery and everything else on social networking sites. Third parties can comment on that content and fourth parties can discover things about people that they wouldn't otherwise know- because someone tagged a photo or made a comment on a blog or entry on a social networking site. We are, in some sense, very wide open to potential abuse in these shared facilities. That's why bullying is such a serious problem. Whether it's a crime or not is debatable, but it's negative impact is indisputable.

There are a number of social and economic risks that we have to do something about. Identity theft is another good example of that. Weak operating systems and weak browsers allow machines to be infected and become parts of botnets or release information that you wouldn't normally want to share like your passwords, account numbers and so on. I think we have a lot of work ahead of us to make this very flexible and rich medium into something that not only feels safer… but also IS safer for all of us to use. In the places we can't enforce safety by technical means, we will have to do so using law and to ensure people know there will be consequences for their actions.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Internet as a future theatre of conflict?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] It's clear that the Internet is another avenue through which certain kinds of abuse can take place including espionage (industrial or otherwise), disinformation campaigns, and so on. These are all things which, while not new in the absolute sense, are new to this particular environment- and therefore operate by different means, and our responses thus may have to be tailored to the methods by which these things occur.

This is one of the frustrating things about putting humanity online. When this [Internet] was the province of a collection of engineers, they were all relatively homogenous, they had common objectives (to get the network to actually function!) and we didn't have nearly the problem we have now with the general public. The problem is, of course, the general public includes bad actors whose interests are not necessarily aligned with society. I think we have to accept that if we have an environment as accessible as this one- and as rich in its ability to share information- we have to find ground-rules that will make it a more acceptable environment to be in.

The term 'cyber warfare' is a very dangerous one in my view. It's easy to formulate the view that an attack against 'my' communications network (for example) is an attack against the critical infrastructure of society- and therefore it's a national scale event, and deserves a response accordingly. General Alexander here in the U.S. recently implied that his thinking is such that the responses [to cyber-attacks] should include conventional methods. The troublesome aspect is that if you are not able to attribute the attack to the responsible party- the response may go awry. If you think about botnets which may be made up of all kinds of machines in the civilian sector, and your response is to launch a counter-attack that hits all those civilian machines... you may, in fact, harm your economics and society in the process of trying to defend it. Also, consider 'false flag' attacks which are not all that hard to launch and may cause retribution against the wrong party.

I get nervous when people throw around terms like cyber warfare as if to say our means of determining that we've been attacked or we are at war are clear. I don't think they are. I'm worried about the mind-set that leads people declare cyber-war and then launch even conventional attacks against parties they think are responsible unless there is absolutely clear evidence. This suggests in addition to everything else that we need much better forensic capability than we have right now. So in addition to building defences against various forms of attack, we have to determine where they came from, how they were founded, who was responsible and so on. That's a non-trivial exercise.

Q: Do you think the Internet as a medium can help us overcome global crises such as climate change and poverty?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] In a tangential way, maybe.... The Internet is an avenue through which people's attitudes can be 'adjusted'. I don't mean for this to sound like a 'brave new world' exactly, I'm thinking more about the kinds of social interactions that lead people to choose to act in certain ways… whether that be political or something else. If people could be persuaded that global warming requires action, and that each of them have individual actions that can add up into something significant, that would be a good thing. That could be one element in persuasion... The other is scientific, the ability to share documents, validate and even quantify the threat against the climate- such as human greenhouse gas generation amongst other things. People have to be persuaded that their individual actions will make a difference.... they think, "I'm just driving one car, it can't be that bad......" but when a billion or two people think like that? It makes a difference. They don't see the consequences of their own actions... and I think the net has a role to play, but it's not magic. The real issue is convincing arguments and incentives for people to change their behaviours.

One might also make an argument that if all the power generation and consumption systems, and all the heating and cooling systems and so on could be managed in a more comprehensive way... we could do a better job of their efficient use. This is sort of like traffic engineering, having the lights and streets synchronised and having the entry to the highway controlled by selectively allowing cars on. Things like that might actually be helpful, but once again- when you begin doing things like that- the net can become a target for people to disrupt.

In the background here is the continuing threat that the more we depend on something, the more others will seek to disrupt it for their own purposes and our dependency now becomes our disability.

Q: What do you feel is the role of artificial intelligence technologies and the Internet?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] …Keep in mind that artificial intelligence is a big term. I would argue that some of the speech understanding and translation that Google and Apple are doing represent a significant kind of artificial intelligence- however its not the same as having a human conversation as we are now, or analysing a complex situation and making recommendations. I don't think we're likely to see the kind of artificial intelligence the science fiction writers talk about any time soon, despite Ray Kurzweil's optimism.

On the other hand, there are extraordinary things computers can do, that humans cannot do well- and that includes handling extremely large amounts of information and finding correlation. Despite the fact that we claim that humans are very good at seeing patterns, computers are very good at seeing patterns of certain kinds and that's exactly what we do when we index the web- we try and work things out for you!

I see the future not so much as 'autonomous' artificial intelligence, but as a collaborative tool. I think someday we'll be able to have conversations, within limits, with these machine intelligences in order to do things for us that will make us more effective- but I don't want to overstate the capability. In a book called "Alone Together", Sherry Turkle discussed how human beings are remarkably willing to imbue artificial intelligences with a great deal more understanding than they actually have. Therein lies a great deal of danger. If you believe that a device is smart enough to make informed judgement and it's actually a dumb robot? ....you get what you deserve!

Q: Do you think the Internet will help us understand our place in the universe?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] For the last 13 years, I've been working on a project looking at the extension of the Internet across the solar system. This project was started at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1998 and involves the creation of a new set of protocols that will work over the very large distances, and the large speed of light delays, which occur over interplanetary distances- to say nothing of the disruption that occurs through celestial motion, and so on.

We have a set of protocols that are derived from, but go beyond, the protocols of the Internet to deal with these wide ranges of parametric variation. Those protocols are being standardised and are on board the space station, a spacecraft that has rendezvoused with two comets, and are also in use here on earth. Prototypes of these protocols are also in use on the Mars science laboratory which just launched, and on the rovers which are currently on the planet. We are confident that we have a set of protocols that will allow for very rich networking on interplanetary exploration.

The next project being funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (which, I will remind you, funded the ARPANET, the internet and the interplanetary architecture) is an interstellar mission plan. Here we are interested in getting to Proxima Centauri or Alpha Centauri in a hundred years… actually getting there and going into orbit. The first problem is getting there in a hundred years rather than 65,000 and the second problem is once we get there, how do we send information back. How can we detect a coherent signal from that far away? What power sources can we use- how can they be modulated? What kind of antenna system would you need to do it? That's all part of our study- and I'm part of one of the teams who are proposing answers.

Although this all sounds like science fiction, it's what engineering does... it turns science fiction into reality.

Q: Do you think we'll see direct connections between our physiology and the Internet?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] This touches on the edge of the 'cyborg' question.

My wife has two cochlear implants, and there cannot be any question at all that this has made her life better. She was totally deaf before she had the implants, and now she carries on a more or less normal life in an auditory world. There's also no question that we now understand the sensory-neural systems well enough to fool the brain- and we will, eventually, do that with optical and spinal implants. In the latter case, dealing with not just sensory- but sensory and motor systems together. It won't stop there.... when you start seeing some of the biomechanical devices for the repair of injuries, especially the really traumatic ones you see from wartime- and you see the complex behaviours that can be controlled by the same sensory-motor signals that would manage a biological arm.... you begin to see there's some real potential... not only to recover capability, but to exceed it. T

he likelihood that we will have implants that exceed human capability is very high. I would anticipate that happening. Whether we ever get to the point where there are cognitive interfaces? I think that's highly speculative and I'm doubtful of it- at least within the next ten or twenty years.

Q: Has the Internet changed the nature of human intelligence?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] There is some evidence that the use of computers- whether video gaming or 'normal' interactions with the web- is having a measurable effect on brain function... this is not a surprise. Any kind of interaction you have as a child, the brain adapts to... so your interactions with the world have a direct effect on the way your brain interconnections develop.

Use of computers and the net are having some measurable effect, but I don't think we entirely understand the significance of those effects yet. It's one thing to look at a functional MRI scan and say, "...look, part of the brain is lighting up..." and it's quite another to say, "...and therefore we reach the following conclusion" or "...the brain is doing this..." I don't think we have that depth of knowledge yet.

I talked to Henry Kissinger about this. He was ranting about the fact that people were willing to accept two paragraphs in response to a query rather than reading a 700-page book. This bugged him because he wrote 700-page books! My response was to say, "...look Henry, I bet you'd be saying that when the invention of writing came along! The world won't remember anything! All the oral history will go away because now you can read it!..." I think that argument is partly true... we tend to remember less now than we felt we needed to in the past because we have such ready access to information. I find myself turning to the net to remember people's names and to recall facts. You could have made the same argument about books. Books remember things for you, if you can find the book to find the right fact.

We may have a society which is less dependent on our remembering facts and more dependent on our ability to find things out. When we invented hand calculators, for example.... there was a great cry that nobody would remember multiplication tables anymore. It's entirely possible that's true... but as long as the devices work, it functionally doesn't make much difference. There is a book called "The Machine Stops" which was written around 1909. The idea of the book was a society that was built around a machine that served everyone, took care of their needs, food and everything else- one day, the machine doesn't work. The story is what happens to society when the machine stops working.

We will probably encounter some emergent properties of systems like this. One of the worries that I have is that one emergent property will be our dependence on these things- and to the degree that they are either 'disruptable' or not-reliable, then we will create a more fragile society, and a more brittle one- and that worries me.

Q: Do you think our relationship with the Internet and allied technologies is going to change the nature of what it means to 'be human’?

[Dr. Vint Cerf] The Internet offers alternative avenues for human interaction. The consequence of that is the discovery of people of like-mind who are not necessarily geographically nearby. That change has been happening for quite a while, as transportation developed. When we got horses we could go further than we could walking.... when we got boats and airplanes, we could go further than we could before. Our community of interest grew and now the 'global village' phrase comes to mind. In that sense, we have a rather different society whose boundary conditions are not necessarily what they were before. National boundaries become less critical to, at least, a lot of human interaction. if you want to find a proxy for understanding the internet- you should pay attention to electricity and ask yourself how dependent we are on that, and what happens when it is not available. You will see a society crumble very quickly when electricity goes away. You don't need an Internet to be scared, you need dependence on electricity in all its forms- including batteries.

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In his 1998 book “The Control Revolution” Robert Beniger notes that, “...one tragedy of the human condition is that each of us lives and dies with little hint of even the most profound transformations of our society and our species that play themselves out in some small part through our own existence. When the earliest Homo sapiens encountered Homo erectus, or whatever species was our immediate forebear, it is unlikely that the two saw in their differences a major turning point in the development of our race. Much the same conclusion could be drawn from any of a succession of revolutionary societal transformations: the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, the growth of permanent settlements, the development of metal tools and writing, urbanisation, the invention of wheeled vehicles and the plough, the rise of market economies, social classes, a world commerce. The origins and early histories of these and many other developments of comparable significance went unnoticed or at least unrecorded by contemporary observers. Human society seems rather to evolve largely through changes so gradual as to be all but imperceptible, at least compared to the generational cycles of the individuals through whose lives they unfold.

It is with this in mind that we must reflect that the world’s first stored program computer (The Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine) was built in 1948, with a memory of just 32 words and now, less than 70 years later, we find over five billion devices are connected to the internet, enabling billions to instantly access close to the total sum of human knowledge and experience.

As individual humans, our faculties are severely limited. From birth, it would be close to impossible for one of our species to survive through to adulthood without the support of a "society of others". Our technologies (be they mechanical or intellectual) have largely realised this ethic- initially enabling us to work together- not just with the incumbent civilisation but through our ability to store and pass knowledge, between generations. “If I have seen further than others," wrote Isaac Newton, "...it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

We are also a species drugged by ego- fascinated by our own ingenuity and capability. It seems the very process of invention, together with the sense of mastery it gives over nature and ourselves is the end, as well as the means, to our existence. Of all these inventions- the internet is surely one of the greatest. It is (as Eric Schmidt commented), "...the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand."

The truth is, I doubt we'll ever understand the technical ontology of the internet. By the time we realise what 'it' is, the essence has already moved on. Instead, we must consider the metaphysical- the internet is not just a reflection of the zeitgeist- it is an embodiment of 'us' as individuals and as a society. The internet connects us cognitively and becomes a membrane through which our minds can interact, manifesting a whole new iteration of our species, who have begun to exist in a connected symbiotic relationship with technology.

The internet is the first technology we have created, that makes us more human.

1 comment:

Dropshipper said...

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