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Commentary: Searls and Weinberger on `World of Ends'

David Searls' and David Weinberger's paper on `World of Ends' is pretty bad. It is written by half of the team that wrote a previous even worse paper called The Cluetrain Manifesto. The commentary here attempts to clarify some of the issues associated with this less than propitious dive into the pool of Searls' and Weinberger's muddled thoughts.

DN Title Searls and Weinberger Ness
Mistakes There are mistakes and there are mistakes. And this paper falls into one of those two categories.
Bad 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. Perhaps not that specific thing, but we surely are going to make mistakes that are roughly equivalent. Mistakes are a normal part of the learning process in life. Some mistakes we learn from and never repeat. Others we repeat over and over again all our lives. It's (apparently) human nature.
Repetitive Mistakes Other mistakes we insist on making over and over. For example, thinking that:
  • ...the Web, like television, is a way to hold eyeballs still while advertisers spray them with messages
  • ....the Net is something that telcos and cable companies should filter, control and otherwise "improve."
  • ... it's a bad thing for users to communicate between different kinds of instant messaging systems on the Net
  • ....the Net suffers from a lack of regulation to protect industries that feel threatened by it.
I'm getting a little less sure about whether there is any useful thought behind the words. I think of the web as more like newspapers or magazines than like television. Television is full of
  • recent stuff;
  • live stuff; and
  • plotted stuff.
None of these types of information are very important on the net day-to-day.

And to the other points, I don't know anyone who thinks that it's a `bad thing' for users to communicate between instant messaging systems. I do know some (principally those who own such systems) who think they may make more profit that way, but surely that's not a sin. And virtually all industries want regulation to protect them when they feel threatened, as do all unions, all minority groups, etc.. So that not anything special about the net.

Repetitive Mistake Syndrome 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. And just what is the Repetitive Mistake Syndrome? I can't find it in any general list of `syndromes'. If it is a simple synonym for `making a mistake over and over', then it is a perfectly normal part of most of our lives, and hardly qualifies for any special mention. George Santayana was wrong when he said Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Even those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway. So there's no news in repeating mistakes.
Industrial Influence 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. Besides lawmakers, regulators, and the courts it afflicts football players and computer programmers and just about everyone else, too. What's the news here? That some people would like to make a profit out of something that others wish they would give away for free? And just how promising was the `new industry' that was treated so unkindly? Sounds more to me like an author's `pet project' that got `shot in the cradle.'
Censorship "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."

We'd like to avoid the wait.

Gilmore's dictum is a bit more plausible, but it, too, still has difficulties. There may be some useful content in viewing censorship as damage, but only if we are going to interpret other forms of information as its opposite. For example, the net `broadcasts' a huge quantity of pornography. This needs to be understood as well.

And where is the evidence that stupid laws will be killed or replaced? We have nearly countless laws on the books that are surely stupid, and most of them show no sign whatsoever of being killed or replaced. I can't imagine what leads to this observation.

But the most surprising part of the statement is after quoting Keynes' in the long run we're all dead they say We'd like to avoid the wait. Is this a suicide note? What an odd thing to say. Even if, in the long run we are all dead, I---for one---would like to make the wait as long as possible.

Not Rocket Science 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. I'm not sure that the people that I know who helped build the net would be particularly pleased to find that someone thinks their work was at less than a 6th grade level. But, leaving that aside maybe we're about to get to the point. But so far this sure isn't it. And I sure don't get what is. A trillion dollars is a lot of money, and the Net may not be `Rocket Science', but I'm afraid understanding gobbledy-gook like this is at least as complicated as rocket science---if there's anything there to be understood. Of course, maybe there's not. And, I'm not at all clear where the trillions of dollars that might be saved are about to be spent, but perhaps that will soon be forthcoming. The cost of repetitive mistakes is also not so obvious. A good musician makes a lot of mistakes as he/she learns to command their instrument. The mistakes are just a part of the learning process, and any musician who doesn't need to make mistakes is a rare bird indeed.
Feel Good: 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. I miss this point too. What is it supposed to mean to say `... the Internet's value is founded in its technical architecture...'? Is a book's value founded in its technical architure? What about a Cow's value? I'm afraid it's a mystery inside an enigma, and it doesn't appear to be unwrapping.
True Nature of Internet: Fortunately, the true nature of Internet isn’t hard to understand. In fact, just a fistful of statements stands between Repetitive Mistake Syndrome and Enlightenment… A `fistful of statements' ... how poetic. But then just how many statements fit in your fist? And I'm not quite sure what it means to stand between a Syndrome and Enlightenment. Is that down the Boulevard from Hollywood and Vine?
The Nutshell The Nutshell
  1. The Internet isn't complicated
  2. The Internet isn't a thing. It's an agreement.
  3. The Internet is stupid.
  4. Adding value to the Internet lowers its value.
  5. All the Internet's value grows on its edges.
  6. Money moves to the suburbs.
  7. The end of the world? Nah, the world of ends.
  8. The Internet’s three virtues:
    1. No one owns it
    2. Everyone can use it
    3. Anyone can improve it
  9. If the Internet is so simple, why have so many been so boneheaded about it?
  10. Some mistakes we can stop making already
Nuts. We're going to shell each of these `nuts' one-by-one. And nuts they are.
1. Internet isn't Complicated The Internet isn't complicated. 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. Maybe Searls and Weinberger read history differently than I do. But having been `around' the Net since Project MAC days, I find it startling to argue that the `idea behind the net' was to `harness ... simplicity'. I thought the purpose and function was to share information, and no one, if I remember those ancient days well, cared very much about whether linkages were simple or complex. As time passed, and the problems became better and better understood, the natural evoluationary processes simplified lots of the early complex protocols, but in most cases simplicity seems to me to have been a result of effective engineering rather than standing as a direct and original goal.

And I don't think I'd choose a `rock' to present a useful metaphor for the functioning internet. This all seems to me like after the fact rationalization being done by people who had no particular actual experience with the facts as they really did develop.

Simplest Way: The way to do that is to make it easy easy easy for the networks to send and receive data from one another. Thus, the Internet was designed to be the simplest conceivable way to get bits from any A to any B. No, I don't think that was the way the Internet was designed. It may have been a result, but it surely had little to do with the intention. Things may have evolved in that direction, but there wasn't any `design' involved in that process. Just lots of days and weeks and months and years of good hard engineering work.
2. Internet isn't a thing The Internet isn't a thing. It's an agreement. 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. The Internet is surely a good deal more than just an agreement. So are all of the rest of the systems. The phone system is wires, and satellites, and switches and agreements. So are all of the various power systems, etc.
Radio and TV: 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. Yes, and? ...
Internet Isn't...: But the Internet is different. It isn't wiring. It isn't a system. And it isn't a source of programming. No. And neither are countless other things, some of which are systems and some of which aren't. What is the point? We could spend an awful long time listing all of the things that the Internet isn't. The internet isn't a `source of programming', but then surely neither is the phone system. Where is Marshall McLuhan now that we need him? The medium is the message.
Inter-Network: The Internet is a way for all the things that call themselves networks to coexist and work together. It's an inter-network. Literally. Well, not literally. Surely all the things that call themselves `networks' don't coexist and work together through the Internet. There are lots of networks that are---if nothing else---quite incompatible with `The Internet' physically. So this is not any help as a definition.
Just a Protocol: 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. What makes the net `inter' isn't the protocol, it's the way that the net grew. Protocols make a network. Networks that observe the same protocols can be threaded together to produce an internet. That's why a `radio network' is a `radio network' and a `power network' is a `power network'. If you want to plug your device in the 110 vac plug in the wall, you have to agree with the power company about the `protocol' (current draw, cycle frequency, power surge characteristics, etc.). There's nothing `special' in any of this with respect to `The Internet', and there certainly can be lots of quite separate internets if that proves to be the effective way to go. Not all power stations are on the grid.
Agreements: 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. Yes, that's what `standards' are all about. And the Internet says a whole lot more than just how to `swap bits'. For example, it says that if you `swap bits' with a site on some particular port (say 21), then expect the messages to be about FTP-ing. Or if you talk to port 80 you may well see some HTML that follows a World Wide Web HTTP standard. The whole notion that the Internet is just about `swapping bits' is decidedly naive. If that was all it was there would have to be a huge number of side-agreements to give any content to the protocols.
3. Internet is Stupid The Internet is stupid. 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. This strikes me as pretty much false on the face of it. Isn't it just plain silly to say (speaking of the phone system) `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.'. The phone system has no clue if I am using my cell phone, or if it was just found on the floor at the mall where I dropped it. It probably doesn't have much of a clue anymore where I am `located' (unless I'm using a Garmin NavTalk or some such phone that integrates GPS information) and it is generally completely clueless about what the call is costing, particularly to other end of the call, given the incredible complexity of billing plans pricing a call is about as complicated as pricing an airline ticket these days.
Internet is Stupid: The Internet, on the other hand, is stupid. On purpose. Its designers made sure the biggest, most inclusive network of them all was dumb as a box of rocks. Again, we have an argument about `design'. And it points out the really odd thing in this piece. There is a constant argument that it is a good thing that the Internet wasn't `designed' with purpose in mind, and then---in intervening paragraphs---we get an argument like this one about `it's designers' who has such good ideas.
What the Internet doesn't know: 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. The internet `knows' a whole lot. It knows a great deal about `identities' (what boxes and routings are preferred, which boxes are we careful about, which messages should be handled locally and which others should be forwarded elsewhere for disposition. There's lots of stuff it knows. Even the little tiny router that connects my own net to the Internet knows a lot of stuff about my system.
Stupidity is Good Design: 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. Stupidity is not sturdy, except by lucky happenstance. Many stupid systems are quite terribly brittle. Many sturdy systems are highly intelligent. They know enough, for example, to try alternatives when primary modes of behavior fail to succeed. It is a (very) odd perspective that can see a sprinkler system as `smart' when it sees a complex router as `stupid'. `Stupid' isn't a good word to be used for describing the structure of the net.
Less to do with Technology: That's because the most important reason Stupid is Good has less to do with technology and everything to do with value... If so, then I'm going to be damned surprised. Let's read on...
4. Adding Value lowers Value Adding value to the Internet lowers its 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. Another intellectual morass (wasteland?). If you optimize a network for one purpose, it may or may not `de-optimize' (is de-optimize a word?---not in my dictionary anyway) it for others. There's no necessary relationship. And the fact that adopting some particular rules for particular forms of traffic means that `it isn't the Internet anymore' is just silly.
5. Value Grows at Edges All the Internet's value grows on its edges. 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. I fail to find `edges' a good metaphor for anything useful with respect to this kind of system. As far as I can see this paper never comes even close to suggesting what the `edges' are. Perhaps I am supposed to know that from somewhere else. But I have to assay forth anyway.

Are `edges' new nodes, or perhaps nodes with mostly inbound links. Or just as good a case might be made for them being nodes with mostly outbound links. Or perhaps something else completely. I hope so, as I'm not getting any useful ideas from any of the definitions that I have tried so far.

Search Engines: 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. Let's see. All paint does is endure on canvases for hundreds of years. So innovators can paint whatever they can imagine, counting on the paint and canvas to save the images for them. They don't have to get anyone's permission ... Oh well, you get the idea. The authors didn't.
Free Market for Innovation: The Internet has created a free market for innovation. That’s the key to the Internet's value. By the same token... The Internet may have created a free market for innovation---at least temporarily. But whether it is this `innovation' that is the key to it's value remains very much to be seen. But then we have always had a (nearly) free market for innovation using pencil and paper. And if we start `An Instrument for Every Kid' and have the government give every kid a free musical instrument, we'll probably see some increase in musical innovation as well. All of this begs the issue of whether any of it is worthwhile, of course. That very much remains to be seen.
6. Money moves to Suburbs Money moves to the suburbs. 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. Well, with the re-urbanization of lots of `old' cities it is no longer very clear if `money moves to the suburbs'. But that remains an argument for another place and another time. `Internet connectivity ... wants ...' is an odd anthropomorphism. But, unclear as this is, let's see what follows.
Commodities: 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 they 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. A particular and not particularly well informed piece of popular economics. In any case this is `politics' and isn't any part of a particular description of the Internet.
7. The World of Ends The end of the world? Nah, the world of ends. When Craig Burton describes the Net's stupid architecture as a hollow sphere comprised entirely of ends, 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. If this is supposed to be `cute' I don't get it. It seems `obscure' to me, and I can't find either the word `hollow' or the word `ends' in the description by Craig Burton that is pointed to in the reference. And what `Take the value out of the center and you enable an insane flowering...' refers to, I haven't got a clue. But then when we close with the fact that the `ends aren't endpoints' I truly know I have no idea what this is all about. Reminds me most of some Marky Mark lyrics such as Pure hip hop no sell out If you ain't in it to win it then get the hell out I command you to dance which actually makes (a little) more sense to me. And you can dance to it, too.
What do we ends do?: And what do we ends do? Anything that can be done by anyone who wants to move bits around. See what I mean?
Stupid Technical Architecture: Notice the pride in our voice when we say “anything” and “anyone”? That comes directly from the Internet’s simple, stupid technical architecture. Really? Why? I don't see how the `stupid technical architecture' is the thing that really allows anyone to do anything.
Internet is an Agreement: 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. But it can't be just an agreement. We could all agree to do something, but unless we implement the agreement in concrete terms, it is simply another moot exercise. It is the backbone, ISPs, hosting companies, ... that actually implement the Internet in a way that makes its function useful.

And worse for the argument here, there's no real reason that there should only be one agreement. Indeed there are lots of different kinds of agreements that implement lots of other types of nets. For example, we are in agreement about the GPS-services that are supplied to our hand-held GPS devices. This is an elaborate and interesting net that happens to have little to do with the Internet, that breaks just about all of the `rules' that are cited in this paper.

Connection Grows Value: 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. Since I have already owned up to not knowing what `edges' are, I am treading on slightly dangerous ground here. But if distance truly doesn't matter, then why am I asked to choose a download site that is `nearest'. And with satellite communication, distance doesn't matter either. These days it is often cheaper for me to call coast-to-coast than for me to call a town a couple of counties away.
Means to a World of Ends: The Internet gives us the means to become a world of ends for the first time. I continue to not catch on to the clues (if any) that might tell me what this is.
8. Three Virtues 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...
Well, I'm confused enough to not want to admit that the points that have just passed are really all that simple. Or perhaps, if they are that simple then they are simple-minded instead. But onward. I keep hoping for the first glimpse of light at the end of the long tunnel that we have been in so far. I haven't yet seen it.
8.a Nobody owns It: Nobody owns it. 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. Well, it certainly can be owned, although not, perhaps, given the current way we choose to allow it to be organized. All we have to do is to start charging for connects. Whether you see this as a good idea or not depends largely on your politics.
And that’s a good thing: The Internet is a reliable resource. We can build businesses without having to worry that Internet, Inc. is going to force us to upgrade, double its price once we have bought in, or get taken over by one of our competitors. We don't have to worry that some parts of it are going to work with one provider and others will work with some other provider, like we have with the cell phone business in the U. S. today. We don't have to worry that its basic functions are only going to work with Microsoft's, Apple's or AOL's "platform" — because it sits beneath all of them, outside their proprietary control. Maintaining the Internet is distributed among all users, not concentrated in the hands of a provider that might go out of business, and all of us are a more resilient resource than any centralized group of us could be. This reads pretty much like a case of `classic engineering paranoia' to me. And implicit in it is an odd argument. Take the phone case. The principal reason that the cell phone business works better in Europe and Asia than in the U. S. today is precisely because the national phone companies of the various countries did not allow free evolution to take place. In Europe the government really was Phone Cell, Inc. and they ended up doing the job much better than we did in the US. Read this argument a couple of times. You'll find that it argues in exactly the opposite direction than the authors think it does.
8.b Everyone can Use: Everyone can use it. The Internet was built to include everyone on the planet. Well, I don't think that this is what the history of the Internet shows, but that may be a subject of interpretation.
True, only a sixth 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. We start with some bad data. Current population of the world is probably in excess of 6,000,000,000. So a sixth of that is around a billion or so, a fairly far cry from the 600,000,000 mentioned. Not that it matters much, mind you. But then, other numbers I have seen on the Net suggest that the number is more in the 300-500 million range. OK, I guess 50 cents is pretty close to a dollar. But what troubles me about these estimates is that they put 150,000,000 Americans on the net. Maybe we are that connected, but I'd rather have at least a little more evidence and rationalization before I believe it.
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. While speaking and writing may now feel like a part of what it means to be human, phone calls and published books don't strike me as `natural resources'. At least in the usual sense of those words.
8.c Anyone can Improve: Anybody can improve it. 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. Well, no. It actually doesn't. A kid in a small apartment in Manila, perhaps or an off-duty lifeguard in Kenosha can release a virus which, one day, may well bring the Internet to its knees. And this brings up one of the items that is otherwise not mentioned here. But we'll discuss that a little bit later on.
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. Yes, that's one way of adding value.
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. There are at least two problems with this. First, and we can turn to this very briefly at the end of this note, I don't think these are the only two ways of possibly contributing value. And second, `agreements' don't come for free. And a bad agreement can do more to deter the development of new innovations than all kinds of rambling trials at alternative means.
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. It would seem that there are many possible reasons that Instant Messaging has `failed to achieve its potential'---if that is in fact the case. Among the most obvious might be that it fails to contribute any redeeming value whatsoever.
9. If Simple, Why Boneheads If the Internet is so simple, why have so many been so boneheaded about it? Could it be because the three Internet virtues are the antithesis of how governments and businesses view the world? I not sure I trust the authors of this piece to tell me how governments and business view the world. And `bonehead' may apply better to the ideas in this paper than to the outside world's view of the Internet.
Nobody Owns It-Again: Nobody owns it: Businesses are defined by what they own, as governments are defined by what they control. Seems sloppy to me. Some very important businesses don't really `own' all that much. And some governments may control very little, and yet still be important. But the real question here is `What's the point?'
Everybody Can Use It-Again: 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. This makes no sense to me. `Selling goods means transferring exclusive rights ...' but what about selling `services'? And only a very small percentage of the `laws' passed by Congress have anything whatsoever to do with `imposing restrictions on people'. But what any of this has to do with anything is still unclear to me.
Anyone Can Improve It-Again: 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. Another odd view. But since it starts from nowhere that I can discern, and since it certainly goes nowhere, there's not much to say.
Summary: If Simple ... Business and government by their natures are predisposed to misunderstand the Internet's nature. Huh? I am incredulous. This looks like a real dumb thing to say on the surface, and without any evidence has to pass as just `whistling in the wind'.
Bad Self-Explanation: 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. I'm not sure who `The Big Money' is, but I haven't heard anyone, with the now apparent exception of Searls and Weinberger, us TV to model the Net. The phone system for sure, the postal system, perhaps, but only rarely TV. Anyway, after making a whole lot out of why it is such a good idea that the net isn't itself proactive, this seems to be an extraordinarly odd point to make.
Whitman?: 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. `Other Walt'? Who's the regular source for these ideas, Walt Disney? I suppose this obscure reference to Whitman is supposed to give some `tone' to the piece, but it isn't helped by the misquote---based I supposed on a confused memory.
Elementary Laws: On the other hand, the Internet’s elementary laws never figured people would build careers on not understanding them. I guess I don't think of `laws' as `figuring' much. So this makes no sense.
10. Can Stop making some Mistakes Some mistakes we can stop making already. 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. I'm old enough to remember when some equally erudite person explained to me that the one sure thing we could count on was that Television would completely kill the movie industry---can you hear us Movie Industry? or are you laughing too loudly on your way to the bank. And even if the recording industry was heading down the path to oblivion, it wouldn't surprise me that they wish to slow that journey as much as is possible. I don't blame anyone who want to get stuff for free. But then I not angered by others trying to figure out ways they can charge for it either.
Tinkering with the Core: 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. Aside from discussing the relative merits of `democracy' and `open markets', it is surely wrong that `a system that transports all bits equally' represents such a historical high-water mark with respect to them. And it's of course unclear whether `driving down' the value of the Internet---even if that should be the case---would be a democratic or anti-democratic force. None of the superficial conclusions of the kind that are assume here have much value.
Incumbent Providers: 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. I don't get this one. I'll ponder it for a while, though.
Open Spectrum: 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. If you look at my education, I'm supposed to undersand economics pretty well and yet I don't have a clue about what this is supposed to mean. Got any ideas?
Censor Ideas: 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. Is it at all revealing that censoring `ideas' seems to be a lot less on most minds than censoring pornography. And pornography is the only real hand-down success of the `Internet Revolution'. A substantial disappointment, I believe. And one indicitave of the fact that real `values' on the Internet may prove to be harder to find than many think.
Advertisers: 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." Well, it's sure no harder to control the net than it is to control radio or television broadcasting. We have the ability to `flit from station to station' and yet commercial radio survives. And we have had a wild proliferation, largely advertising driven, by commercial cable, offering us now so many different choices that it is easily overwhelming. So that I heard was `Hi! We don't understand the Internet any better than you do. But, by the way, we'd like to make some money from it.' No surprise there.
Enough: Enough already. Let's stop banging our heads against the facts of the Internet life. Mabye it the head banging that in influencing the quality of the reasoning process.
Nothing to Lose: We have nothing to lose but our stupidity. Given the quality of reasoning presented in this paper, it looks like it's going to take at least a while.
  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.
I have only been thru the Burton Interview, but I failed to find much connection to the matters discussed in this paper.
Thanks Thanks to Sloan Kelly for the design tips.
Closing Remarks This marks the end of the Searls / Weinberger paper. But there's some commentary that applies to the discussion, and although it is taken up elsewhere, it should at least be mentioned here for completeness.
Transient Behavior The most important thing that seems to blow blisfully past the authors, is any discussion of the transient nature of so many of the phenomena that they discuss. The very fact that the net has been growing at a tremendous rate means that it is essentially impossible for us to separate the various transient phenemona from things which will have more long-term consequence. Blogs may be fine while there are 10,000 of them. Perhaps even 100,000 or 1,000,000. But they may become a very different thing should we ever get to having 100,000,000 of them. Listening in on random phone calls in 1900 might have been interesting because phones were much more rare then, and the people who had them were probably more than average interesting. Listening in today would probably produce 10,000 pizza orders for every plausibly interesting remark.
What Doesn't Work There are many arguments in the paper that simply don't work. They are ill-concieved and incorrect. However, the form of a Commentary doesn't lend itself to expansion here. That is probably done better elsewhere. However, we can at least suggest some of the difficulties that come up in the course of the discussion.

First, there are statements about how the net was designed and some considerable consideration of the consequences of this. Yet they are often inconsistent and self-contradictory. Was the net centrally designed? The consensus seems to be no. But nevertheless there is a call for the development of protocols---generally either the result of (long) evolution or some authoritarian central design. This seems to be inconsistent on the surface of it.

Second, there is a lot of discussion of ends. It even appears in the title. Yet there is no consistent description that I can find of what these things are supposed to be. Are they some sub-set of the sites that populate the web?

Third, then there is no discussion of why ends whatever they are, desserve any special attention. Do they have particular characteristics that cause us to treat them differently?

Fourth, the paper discusses two ways of contributing value to the net. There are lots of others.

The list goes on...

What is Missed Not only are some things wrong, many more are completely missed. We should spend some time with them as well.

First, what happens in the face of aging links? When the Internet is new, all of the sites are, by definition, up to date. Now that it has been around for a while, one begins to see more and more sites which have pre-2000 dates on them. I haven't seen any statistics that indicate the ratio of new information to stale information, but I would be surprised to find that the information wasn't beginning to age in a substantial way. This gradually makes each experience less and less satisfying.

Second, there's SPAM. Many report more and more spam arriving each day as the capabilities of the spammers improve. This, too, contributes to the gradual erosion of the quality of the net.

Third, the prospect of a virus bringing down the net probably increases each day. This is partially because of the challenge involved, and it also may be a result of an increasing value of the information which flows through the net. The potential negative consequences of this for the World of Ends are enormous.

Finally, there is volume...

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-03-11 01:49:19 EST