Internet and Communication (pt 1 of 4)

Internet and Communication (pt 1 of 4)

Post by Ronda Haube » Wed, 06 Jan 1999 04:00:00



[Following is a draft paper I am working on. It is a beginning effort
to look at the early thoughts about communication that gave rise to
the development of the Internet and then of the creation
of tcp/ip and the implications for the scaling the Internet that
understanding the development of the Internet will help to
identify. I welcome comments, disagreements, suggestions etc. ]

                          The Internet:
                  A New Communication Paradigm
                              by Ronda Hauben
                              rh...@columbia.edu

               Part 1 of 4

"...the systems being build must remain flexible and open-ended
throughout the process of development, which is evolutionary."
                         J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor
                         The Computer as a Communication Device

"Computers need a language of their own to communicate with each
other and with their users."
                 Robert Kahn
                 Proceedings of IEEE
                 Special Issue on Packet Communication Networks

"Experience has shown the importance of making the response time
short and the conversation free and easy."
                         J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor
                         The Computer as a Commuication Device

I. Can the human-computer partnership improve communication

     "In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively
through a machine than face to face," write J.C.R. Licklider and
Robert Taylor in their 1968 article, "The Computer as a
Communication Device." (1)

     In a memo written several years earlier, Licklider raises a
related question: How do you state the fundamental problem concerning
communication? "At the extreme," he writes, "the problem
is essentially the one discussed by science fiction writers: how
do you get communication started among totally uncorrelated
sapient beings?" (2)

     In the same memo, Licklider also poses the question: If you
are gathering together different groups of people using different
computers and different programming languages, isn't it necessary
to find the primary question that has to be asked? All the
different computer systems have to either agree to speak the same
language, or at least agree to some convention for asking this
fundamental question: "What language do you speak?"

     Licklider was writing in the 1960s during the earliest days
of the efforts to link together computers to facilitate resource
sharing. The questions he raises are questions about the
fundamental nature of communication. Has the development of
computer networking in the past 30 years shed any light on the
fundamental nature of communication? This is the question that
this paper will endeavor to answer.

 II. Different Networks-Diverse Views-Broad Ranging Discussion

     A discussion carried out on Usenet in several newsgroups
before Thanksgiving of 1998, is a helpful example of the new kind
of online discussion that the wide ranging reach of the Internet
as a network of networks makes possible. A number of people from
the U.S. and Europe participated in the discussion. An
examination of this discussion I hope will shed light on two
questions: [1] How the Internet impacts human to human
communication? and [2] How can the communication made possible by
the Internet help with particular problems that arise in the
continued development of the Internet? (3)

     The discussion began on November 18 with a comment that I
made in a thread on several newsgroups about "Realizing the
promise of computers". I responded to a post by John Adams who
had been reading Bell Labs publications from the mid 1960s and
was struck by the "failure of current business information
systems to realize many of the envisioned goals."

     My response supported Adams' statement that we haven't met
the goals of the 1960s:

     "And we have lost Bell Labs as well"

     In response, came a post from Dennis Ritchie, the co-inventor
of Unix, created in 1969 at Bell Labs. (4)

Ritchie posted responding:

     "Ronda Hauben wrote:

     > And we have lost Bell Labs as well.

     (Pinches oneself).  No, still alive.

     Dennis "

     A few other commentators supported what Ritchie had said.

     Then another person responded to those who supported
Ritchie's view that Bell Labs still existed. Arthur T.

Murray/Mentifex wrote:

     "No, Dave Farber isn't worried; Esther Dyson isn't worried.

     The drunks on the barstools are not worried, nor are the
     computer complacent who poke fun at Ronda Hauben's minor gaffes.

     But a hundred and some nations around the world who are about
     to get disenfranchised from the once free Internet must be a
     little worried by now, judging from the recent telecommunications
     meeting at which they tried to resist the US govt privatization.

      Oh, excuse me (Arthur T. Murray/Mentifex), I used a Ronda-ism
     in the form of "govt" for government!  In her noble fight on
     behalf of "liberte' egalite' fraternite'" and all those other
     trifles which probably nauseate you and move you to deride her,
     Ronda Hauben mangles the English language and lets you have your fun.

     But Ronda Hauben is not a gutless, spineless, complacent wimp."

     Dennis Ritchie responded that he had just heard Nobel prize
winners from Lucent giving talks there. Another poster wrote, "Do you
know that Dennis Ritchie invented C, don't you? Oh good."

     A subsequent post complained that with Arthur Murray was
flaming and remarked that Ronda Hauben should choose her allies
more carefully.

     One of the responses was "I am quite impressed with Mr.
Ritchie's accomplishments, but science doesn't accept arguments
of authority for good reason."

     The person continued: "Everybody makes mistakes sometimes.
Einstein arguably did with the Cosmological Constant, Pauling did
with both vitamin C as well as publishing a proposed structure for
DNA which met all available X-ray crystallographic requirements
but wasn't an acid."

"In my view, Ritchie is being absurdly complacent, even arrogant
in proposing that all is well because he is comfortable."

"Nobel prizes are like 'Man of the Year.' They are awarded anyway
and the fact that a bunch of Lucent employees may have won them
if anything indicates that there isn't as much competition as
there should be."

"Lucent doesn't have anywhere near the funding or commitment that
its predecessors had in the 1950s and 1960s, and to claim
otherwise is absurd. The very fact that it was spun off should
serve as evidence of that."

"The fact is that basic, fundamental research in America is in the
doldrums, and the ignorant, opportunistic attitudes of most top
managers (such as Bill Gates) will keep it there for the
foreseeable future unless people bring pressure to change those
attitudes."

     Several other posts continued the discussion, and Ritchie
explained the current situation at Lucent, ending his post, "I
won't dispute a general argument that the 'average' research here
is somewhat less fundamental than in the past nor that the
emphasis has shifted somewhat away from physics and toward
software, but the population count and the budget have been
remarkably stable." (5)

     The discussion moved on to the subject of how "fundamental
research in America is in the doldrums."

     Another post asked:

     "*ahem* However, where the lack of research fits in with the
     decision to privatize the Internet naming authority in the US is a
     different issue entirely. As I understand it, the issue is
     whether or not you can afford to have something as important
     and central as that working in commercial conditions. "

     In response to the question of what to do about the lack of
basic research in the U.S., another poster commented "And where
should the people's pressure be directed? Toward influencing
senior, executive management in private industry or toward
espousal of more government funding?"

     Continuing the discussion of the value of basic research, a
post explained: "Nearly all research funding is now coupled
tightly to patents and short term profits, while visionary
products without immediate applicability go begging. The inherent
value of understanding and human knowledge is less and less
appreciated. We have all but forgotten Franklin's reply to a
question about the utility of some new invention: "What good is a
newborn baby?"

     The discussion then turned to whether or not Microsoft spent
money on basic research. And whether a company could afford to
spend money on basic research if they didn't get any gain as a
result.

     In response, Tom Harrington wrote:

     "Let me adapt a quote from Benjamin Franklin that John Adams
     quoted elsewhere in this thread: Why do we bother paying for
     elementary school? Think about it. There's no payoff for
     literally years after the money is spent. And a good chunk
     of it is likely wasted on children who will grow up never to
     contribute to society anyway. And those who do grow up and
     help to improve the world do so in unpredictable ways;
     there's no way of knowing what problems will be solved, or by
     who, when you're looking at the elementary school level. So,
     we could classify elementary school spending as going toward
     unpredictable, distant goals, and being spent in some
     unknown percentage on children who will never help anyway.
     Yet we continue to spend money educating small children.

     When you understand why we spend money on elementary
     schools, you may begin to understand why spending money on
     fundamental research is a good idea."

     Another poster replied "Very well said!"

     Another responded to the comment that a company didn't
benefit from basic research by noting that "Plus, repeated studies
have shown an average X35 fold return in 'worthless' research."

     Another explained that Microsoft's "research" was "on par
with 'buying patents' not to implement, but to prevent
implementation."

     Another added that "Massive economic development
tends to help everyone in cases like that. I would bet the
benefits over time to AT&T from the development of the transistor
far outweigh the research costs. So what if Intel gets some too."

     The thread went on to consider the short term outlook of
a business plan, and other connected issues. Another post noted
that since AT&T was regulated during the period when the
transistor was invented, "it was sort of like doing it with tax
dollars. " Still another poster had in his signature "Behind
every successful organization stands one person who knows the
secret of how to keep the managers away from anything truly
important."

     The people posting were from several countries including
Canada, Austria, Britain, the U.S., Norway, and Australia. They
included people from different backgrounds and positions,
including a government site, university sites, corporate sites,
etc. I have referred to this discussion because it shows the
broad ranging set of views that the Internet makes possible as
all these people can communicate as part of one Internet. And it
shows the open forum that Usenet provides for such a discussion.

     The discussion through its broad ranging set of posts
clarified a fundamental question in the battle over the U.S.
government decision to privatize the central functions of the
Internet. That question was identified as "As I understand it,
the issue is whether or not you can afford to have something as
important and central as that working in commercial conditions."
And the conclusion of those who were part of the discussion was
that commercial conditions are very shortsighted and thus not
able to provide for the long term technological development that
benefits a society in the same way as providing elementary
schooling for all its citizens benefits the society. Furthermore,
the question was raised that when someone understands why
elementary schooling for all its citizens is an important public
policy provision, they will then understand the need for
providing for basic research funding.

     In this context, the issue of whether one can trust
something as important as control over the Internet to something
that is functioning under commercial conditions and business
plans is answered in the negative.

     The interconnection of networks from around the world
welcomes diverse viewpoints by removing the constraints on
communication. People from many different networks can
communicate with each other and contribute. In this discussion,
there were people from 6 different countries, and multiple
networks within a few of the countries represented. The Internet
provides the environment and varied viewpoints that not only help
to frame the real question in a problem like the battle over the
U.S. privatization of essential functions of the Internet, but
which also provides the means to examine the issues so as to
determine a conclusion or to come to a decision about what will
be in the best interests of the Internet.

     How has such an environment been created? What are the
elements of the Internet that contributed to making this
environment possible?

                    to be continued

               Netizens: On the History and Impact
                    of Usenet and the Internet
               http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/netbook
               also in print edition ISBN 0-8186-7706-6