Saturday, April 28, 2007

Internet: How Anarchy Works

Quite a few years back, somewhere else on the net, I had uploaded a caselet on "The Net That Shaped the World"...

It was about how Paul Baran, a young Rand Engineer created a system of Distributed Communication , ARPANET (which later on metamorphosed into Internet). One observation was:

    "...But for Baran’s rather proper background, one would be tempted to say that in the guise of technology, it was a political statement for the counterculture that prevailed in the US during those times... Its effectiveness relied on paradoxes:

  • it aimed to help the army maintain “proper command and control” under wartime situation by offering a system which had no centralised control;

  • it was one of the most robust and efficient system which relied on inefficient and distributed, but interconnected, parts; and,

  • it created efficiencies in communication by building redundancies into the system."

Since then, of course, times have changed... "Hackers" (the "good guys", who loved the decentralised, interactive, sharing anarchy of the Net, have become the villains) and the "Nerds" (the "dark forces" of the commercial centralised interests have become the heroes)...

Thankfully, at the "back-end" of this medium, the "anarchy" (or grassoot democracy) still prevails... and helps the Internet to remain available, sustainable and evolving...

If you have never thought about who manages the Internet, here is a peek behind the curtains from an old issue of The Wired:

    The Internet, perhaps the greatest instantiation of self-organization the planet has ever seen, evolves in its fractious decentralized way through the Internet Engineering Task Force, the IETF. Which means, in the cyber '90s, that the True Masters of the Universe are not freemasons, mergers-and-acquisitions specialists, or venture capitalists but the members of a voluntary association of tech wizards that create and oversee the technological future of the Internet. It is the IETF's work on tough technical problems that will make possible the whiz-bang Net applications of the future.

    Maintaining a low profile and peaceably going about its business as collections of True Masters always do, the IETF has always consisted of anyone (that's right, anyone - an IETFer could be your mom, a former Soviet commissar of culture, or even a director of marketing) who wants to be part of the technical working groups charged with creating the standards and pathways that will move the Net into the next century. All you have to do is pay a token registration fee and sign up. No questions asked, no meritocratic credentials checked.

    In the IETF, there's a kind of direct, populist democracy that most of us have never experienced: Not in democratically elected government, where too many layers of pols and polls and image and handling intervene. Not in radical politics, where too often, the same old alpha-male/top-dog politics prevail despite the countercultural objectives pursued. And not in the feminist collective world, where so much time is spent establishing total consensus and dealing with the concerns of process queens that little gets done. The IETF provides a counter-example of true grass-roots political process that few of us have ever had the privilege to participate in, outside of the backstories about member planets of the Star Trek Federation. IETF group process succeeds because of a profound connection with, and understanding of, the real world of networking.

    Unlike most technical-standards bodies, the IETF has pioneered a culture of pragmatism (quit jawing, throw it out on the Net and see if it works). It maintains a high debate-to-politicking ratio: there may be 104 opinions in a room of 100 IETFers, but the work still gets done. Which is not to say IETFers have the finesse and indirection of 19th-century French diplomats: one IETFer, trying to avoid pissing matches over an issue, was heard saying, "I don't think urinary contests will solve anything"; and another, regarding the organization's expectations, "If you don't write well, there are lots of standards groups in Europe that would love to have you."

    MIT professor Dave Clark, one of the grand old men of the Internet, may have unintentionally written the IETF anthem in his A Cloudy Crystal Ball/Apocalypse Now presentation at the 24th annual July 1992 IETF conference. Today, it's immortalized on T-shirts: "We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code." Which might translate to, "In the IETF, we don't allow caucusing, lobbying, and charismatic leaders to chart our path, but when something out on the Net really seems to work and makes sense to most of us, that's the path we'll adopt."

    Part of what has made the Net successful is precisely that: it works, and because it works, Net standards and protocols have dominated the marketplace, where others have tried and failed….

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