Quotable (#18)

Andrew Russell argues for realism about the Internet:

Apart from the economics of Internet standards, there are also aspects of its institutional sociology that pose problems. Standards bodies are, by design, incrementalist organizations. In most cases they are not effective venues for conducting research or promulgating new techniques. Again, Internet history clarifies the point: the IETF was created in 1986 as a forum to stabilize implementations of TCP/IP, which was first developed over 10 years earlier. In other words, its foundational value was to sustain technological momentum, not to initiate it. One needs only a passing familiarity with some conceptual foundations of STS and the history of technology — Thomas Hughes’s “momentum,” Ludwik Fleck’s “thought collectives,” and and Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” — to understand that we’re more likely to see radical changes and fresh ideas come from somewhere else, somewhere unexpected.

If Fleck and Schumpeter were right, new ideas will arise from a place unaffected by the stable alliances of technical ideas, cultural norms, and business models in the IETF. We can and should count on the IETF for incremental suggestions for the Internet, but only an act of “dot org entrepreneurship” can generate something truly different. If/when that happens, it won’t be the “internet” that Schneier, Snowden, and their allies seek to defend: it would have a new “imaginaire” that, one hopes, would embody the values of privacy and security in ways the Internet does not and never has.

I’ll conclude with a historian’s lament. I worry that we are witnessing a cautionary tale of writing history without the benefit of one of our most powerful tools: long-term perspective. Thus far, it has seemed reasonable to cast the Internet’s brief history as a narrative of success. Perhaps it is time to re-imagine Internet history as a tragedy.

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