“The Evolution of the Internet”

Last week, we collectively groaned as we learned about the struggles of creating a system of hardware and software that was seamlessly interoperable. Unfortunately, that story doesn’t change much as we move forward into the software implementation of host-to-host communication on the ARPANET. To be fair, standards and interoperability are something we still struggle with to this day. Why can’t you plug your iPhone’s USB-A cable into your MacBook’s USB-C port? (Props to Apple for adopting the Qi wireless standard charging protocol for the iPhone X announced today. As we were mentioning in our discussion, once a standard reaches a certain level of permeation, it’s difficult for a company to resist adoption.) If one company can’t maintain full interoperability within their suite of devices, it’s a miracle we managed to settle on fundamental protocols like IP at all.

An interesting point from the reading was how much autonomy was granted to the select group of grad students who developed these communications protocols. Much of this was due to a lack of interest from the orthodoxy, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing for bountiful experimentation and innovation. This seems to be a repeating case throughout history, where a lack of intervention can sometimes lead to the best outcomes. For example, the urban areas most targeted for renewal and removal of “blight” ironically became the most damaged from well-intentioned government efforts, while neighborhoods like Boston’s North End, left untouched, flourished organically. In the case of ARPANET, the lack of close supervision allowed for rapid evolution of the network in way unforeseen by the general establishment.

As we touched on in our discussion, the freedom afforded to the developers of ARPANET also enabled the creation of a new set of cultural norms. Today, we still find ourself pioneering cultural norms on different platforms. How are “green texts” perceived compared to “blue texts” (iMessage’s subtle classification might have an intended effect)? What belongs on your Instagram, and what goes on your “finsta”? How does anonymity color our interactions with our peers, and does this anonymity give license to be offensive? Technology develops in tandem with society, with new use cases emerging organically initially, and eventually being integrated into products we use. When a critical mass began downloading Emoji fonts for use in messages, for example, companies were quick to integrate them closer with the OS, further implanting them in our cultural vocabulary.

For those that do not adapt, however, demise seems to be a fairly inevitable conclusion. We mentioned DEC in our discussion, a company I should not recognize were it not for my readings of post-mortems. I was recently reading an Economist article on the company from 1984 in Lamont. The article described IBM’s embrace of personal computing contrasted with DEC’s reluctance to leave behind its familiar world of profitable minicomputers. While this may have been a smart short-term business decision by whoever analyzed the potential costs/revenues, it’s clear that choices like this led to the company’s eventual downfall. When it comes to the internet and personal technology, those who do not move fast and break things tend to be broken themselves in no time.

One thought on ““The Evolution of the Internet”

  1. A nice post, bringing up a number of issues that we will be talking about later in the semester.

    With regards to companies having a hard time adapting– you might be interested in looking at Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. This is something of a classic on why companies fail to see the future, or are at least unable to move with the times. I spent much of my industrial career working for a company (Sun Microsystems) that was able to make major changes twice (from building hardware using other companies chips to designing our own chips, and from workstations to servers) but which failed to move a third time (from servers to the cloud) with the result that the company died. It’s very hard.

    In retrospect, these failures seem to be the result of short-sighted management. While that is sometimes true, Christensen makes a compelling case that the managers in these cases are often making locally optimal decisions. Innovation is hard…

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