“The Technology of the Internet”

We started off our discussion with some food for thought regarding the current turbulent state of the tech industry. It seems as though Uber has been put through scandal after scandal over this past year, ranging from accusations of stealing Waymo’s intellectual property, to Susan Fowler’s recounting of systemic sexual harassment, to Travis Kalanick’s hostile encounter with his Uber driver. Ultimately, it was probably for the best for Travis to step down, both for himself and for the company’s return to normalcy. In other ways, however, this could prove to be a critical test at Uber, demonstrating whether the company can successfully move past a “bully” phase to a mature, compliant enterprise, without sacrificing the intense innovation that got the company to market dominance. It remains to be seen how¬†Dara Khosrowshahi will take the reins at Uber, and what direction he takes the company in.

I enjoyed our discussion of the past week’s turbulence within the world of cryptocurrency and blockchain. Crypto seems to have finally hit the mass market, perhaps inevitably with the skyrocketing price of Bitcoin putting it in mainstream news outlets constantly. I believe the underlying technology under blockchain has the potential to upend just about any industry where transparent, auditable, and distributed data is important. It’s often said that today, we have the internet of information, but blockchain allows us to finally access an internet of value, perhaps fundamentally transforming our economic systems. I hope we continue to discuss cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology as we move into our discussion of the Internet economy next week.

Returning to the readings, the idea of the Internet seems obvious in hindsight. There are many different networks with unique features but sharing much of the same functionality, so why not link them together? Putting this in words is easy, but implementing this technology required far more thought and technical effort. The genius behind the Internet is that it doesn’t require much of a central body to set rules. Instead, each network can implement different features and a “gateway” can facilitate cross-network communication simply by acting as a host on multiple networks. The early creators of the Internet had much foresight, thinking of scaling toward a future they could scarcely imagine. The continued use of TCP/IP stands as a testament to the thought they put in with regards to scaling. I was amazed by how well-thought out the “End-to End Arguments in System Design” paper was. By removing complexity within the network and reducing it to dumb pipes, they enabled far more adaptive innovation from the host-side, without requiring complicated network upgrades.

Finally, I thought the “Web Turns 28” letter accurately captured much of the challenges facing the Internet and our relationship to it as a society today. In many ways, the three issues raised are all interconnected. As governments and corporations control increasingly large portions of our online platforms, they gain access to incredible amounts of personal information. Whether this is a “fair tradeoff” for the free services we obtain is difficult to say, but with rapid advancements in the fields of big data and machine learning, this means a few pieces of information can be used to assemble a much larger predictive model, allowing for precise targeting of advertising, news (whether fake or true), and other information. Essentially, organizations get an inside view of our thoughts and actions in a way which would not have been possible a decade ago. In some ways, this loss of privacy seems inevitable as technology marches forward, will consumers take a stand? I’m interested in where governments decide to go in regulating privacy and data collection on the internet, and what they decide to collect themselves. One thing’s for sure: there’s no going back, so we might as well adapt our current frameworks.

2 thoughts on ““The Technology of the Internet”

  1. Hi Jacob. Very thoughtful comments. We’ll touch upon cryptocurrencies very briefly in the next few weeks, but not in the next session on the economy. It’s one of those topics about which I myself have been starting to read. This might make a great last seminar when you and your fellow students get to choose your own topic for class. Hint, hint.

    One of the things you’ll experience throughout your life is that the best ideas are those that are obvious in hindsight. I secretly love it when someone says to me at a technical conference that the paper I am presenting is obvious. They don’t always mean it as a compliment, but it is. If it is so obvious, why didn’t someone else do it (or write the paper) earlier? Plus, I have never thought that technical papers should be obtuse.

  2. Great post, and great questions.

    When thinking about all the information that government(s) and corporations amass about us, I think it is useful to think about who it is that “knows” things about us. A colleague of mine (Bruce Schneier) has taken to pointing out that Google knows more about him than his friends, because he never lies to Google. But who is Google? It certainly isn’t a single person. I doubt that there is any single person at Google who knows all these things about Bruce. And corporations aren’t things that know anything.

    We will likely talk about this when we talk about privacy. But I think it is good to be clear about these issues, as it helps avoid the temptation to start wearing a tin-foil hat…

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