Standardization

As we come to the end of our look at the beginnings of the Internet, I think it’s valuable to consider the role of standardization — specifically its impact on the way the Internet, and things in general, develop. On the one hand, there is the very obvious fact that, when producing something for a large scale, there has to be some agreement between the involved parties. To give a simple real-life example, there would be no cooperation between people if we didn’t not have standard way(s) to communicate. If each person spoke a different language, we certainly wouldn’t get anywhere.The analogue with regards to the Internet is, of course, the various protocols that define, at least to some extent, how users of the network ought to act. From TCP/IP, which has weathered the test of time, to HTTP, there a numerous standardizations that allow the Internet to run.

In my opinion, however, there is equal merit to individuality, or at least, competing standards. Almost always, the first idea is not the best one, or even the second best. Either, we build upon our original ideas and greatly refine them, or sometimes, we throw them out entirely, substituting a superior concept. A “free market” of ideas, where people are able to propose their own thoughts on something can be incredibly instrumental to its ultimate success. Through this open system of evaluation, people are able to test out things for themselves, in the best case perpetuating a process of iterative refinement and, at least, providing several options from which to choose the best. Looking back at the Internet, had OSI never existed, we never would have known how good TCP/IP was. And, perhaps, if more people had been willing to challenge the status quo and develop their own protocols, we might have had an even more efficient system.

Of course, it is pretty much never too late to change and improve a system. There a constantly changes being made to the Internet, despite its massive scale today. And, as a corollary, there are definitely plenty of aspects of the Internet that aren’t standardized. An incredible amount of competing technologies and philosophies exist and continue to arise — e.g. when’s the last time someone developed something with Flash? So, I guess, as with just about everything else, we are forced to conclude that standardization is beneficial in moderation. It’s a good starting point to set a few ground rules, but ideally, design should be flexible and subject to constant re-evaluation and improvement.

The Instantaneous Nature of the Net

The beginnings of the Internet are pretty amazing — not just because the ideas were so revolutionary and probably outlandish for the time, but more so because of how far we have progressed since then. The reliability testing that had to be done for FTP, isolating each piece of the network to see which part or parts were failing, is akin to tearing through the walls in your house to see if a rat has chewed through one of your electric cables when a light isn’t working in your house. It is very much analog, tangible. Today, we would never think twice about whether a file sent over the Internet reached its destination. We drag the file to the browser, click “send,” and can 99.9999% of the time safely assume that the file will go to its intended recipient.

Much more interesting to me, however, is the idea of instantaneousness. Whenever we use the Internet, unless we’re stuck on a pesky 3G connection — where’s 5G at already? – there is a certain expectation that everything will load immediately. In communications, especially, this is important. Whether using iMessage, Facebook Messenger, or even e-mail, the message is received pretty much right after it’s sent. This is a far cry from when, back in the days of the ARPANET, e-mail was bundled and sent over FTP once a day. Truly, as technology progresses, we become more and more reliant on its capabilities. If e-mail were as slow or as unreliable today as it was back in those days, our society would function a whole lot differently.

We use e-mail for work, school, news, advertising. If, as back in the day, we had to call up each person individually to send across a message immediately, it would take hours out of the day, not to mention the very likely chance that at least a few people would be away form their (very stationary) phones. In the modern age, technology makes us much more productive. Some might say that we’re becoming lazy or losing our “real human interaction” by spending all of our time staring at a screen in lieu of a face-to-face conversation. But used effectively, these technologies can really drive us forward in our everyday lives. With specific regards to communication, given the efficiency of today’s systems and products, we need not spend too much time on the Internet and with our devices to get things done — certainly not nearly as much as we would have had to if trying to do the same things at the same scale back in the days of the ARPANET. For example, to reach a wide audience today is simply to post a tweet or send out a mass e-mail, whereas 40 years ago, that might have entailed calling individuals, or sending out many, many pieces of mail.

It will be interesting to watch, especially since we seemed to have reached almost real-time in our Internet communications, where future improvements will take place and how they will change the way which, and frequency with which, people will use the Internet.