Back on the air…


Hard to believe that I haven’t written since last November, but there it is. Now the second version of our Freshman Seminar is up and running, so I have a forcing function to write…

I’m always fascinated by reading the early history of the ARPAnet/Internet. The whole effort was an amazing leap of faith by a group that didn’t know if what they were trying to do would ever work. They certainly had no conception of how it would scale and the importance it would have in the current world. They were just trying to get something that would let them do their work more easily.

Which leads me back to a question I often consider, which is how can standards best be set? The standards that enable the internet (TCP/IP, DNS, and the like) were, for the most part, built to solve problems people were actually having. They weren’t built using an inclusive, multi-stakeholder, democratic standards organization. The IETF, which is the organization that has the most to do with Internet standards, is run by a process that causes governance people to faint. It’s a bunch of geeks, figuring out how to get the job done. But the results are pretty good.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the best technology standards are the ones that describe an existing tool or technology that everyone uses because it is useful. The C programming language, for example, was standardized well after everyone who was going to use it was already using it. The purpose of the standard was to write down what we all knew. The early days of Java(tm) were the same, as was Unix (which had, in its early days, two standards; one from AT&T and the other from Berkeley). I think of these standards efforts and writing down what are already de facto standards. This is valuable, and the standards seem to work.

I contrast these standards with those that begin with a standard’s process. These are technologies like Ada, the object-oriented language mandated by the Department of Defense and built by committee, or the ISO networking standards, produced by a full multi-stakeholder process. While they may have their good points, they tend to be clumsy, ugly, and not very useful (and therefore not very used). These are attempts to impose standards, not describe them. I used to claim that the reason managers liked these standards is that they turned technical questions (which the managers didn’t understand) into political questions (which they did). But perhaps I’ve mellowed with age; I now think an even more basic problem with these committee-invented standards is that they are created without a particular problem to solve, and so solve no problems at all.

One of the real blessing of the early Internet was that no one other than the engineers working on it thought it was important enough to be worth putting under some form of governance. The geeks got to solve their problems, and the result is a system that has scaled over many orders of magnitude and is part of the infrastructure of all technology. But one of the reasons that it works is that those who started it had no idea what they were doing, or what it would become.

Technology and government
Simplicity and Scale

1 Comment »

  1. Ben Kuhn

    September 3, 2017 @ 7:16 pm


    In what sense do standards “work” when they describe an already-existing solution to a problem? What work do they actually do?

    The most obvious candidate is that they help you implement a compatible program from scratch. But how much do standards actually help here? It’s not that clear to me. Is it much easier to compile a C codebase with a new compiler (which was written to a standard) than to run a Python codebase under a different interpreter (which wasn’t)?

    Maybe instead the main utility is that these standards help people decide how to extend the original tool/protocol? A clear example of this would be CSS, where various browsers will implement new attributes with a -webkit- (or -moz- or whatever) prefix, and eventually they’ll be included in a new version of the CSS standard. Of course, this requires some sort of governance structure to evolve from the “geeks solving their problems,” but if the formal governors are extending an already-proven tool, there’s much less room for them to do damage.

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