Vint Cerf, “Internet Evangelist” at Google, disclaims the title “Father of the Internet”, noting that there are a number of people who could rightfully claim to have done early development work on systems that became the Internet, but nevertheless, he played a very significant role because he was one of the developers of the Transmission Connect Protocol (TCP, now TCP/IP).
In the opening keynote interview by Paul Holdengraber from the New York Public Library, Cerf charmed and entertained his audience with nuggets from history and his thoughts on some of today’s significant issues. Here are some highlights from the interview:
What were you thinking in 1973?
Bob Kahn and I were trying to find a standard way of connecting multiple packet switched networks. How would we get all the computers to work smoothly together, without knowing how the info packets got there? We wrote a paper on Transmission Connect Protocol (TCP, now TCP/IP). That protocol is still how the internet runs today, so you’re using a 30 year old technology when you go on the internet.
Did you assume that the word Google would become a verb?
The original term was Googol (a mathematical term for 10*100). The attorney who filed the incorporation papers misspelled the term, and so it has become Google. But no, I didn’t expect it to become a verb, even though that happens fairly frequently in programming.
What does the term “internet evangelist” mean?
Only 25% of the world’s population is online, so we still have to help people get online, and that’s part of my job.
Does the internet need defending?
Yes, there are some parts of the world where people freely communicating is not approved.
Do you have any misgivings or reservations about the development of e-mail?
The ability to leave a message for someone to respond at their leisure was quickly seen as a great advantage. The earliest users of e-mail were journalists who used it to file their stories. Early service providers were not connected, but they soon connected to the internet, and that was the death of commercial email because it was all free. Now we have people paying you for not delivering e-mail!
What does e-mail do to our patterns of thought when we’re interrupted, etc.?
There are some people who don’t use e-mail because there is too much of it. Young people timeshare a lot, but they don’t use e-mail. I love it when I get several things going at once. Blogging, tweeting, etc. tend to reduce the time we spend thinking about things.
What does it mean to be attentive in an age of distraction?
Our culture is tending towards brevity, which suggests shallowness. There will certainly be some impact on society.
What is the “bit rot” problem?
As we build up more digital archives, those bits won’t be meaningful unless we have the applications to read them. My worry is that some older files may be interpretable. It is not just a question of preserving the bits; we may not have the equipment to read them, and the software to read them may be gone as well, and maybe even also the operating system. Cloud computing may be a helpful element so that we can run the older programs in the cloud. Cloud computing today is where the internet was in 1973—largely uninvented yet.
Is there a difference between reading an EBook or a print book?
Books don’t run out of battery power! I enjoy both, but I would like broader interoperability among ebooks. Physical books won’t disappear and we will hold them as precious objects. But most materials we work with every day will be in electronic form. We live in a world where more and more of the information we work with is dynamic. Inexpensive paper drove books at one time, but now electronic capability is even cheaper. There will be instances where people will want to have a physical copy of something, like games, spreadsheets, etc.
What are Google’s efforts working with schools?
It’s clear that information is increasingly accessible in an online form, so static materials like books are becoming less acceptably by our society. So Google is increasingly interested in making its materials accessible. People often learn best by doing rather than hearing about them, so I think we should expunge the word “teach” from our vocabulary and replace it with “learn” and recognize the power of learning. The internet is so open that it allows anyone to try things out, and we must keep it open because it unlocks creativity.
Tell us about net neutrality.
I am concerned that the broadband access market is not very competitive, so the providers may have a motivation to favor their own applications over those of competitors. That’s why the FCC has opened an investigation of net neutrality. I don’t want to see a suppression of creativity because of the lack of applications.
What is your position about privacy on the net?
It is absolutely expected by most people who get on the net. The tension is between anonymity and privacy, and law enforcement and protection of society. I believe in anonymity, but I also believe that strong authentication is valuable.
What is Google Wave?
We have lots of ways of communicating, but what would happen if we could combine all these functions into one application? That would be like a wave, and some people actually built such an application. You can begin a conversation with people not using the application, and some people may see it as email, and others would see it as part of a blog, for example. Parts of chats could therefore end up in blogs. We have empowered ourselves to use every kind of media that has been invented. That situation did not exist in the past. We now live in an environment like the “global village”.
Columnist, Information Today, and IL2009 Blog Coordinator