Odd Sentences

Via Project Syndicate:

The Internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough that changed the world. Today, if you have an Internet connection, you have at your fingertips an amount of information previously available only to those with access to the world’s greatest libraries – indeed, in most respects what is available through the Internet dwarfs those libraries, and it is incomparably easier to find what you need.

Remarkably, this came about with no central planning, no governing body, and no overall control, other than a system for allocating the names of Web sites and their addresses. That something so significant could spring up independently of governments and big business led many to believe that the Internet can bring the world a new type of freedom. It is as if an inherently decentralized and individualist technology had realized an anarchist vision that would have seemed utterly utopian if dreamed up by Peter Kropotkin in the nineteenth century. That may be why so many people believe so strongly that the Internet should be left completely unfettered.

That something like…well…anything in the world can be designed using a minimal framework of standards is quite remarkable — but not surprising. Everything in the natural world has been designed using this process. Natural selection is provided with few tools which “it” uses in different ways. The result is sometimes miraculous, sometimes disastrous. In the same way that natural selection searches an infinite design space of all possible outcomes using very simple tools of biology (DNA, for instance), and assembles creatures based on infinite permutations of the same structures. So do economic actors search the infinite design space of all possible physical and social technologies using very simple tools (our cognitive abilities) to create physical and social design structures — we create order, just like natural selection.

Sometimes, natural selection stumbles upon an evolutionary “good trick”, which provides such a competitive advantage as to necessitate replication for survival. Eyes are a good example. In this same fashion, humans stumble upon economic “good tricks” which allow us to spring forward at a great rate. The industrial revolution, markets, democracy, communication technology, etc. When these tools are developed, it allows a greater rate of growth, as we do not have to continue “relearning” these tricks. This leads to exponential growth.

Indeed, this process quite remarkable. However, in the article, I think the the author is using the word “remarkable” as a synonym for “surprising”. I don’t exactly find this phenomenon all that surprising — the fruits of this decentralized process are all around us! What would actually be surprising is the internet that we know having been the result of central design and planning!

— — — —

P.S. I realize that government was involved in the creation of communications technologies.

P.P.S. No, evolution is not the ultimate in efficiency, or we would all be one-celled organisms. The process, given different framework, could work to be “more efficient” or “more equitable”. Natural evolution is a mostly blind search, but economic evolution need not be. However, evolution is still ultimately smarter than you.


4 thoughts on “Odd Sentences

  1. If there is a surprise here, I think it’s because the Internet is not just an invention, but a communications network.

    Every piece of it obeys the same few protocols: TCP/IP, UDP, SMTP, HTTP, SSL and HTML primarily. The history of other technologies (video, personal computers, word processors, mobile phones, credit and debit cards, even railroads) indicates that this is actually quite unusual.

    It would be interesting to analyse just why the Internet was so successful, so (relatively) quickly, at adopting these common protocols when most other technologies, even those with strong network effects, ended up with multiple competing standards.

  2. I think the article very seriously underestimates just how much central planning there was in the origins of the Internet.

    More to the point, though, there are a lot of evolutionary dead ends in the history of the Internet (gopher’s a good example). These dead ends wouldn’t have led to what we have here without that central planning (and, yes, Gore did invent the Internet as far as that’s concerned).

    The non-central planning came from that central planning. It flourished due to a concentrated effort to create a network both capable of diversified but efficient use.

  3. I’ll share this little guy on the history of the Internet–more specifically the myth that it’s a success of non-central planning.


    Key points to begin with:
    1) Internet was developed over decades with no original intent for profit; no private, for-profit venture would have ever bothered.

    2) Government ensured it didn’t become privatized. The Internet has relied on its open structure. If it had been a proprietary of, say, IBM, it’d have been dead in the water if IBM even bothered investing in a technology that no one had a clear vision would have ever brought a big profit. If it had been a proprietary of Apple, though… well, just look at how open they are (not at all).

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