With Vint the Entangler
A desire to discuss our continuing ‘entanglement’ with the shadow-world of data brings me to the steps of a large house in McClean, Virginia. I’m still a good ten yards from the door when it opens in anticipation to reveal a tall, healthy looking man in his mid-sixties, immaculate in a three-piece suit with a welcoming smile on his face. “Hello,” he says and extends a hand. This is Vint, husband of Sigrid, and one of the men who invented the Internet.
We sit down in Vint and Sigrid’s library and he hands me his card. Vint Cerf. Google. Chief Internet Evangelist. (“I tried for Archduke, but it didn’t work,” he joked on his appointment).
“This is sort of silly,” says Vint. “It’s the 21st century and we’re handing out little pieces of cardboard. It’s an 18th Century practice.” As our conversation progresses I’ll learn that Vint has an eye for the silly. A recent invitation to a gathering of Catholics saw him arrive in traditional Spanish academic regalia (a costume given to him during one of the many ceremonies he’s attended to receive honourary degrees). When asked what religion he represented Vint replied, “Geek Orthodox”.
It’s because of Vint and his colleagues that we have the internet, the ‘network of networks’ that allow computers and other devices to communicate despite the fact they they may run different ‘operating systems’ (e.g. Apple Mac OS, Windows, a mobile phone platform) and are connected to different networks. It was Vint and Robert Kahn who developed the software that answered the question ‘how do I get data that lives on a computer on one network to another computer on a different network when both might be using different technologies?’ – a problem then called the ‘Inter-Net problem’. But Vint hasn’t rested on his laurels (which, having been instrumental in one of the most important inventions since the internal combustion engine, he’d have the right to). Today he works at the highest level at Google, promoting fair and equitable internet access for all, trying to help us map out our entangled future. He has written
In the next decade, around 70% of the human population will have fixed or mobile access to the Internet at increasingly high speeds. We can reliably expect that mobile devices will become a major component of the Internet, as will appliances and sensors of all kinds. Many of the things on the Internet, whether mobile or fixed, will know where they are, both geographically and logically. As you enter a hotel room, your mobile will be told its precise location including room number. When you turn your laptop on, it will learn this information as well–either from the mobile or from the room itself. It will be normal for devices, when activated, to discover what other devices are in the neighborhood, so your mobile will discover that it has a high resolution display available in what was once called a television set. If you wish, your mobile will remember where you have been and will keep track of … objects such as your briefcase, car keys and glasses. “Where are my glasses” you will ask. “You were last within … reach of them while in the living room,” your mobile or laptop will say.
“So, do you agree with Daniel Hillis?” I ask. “Are we Entangled?” (see my earlier post ‘The Knowledge Combustion Engine” to read about Danny Hillis’ ‘Age of Entanglement’ argument, or see his whole essay from The Edge here)
“This is not new,’ he replies without a beat. “We have always been entangled with our technology, we’ve always been entangled with knowledge. It may be more obvious now, because of the way it manifests. But if you were a cave man you might have become quite dependent on tools that you built, because without them you might be able to feed yourself, so you needed the knowledge to make those, or you needed the knowledge to find somebody who could make them. And then you also had to know that that thing over there was a sabre tooth tiger and it was a really good idea to get away from it, because the people who didn’t understand that didn’t survive to put their genes into the gene pool.”
In short, entanglement with knowledge and technology keeps you alive. In a way technology’s story is our story. I’m reminded of something Chris Anderson at TED said to me, which I recite to Vint.
I think there is such a thing as moral progress, driven not by any difference in the DNA kids are born with, but just driven by what they see, and seeing more of humanity just naturally flicks on certain switches
“Because the Internet allows us to see more of each other,” I ask, “is it therefore an engine for moral progress?”
“Well, yes and no,” he replies. “There are several phenomenon that this connectivity imposes on us. One of them is awareness of what’s going on in the world, more than we would otherwise, sooner too, almost in real time. The problem with this is that we can misunderstand or misapprehend what it is that we have just learned or discovered or encountered. When you read about the bombs that are going off in Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s front page news here you start to get the feeling that you are at risk, that the world is a dangerous place, and the side-effect of this is that you experience an anxiety which is not necessarily warranted given where you are. It’s like doctors think the world is full of sick people because the mostly see sick people. So perspective starts to leak away because of this connectivity. The good side of it is that we encounter people we never would have encountered, we have an opportunity to rub ideas together we might never have had the chance to explore – and I think that’s incredibly powerful. So my optimistic statement of the day is not that information is power, but that information sharing is power and I think that that’s repeatedly demonstrated in the course of human history – that the sharing of information makes us all more powerful – and that any society that suppresses information harms itself in large measure.”
Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power.
That ‘the internet is nothing new’ (or that what it allows is nothing new) is a common theme throughout our talk. When I ask Vint how the Internet influences our decisions, for instance, he responds, “We’ve always been influenced by prominent people, by the books we read, the movies we watch. Our friends tell us things and we listen, our parents tell us things and we listen (or not) but the point here is that we get clues about what’s of interest and importance, and we have done in the past. Today we get a larger number of clues from a large number of sources. We have more potential inputs that we ever had before. But in principle it’s the same process. I think we’re being influenced by a larger number of participants, or maybe another way of saying it is a larger number of people have the option of interacting with you – and I think that’s an important.”
This ability to increasingly interact is a powerful engine for innovation, what Chris Anderson of TED dubbed ‘crowd accelerated innovation’ and I call ‘The Knowledge Combustion Engine’. “The openness of the network contributes greatly to people’s ability and willingness to collaborate,” says Vint. “I’m a huge fan and a huge believer that if you give people the opportunity, they will frequently take advantage of that and do interesting things.” He believes that we’re seeing, “what happens when you amass enough computing capability, communications capability to organise that information and make it not only accessible but make it also amenable to your contribution to it. So this ability to aggregate large amounts of information from many different sources in a coherent way (which Google would say is, ‘organising the world’s information and making it accessible and useful’) has dramatically changed our ability to understand our world around us and to be aware of and react to what’s happening.”
“We are Entangled,” I say.
“Yeah, we are Entangled,” replies Vint.
As ever, more of this (and more coherently presented) will be in the book…