The internet, along with the personal computers that allow us access to it, are by far the most important innovations of our era. The ubiquitous instantaneous access to the information riches of cyberspace and to communication between people anywhere, has changed the world so fundamentally in just a few decades, that we sometimes forget how profound their impact has been. The information revolution birthed by the internet is one of those true epochal shifts, like the industrial revolution and the development of agriculture.
We should reflect more about the remarkably rapid success of the internet and what made that success possible. In our thinking about how to rebuild and restructure our economy, we should pay more attention to the most dramatic and fundamental success of our era.
The internet was birthed as a research project by the US government, specifically the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But unlike most things the government has been involved with, it was created with no hierarchy, no rules, no governing structure and no bureaucracy. Instead the users at the four universities that started the network used a process of respectful consensus to develop the necessary standards of participation in order to enable the network to function. And that initial very libertarian governing culture of the internet from the 1960s has somehow managed to mostly survive, even as the internet itself has evolved to be a global system that in many ways has become the foundation for the underlying architecture and ecology of information on the planet.
In “How the Internet Got Its Rules”, Stephen Crocker, author of the very first “Request for Comments” describes how that very modest means of communication between colleagues became the standard for rule making and establishing governing protocols on the internet.
Crocker suggests that: “Instead of authority-based decision-making, we relied on a process we called ‘rough consensus and running code.’ Everyone was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough people liked it and used it, the design became a standard”. He adds “that culture of open processes was essential in enabling the Internet to grow and evolve as spectacularly as it has.”
Crocker goes on to modestly suggest that “as we rebuild our economy, I do hope we keep in mind the value of openness.”
That is the most fundamental lesson of the internet. Unfortunately it seems to be the lesson most completely lost on those in high places trying to engineer a heavy handed government managed design of a new economy.