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Visions of the Future from the Past: Internet tales from a Net Veteran

Jon Crowcroft is the Marconi Professor of Communications Systems in the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. He has contributed to the architecture of the internet since the early eighties; writing, inventing and giving away endless ideas. He is a fellow of a few societies, including the Royal one and the British Computer one. He has recently contributed to start ups including Raspberry Pi and Xen.

Here he discusses the evolution of the world wide web; how, whilst things have evolved, much of the thinking behind what we’re seeing today was there from the outset, whilst other aspects have been surprising.

1. Right from the start, we wanted the net to replace travel (especially expensive, tedious, and polluting work-related trips) with communications – so way back in the early days (I am talking 1981 -1988) we worked on multimedia conferencing, and by the mid 1980s could routinely send video over the net. We had a set of programmes for multi-party video/audio/shared document viewing, which worked fine, but what actually happened was MORE travel, because the internet meant more researchers found each other. We also discovered that while videoconferencing and what people call “tele-immersion” (including distributed Virtual Reality) was useful, it worked best when you already knew people well, and to get to know them well in the first place (and to maintain social relationships) you had to have the usual Real Life shared experiences (meals, pubs etc.) Decent shared VR may however eventually take over; check out this ancient web page for the CAVE we used to run at UCL, if you had that in your front room (like a Star Trek holodeck) that might substitute for a fair amount of work trips…

2. What we expected to work well was sharing information – what was originally just moving files around, and news articles – Usenet news [a hybrid between email and forum] bboards [first internet forums], fora – turned into a lot of what you see now on the web. The advent of twitter isn’t really shocking if you were used to usenet news.

3. In the late 70s, there was a thing called time shared computing – this has now come back as Cloud Computing – so that wasn’t really surprising, but the dependence people have put on the cloud services (their lives recorded on Facebook and Dropbox, all wide open to abuse by companies or government agencies who can coerce those companies) is surprising. People are careless – I wonder why?

4. No one really believed mobile access to the net (via smart phones) would take off so fast and so successfully. I remember watching a herd of military land rovers driving around Malvern Hills in England in 1983 doing internet radio, but I didn’t believe that 20 years later there’d be 1 billion people with star-trek communicators in their pockets.

5. We used to share music – that hasn’t changed – I don’t think the scale of music, book, game and video downloading was that much of a surprise. The people building the net intended it to reduce the waste in generating physical copies of vinyl, CD, DVD, paper etc. We got angry because the record and film companies didn’t pass on this cost reduction as quickly as they could, basically meaning that big Media Companies were caught blatantly profiteering until recently at least.

6. Pointless (social/emoticon) stuff abounds. This is a surprise to the geeky nerdy people who built the net, as they don’t “do” pointless emotional comms. well. When normal people became the majority of users of the net, and ephemeral content became a dominating fraction of comms., this surprised network pioneers. It shouldn’t have surprised them, as it was true of telephone networks 50 years ago, so why be surprised that 90% of tweets are lolcats?

7. The rate of growth always surprises people. This is just because people (even tech/geek people) are not good at internally comprehending binary exponential growth – we tend to think in terms of constants (constant growth) but the net doubles in speed, storage, and number of users and apps every 12-18 months. That means it increases by 1000 times every 10 years, not just 20 times (2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2 = 1024).

8. The level of misbehaviour (trolling, stalking etc.) was a surprise. This was due to a design goal (the possibility of anonymity), which turns out to be a blessing (if you want to organise an uprising in Egypt, Syria or Libya), but a curse (if you want to catch a paedophile or terrorist in England or France). It isn’t clear how to fix this — we’ll see.

9. Some stuff depends on altruism – e.g. Wikipedia – this isn’t surprising; a lot of the network got built by people donating their time for free. I am more surprised that other people are surprised by how altruism works more often than they expected (but about as often as I expect). We ran a thing in 1992 called the Global Schoolhouse, to show how we could link up primary school kids via video links to have the kids talk to each other directly about their geography ecology projects (from Brazil to England to the US and more) – it took a lot of work but it was a great success to show what could be done.

10. New tech in the past led to new creative things happening; paper was originally for bibles and official documents, but then we got novels – we haven’t really had a new Internet media yet – maybe mash-up is it – though I am not sure I find re-mixes as satisfying as renaissance churches like Orvieto.

One true story:  In around 1992, The Rolling Stones sent out a gig on the internet with live video and audio. What we discovered is that there wasn’t anything to stop other people sending to the same set of receivers in the net, so some really terrible band called Severe Tire Damage started sending out their gig at exactly the same time and got seen by gazillions of people on the net alongside the Stones (albeit with all the music jumbled up, so it was just a mess). Which is quite amusing – a sort of democratisation of media channels.

One more story: We thought computers and the internet would save the planet. For example using computers would mean less printed paper, so less wasted trees and using the net would be less travel so less pollution. In fact the computers and routers of the internet now use 2% of the world’s electricity and still growing. However, the good side of this is that some guys in Helsinki (led by Mikko Pervil) have put all their computers on the roof of their department inside a clear plastic tent. They use all the heat to run a year-round greenhouse to get fresh fruit and vegetables, which they deliver to local shops, thus offsetting the old way that these goods had to be imported by plane/train/ship, and so making it carbon neutral and getting fresher food even in winter.

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