The Internet is a real thing and nobody understands it

August 13 2014

When you dig a hole in Manhattan, you have to perform archaeology. So much has been put underground with such contradictory or absent documentation that it is impossible to know what you will find in any potential hole. Which means that you have to dig carefully to not break any surprise pipes or subterranean infrastructure. This made city is so complex and layered that we have to treat it as a naturally occurring object to be explored, rather than as a made thing of known properties with attributes described in plans.

The Internet is like Manhattan. Every part of it is built, but the whole is grown. The Internet is so complex that we have to revert to observation rather than designs and plans whenever we want to know something about it. Web pages and emails and IM can seem kind of etherial, but they all run atop the Internet, and the Internet is a real thing. We made the Internet, bit by bit, but it is so big and intricate that we no longer understand it, if we ever did.

I have tried hard to understand it. I got a PhD in CS and wrote my dissertation on the Internet, in the hopes of finding out whether its growth has been healthy or not ("Measuring the Internet AS Graph and its Evolution". Boothe, 2009). The short version is that from 2002 to 2010, its health stayed about the same, with18 ISPs pretty much always able to control ~45% of Internet traffic (and this was very hard to figure out).

After I wrote my dissertation I spent 5 years as a professor of computer science, teaching undergraduates. Now I work at Google and I will soon be involved in helping store Internet measurement data and making the data free for anyone and everyone to look at so that new people can come along and help us all understand this medium we are growing. I am really excited about this, because right now our knowledge of the Internet is based on hearsay and flimflam, rather than open measurements and well-described analysis. When you start with flimflam, it is almost impossible to guide growth non-randomly. For example, we now have multiple contradictory policies about network neutrality, and even disagreement about what those words mean.

When people worry about "network neutrality", their underlying fears are of monopoly control of the shared resource that is the Internet. Monopoly control would result in stunted growth and bad outcomes for everybody except the monopolist. This is part of why everyone you talk to means slightly different things when they say "network neutrality": they are worrying about symptoms of a problem, and enumerating all possible symptoms is impossible. Instead, we have to examine the growing body as it is and look to see if the body is healthy or if it is showing signs of disease. If there are symptoms, then we can look for root causes and hopefully fix the underlying problem.

I really care about the Internet, and I hope you do too. The Internet allows people to communicate with unprecedented ease. We have wrapped the world in wires and allowed communication to flow so cheaply that we take it for granted. It's not perfect, but it has enabled us to feel closer to one another and come together as a species more than anything else I know. Although the pieces are built, the whole is grown, and we must monitor this growth to make sure the Internet stays healthy.

As long as we can talk to one another, there's still hope for us.

Peter Boothe
pboothe@gmail.com
New York, NY


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