The importance of being a dynamist
By Scott Bradner
Network World, 12/13/99
Three and a half years ago I tried to explain to one of the judges in the Communications Decency Act case that too much reliance on centrally mandated standards would hurt the Internet. I was not as articulate as I would like to have been. I was only able to say: "What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos. It's the ability to have the forum to innovate." Virginia Postrel's recent book, The Future and Its Enemies, does a lot better job than I did in explaining what I was trying to say.
This is a wide-ranging book, taking on everybody from Newt Gingrich to the Unabomber. In the words of the author: "This book examines the clash between stasis and dynamism, and explores those contrasting views." I now know that I fall into the dynamism camp, and what I was trying to explain to the judge back then was some of the implications of following the stasis path.
Historically, the Internet has been an environment in which to experiment. There have been a few basic rules. The most important are the standards for IP and TCP.
There are other important standards for promulgating routing information and the like, but the real power of the Internet idea is that there are not mandated standards for what can run over the 'Net.
Anyone who adheres to TCP/IP standards can create applications and run them without getting anyone's permission. No ISP even has to know you are experimenting (or playing, which is also OK). This freedom produces unpredictable results. New industries can be created almost overnight and existing industries severely affected. Look at the impact of MP3 on the recording industry, for example.
The stasis camp wants to control the innovations, or "shape technology," in the words of Gingrich. A dynamist wants to let the market decide. So far, the Internet has been allowed to follow the dynamism path - the 'Net has been mostly ignored by the traditional telecommunications industry. Being ignored was the best thing that could have happened.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine spent some time explaining the Internet to people in state government. He reported that the dominant theme of the bureaucrats' reactions was: "How do we stop or control this thing?" Lucky for innovation that the bureaucrats were not paying attention when they could have had a serious impact.
But the threat is not over. The stasists fear the complexity and unpredictability the Internet is bringing to the economy and society. They will continue to try to find ways to control its impact. As a dynamist, I will keep trying to find ways around their fears.
Disclaimer: Viewed over Harvard's 363 years, even the most static institutions turn out to be dynamic. But the above plea for chaos is mine.