Glenn Ricart: I did a number of different things for the Internet and with the Internet in the 1980s. I was first exposed to the Internet back in 1968. Probably before you were born. In 1968, I was at Case Institute of Technology. And we had node number 11 on the ARPANET. So the eleventh place that was on what would become the Internet, I had access to it. It was a screen that was a write-only screen; so the little green characters would appear across, they would fill up, and then when it was all filled up, there’d be a blinding green flash in order to erase it. Because it was not dynamic and scrolling and things like that. It was just write once and so forth.
So I began using the ARPANET at that time. And it just changed how I thought about things. It really did. I could go and communicate with other folks. I could go and retrieve files. I could go and even have a love interest at an institution across the country. I never did meet her but I thought that it was just very interesting that something like that could happen over this medium with blinding green flashes in between these screens filling up.
So, that was my initial experience with the Internet. But in the 1980s, I began to realize that this might be the answer to some issues that I was facing professionally. I had been newly hired to be the…essentially the academic chief information officer for the University of Maryland at College Park. And I inherited a mainframe computer. A big mainframe computer, two vans that would go and drive the printouts around the campus every day. You could go and submit one or two runs a day, get back the printout and see if you have the results that you wanted.
At that time mainframes were beginning to die. And we could see that these little computers, these little minicomputers that were coming around the campus and being in different departments, this was probably going to take over. And here I am in charge of the big mainframe. So, I have to do something different. I’ve gotta change the game, right?
I remembered the ARPANET. Implementations for that were available for all of the different mainframes. I could go and connect all the smaller computers up together, and I would have a campus network. So, the University of Maryland, College Park became the first campus in the country to adopt the Internet technologies because I needed some way of being able to go and get all these minicomputers and midicomputers together. So I used my period of time, my honeymoon period with the university to go help make that happen. Got a great support from my boss Brit Kirwan the provost, and other folks. So it was actually the the very first time that had happened.
But, it was a bit of…mistake.
Interviewer: How so?
Ricart: It was a mistake because it turns out that the journalism folks didn’t really want to talk to the folks in chemical engineering.
Ricart: Yeah, not all that much anyway. And the math folks didn’t really have a lot to say to the business school. So, what happened is the business school wanted to talk to another business school.
So, the strategy is obvious. I needed to get some other universities to make the same mistake I had, and connect up their own campuses to what would become the Internet protocols.
That network became known as SURAnet. So SURAnet that was the very first of the regional networks connecting academic institutions in the United States and collected up thirteen states plus the District of Columbia. And each of those campuses could then talk to the other campuses using the network. And that meant that now my business school had other business schools to talk to, chemical engineers had other chemical engineers to talk to, things were much better. So that worked out really very very well.
Interviewer: So people were able to kind of grow together, use joint experiences from different schools.
Ricart: Indeed. Because in those days, in order to progress knowledge, you published a paper. By the time the paper’s published, it was probably two to three years after you wrote it. By the time that you write it, it goes through the editorial cycle, it goes to the printing press, the printing gets shipped to the library, you go to the library and read it, could be…three, four years. So the ability to build on previous knowledge was limited by how long it took to do that. Now with this Internet thing, we could send a preprint right away, even before it appeared in the book that you would get in the mail, or the library would get. And that meant you could build on things that people had discovered or had worked on only six months ago or three months ago. And it really sped up the pace in which research could be done.
And was it about that time that my courses began changing. I was teaching computer science. And once the network allowed us to get new information sooner, I begin changing my syllabus 25% every year because of all the new material that was becoming available, over the network, that I can go teach.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Ricart: I had the College Park campus connected to these other campuses. But what about other places and networks? The federal networks. The other networks that were growing up across the country. They should all get connected to each other. And there really was kind of a question about how that should be done. Because each of those networks was financed and organized by a particular group. So would it be okay for something sponsored by the National Science Foundation to talk to something that was a sponsored by NASA. And the answer was we didn’t really know. And people began thinking, well maybe we need to incorporate like passport-like information in each packet, so that we could tell if this packet was allowed to go from the NASA network to the NSF network, or to some other network, or to some university-sponsored network.
But it was getting complicated. Well, maybe it depends on who sends it. Maybe it depends on if there’s a network outage somewhere and you need to use this other network because there’s a network outage. There’s all of those issues and questions and problems that could’ve occurred. And it was just kind of holding people up. We don’t really know if we can enforce the right rules to connect up the networks.
And then a thought struck. I’ll invite all of these other networks to connect to the university of Maryland. University of Maryland…big university, has lots of departments, can go connect to lots of other networks for lots of other purpose. So the astronomers need to connect the NASA network, for example. By connecting themselves to the University of Maryland at a single point, it meant that they were all connected to each other. And that became the first place where the networks could come openly, both the academic networks and the original commercial networks, and interconnect with each other. So it became the first open interchange point for the Internet. In some ways, I helped put the “inter” into the the Internet because it was the first time these administratively-different networks were connected together and could connect together as they wished.
So for example, we had Rick Adams at UUnet; connected together his initial TCP/IP network by connecting to the University of Maryland, College Park. And Bill Schrader who did PSINet connected to University of Maryland at College Park. And they were connected to each other and to all of the other networks.
And once everyone on any of these networks could begin sending packets to one another, everyone forgot about the passports, forgot about the restrictions. This was such a good thing that who was going to turn it off for themselves.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Ricart: I think just like weather the Internet is displaying all of those weather characteristics and all at the same time, in all the different places. So in some ways it’s very sunny. We’ve got greater interconnection than ever before, we’ve got great mobile connections, we’ve got lots of innovation happening. But in other areas it’s kind of stormy and threatening, because we have various governments and religions which are trying to restrict the flow of information along their lines that they think are most appropriate, and maybe are appropriate for their areas. So I think that’s fine. But it doesn’t really hinder one of the values that we hold dear in the Internet, which is the ability to interchange information freely and to be able to say what we want and to be able to learn what we want. And to be able to act on those things and create new businesses based on the information society.
So windy, definitely, because we’re seeing lots of winds of change. So I’m invoking the winds for the winds of change. I’m invoking sunny for all of the interesting innovation stuff that’s happening. One of the most valuable companies in the world, Apple is either number one or number two, is based on that kind of innovation and Internet capability. And I think also we’ve got some fairly stormy spots where there are restrictions and firewalls and so forth that are really preventing those societies from reaping the full benefits that they could.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Ricart: I have a lot of hope for the future based on the fact that I think that creative expression is one of the end results of the Internet growth and evolutions as we know it. So that gives me a lot of hope that there’s a lot more to do. Voltaire once said that the better is the enemy of the good. I actually think it’s reversed. I think the good is the enemy of the better. Today’s Internet is good enough that a lot of innovation that should be happening isn’t yet happening. So one of the things I’m doing working with US Ignite is to be able to help make that future Internet happen sooner and people not be so satisfied with what they’ve already got. So I think it’s very important that we’re able to go and continue to move this forward and to be able to encourage this kind of self-expression and creativity.
My fears for the Internet and overall center around two things, a technical thing and a cultural thing. The technical thing is that we keep coming up with more and more standards for the Internet. More and more are RFCs. It’s becoming more and more complex to be able to have an Internet connection. Each one of those incrementally adds value. But in some, they end up making it so complex that I think that we are going to need a new simplification.
For those folks who are technical, we used to have these complex instruction set chips, CISC chips, and they’re still in a lot of laptops. But for our phones we needed something that was simpler, that drew less power, that could still do important things. And what was developed was something called reduced instruction set computing. RISC, reduced instruction set computing. The RISC is much more effective at use of power, is much less expensive to produce, and still can get you many of the same results. I think we’re going to see some kind of a revolution like that happen in the Internet, where the complexity of the Internet protocols are for some purposes—not all at once and not in some big sweep-it-away revolution but in some incremental way, augmented by some much simpler protocols that can do the things that they do very well, at less expense, which means they can be deployed more places. And I think that some of the best places for this reduced network…most cost-effective network are in some of the developing countries where they can go directly past the complication and to the let’s keep it simple but make it broad approach to pushing out the Internet. That’s the technical one. That’s the technical arm fear, is that people will go too far on the complication route.
On the cultural one, I think that there is much too big a danger that people miss out when their government or their culture or their religion proscribes the uses of the Internet which are appropriate. If your government or culture or religion says that these things you should not do, in many cases that’s good, but in other cases it can really hold back the full realization of what people can express, can do, can collaborate with others. And so that is a threat to do this appropriately. There are some things that are wrong. We should not be using the Internet for terrorism purposes or for murder, but we need to make sure that other things which could result in greater human good are allowed.
Intertitle: Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Ricart: US Ignite, my organization, is looking for those advanced applications of new networking technology that can make a real difference in advancing the state of the Internet and what people can do. We’re looking for very interesting applications. One is to go and make video conferencing ubiquitous at high quality and low cost. And you can do that if high bandwidth is available, and simplified protocols like software-defined networking can become available to help replace what is today an expensive multipoint video control unit.
Another example is being able to do remotely-assisted surgery. So if you need a rare surgery, maybe the surgeon who is best at this can be looking over the shoulder of the person who’s next to you on the operating table and making some suggestions about how that procedure should be performed. And in some cases maybe even doing part of the procedure with telerobotics. So I think that that is going to be able to make a huge difference.
I think that enabling people to exercise critical thinking with each other is an important piece of education. Education is not just about reading the Wikipedia article. It’s about learning how to use information, to think about it in ways that go and trigger critical thinking and help that skill be further developed. I think that the network is going to do that.
Glenn Ricart profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013