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. 

Interviewer: Hm.

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. 

Further Reference

Glenn Ricart pro­file, Internet Hall of Fame 2013


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