Michael Roberts: There’s not been a lot of formal organization to the growth of the Internet, so it’s a little hard to talk about Internet leadership as some defined process. But after twenty years working in computing and networking at Stanford, I left Stanford in 1986 to go to Washington to open an office for research universities to basically lobby for the Internet. And my job there was to work on the Congress to see that they understood the potential value of Internet technology and networking based on Internet technology. We held a national conference that socialized the whole idea of the Internet as a major foundation for future communication systems.
After I left that job, I was asked to preside over a planning process that led to the creation of Internet2. Internet2 is really a consortium of the major research universities that stepped in after the National Science Foundation gave up funding for NSFNET in order to create a consortium that would ensure that American universities had a leading position in high-performance networking, which of course by the time that this was going on in 1997 meant that it was going to be TCP/IP technology.
When I was finished with that, I was somewhat coincidentally asked to become involved with the planning for ICANN. In other words, ICANN really grew out of a desire by the executive branch in the Clinton administration to privatize the various Internet administrative activities that research agencies had been doing that really didn’t belong there as the Internet grew. So what the privatization process did was gather up a half a dozen different functions—one for instance is the IANA numbering activity—and move it into a public benefit corporation, which is what ICANN is.
And since then I’ve been a semi-retired consultant, like a lot of Internet people.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?
Roberts: There was a very tense period between 1984 and 1988 when the telecommunications companies were aggressively trying to promote their own view of where high-performance networking technology should go. And that view was founded in a top-down command and control engineering model. Those of us who were in the research universities, who felt very strongly that the end-to-end, loosely-connected Internet technology was the way to go in order to build a more robust and scalable system really had to fight very hard.
So when the federal government decided in 1988/1989 to require federal agencies to use TCP/IP and then the budget office put some money into supporting it into federal support for Internet technology, that was what really turned the tide. Because it gave what had been a university activity public credibility, you know. With the federal government and all its might in all its agencies and all its thousands and thousands and millions of computers and networking and so on going to use TCP/IP technology, that couldn’t be ignored. And people in Wall Street, for instance, who were inclined to believe the telephone companies’ story on all of this— I mean after all, these were places like Bell Labs that were claiming that Internet technology would never work. I mean, they were very up front saying “Well this won’t work, it won’t scale.” They were still behaving like that as late as 1985 and 1986. So Wall Street, looking at a bunch of academics versus a bunch of multi-billion—multi-hundred-billion-dollar telephone company executives and engineers and so forth— You know, they were over in the telco side. So when the federal government took a deep breath and went our way, that was very much of a pivotal moment.
Some people will tell you well, it wasn’t until President Bush signed the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 that had $500 million a year for Internet technology, that that really was what cast the die. But in fact the decision process for that really culminated in 1988 and 1989.
Also, I think that we all owe a debt to the people at Michigan and IBM who partnered with the National Science Foundation to do NSFNET in 1987. Before 1987, Internet technology was limited to a few hundred places that were defense department-sponsored sites. And it was hard to claim that that constituted any general academic use of Internet technology. But NSFNET went from a hundred campuses in 1988 to a thousand connected campuses in less than three years. So, nobody could claim that it was a useless technology after that.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Roberts: The growth of the Internet like all phenomena has limiting factors. You know. You taken econ courses and you’ve seen these curves diminishing returns to scale and that sort of thing. So one of the appropriate questions about whether things are stormy or not is well, as we look at the evolution of the Internet over the next five or ten years, what are the things that are gonna help it grow in a constructive, useful way, and what are the things that are going to inhibit that growth. I think on balance, today, we are still in a very positive environment for growth. The frontiers of the underlying technology are still being pushed very successfully. In other words, we haven’t run out of the ability to continue exponential growth rates, particularly with the arrival of smartphone technology and very shortly wearables and implantables, and the Internet of Things. All of those have terrific multiplication factors in them.
And so you know, one of the questions you obviously have to answer is well what is the desirable limit for the Internet? That question put you over back into sociology, and psychology, and politics, and the human condition if you will. We aren’t anywhere close to saturation, but I would say that we are in a period where we’re running— The principal obstacles that the Internet is running into today is a difficulty in extending the reach of network access to the disadvantaged several billion people on the planet. The people who don’t have adequate access, don’t have a decent lifestyle to begin with, any reasonable standard of living, don’t have access to education, don’t have access to a social fabric that gives them a sense of self-esteem and of progress. So, the remedies for that kind of problem are not in just spending more dollars on Internet technology. It’s a much more complicated question.
So, those of us who were around at the beginning—you know, there was a meeting in Washington in 1986. And in one room there were about 300 people. And about 90% of the intellectual capital of the Internet in the United States was in that room. 300 people. Today, we’re up into the millions in terms of that kinda description. So we are the victims to some extent of our own success, because we all know that as organizations get larger, they have a lot of trouble being agile. And you’ve gone through this business yourself of coursework on self-renewal. How do corporations that get in trouble survive? Mostly they don’t. More often than not they don’t. They fall by the wayside, you know. Look at the railroad industry; almost died when someone when steam locomotives went away and that sort of thing.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Roberts: I’m from a generation of Americans that went through college in the 50s and and watched the kids that came after us be so unhappy with the Vietnam War. But we hung on to our idealism I think in a less radical way. So that means that our view of America and Western civilization, if you want to put it that way, is that we’ve been a very positive force for progress in humanity, and that our mastery of technology is really essential as you look to the challenges downstream in the next century. The media likes to hype them all up about all of the coastal plains are gonna be inundated the day after tomorrow and all these poor people are gonna drown so on. Well, it’s not like that but it is pretty serious. You know, there are vast areas of coastal plains that are densely populated that’re going to be underwater within fifty years.
One of the things that we’re not making progress on that it’s not clear what the Internet can do for is that we have a worldwide employment problem. It’s not only true in the developed countries, it’s true even moreso in the lesser-developed countries. That’s really social dynamite. You have all of these young people, especially young males, who can’t get a job. They can’t ask a girl to marry ’em. They can’t go to a girl’s father and say that they have a way to support her if he’ll let him marry his daughter. That’s very frustrating, it’s absolute dynamite. And it’s a definite obstacle to social progress. Much of what goes on in the Middle East which Americans view as incredible religious nonsense is that the underlying problem there is always young people that can’t get a job; don’t have any sense of social fulfillment in their lives—or very little. And a lot of that is biased by theocratic control that suggests that somehow or other going to a church or a mosque is going to solve a problem, and it’s obviously not.
So I would say that all of the technology that we’re able to harness, and an awful lot of that, a large fraction of that, I wouldn’t want to say all of it but at least three quarters of all the new technological development in human society in the next fifty years is going to be mediated by Internet technology.
Intertitle: What action should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Roberts: There’s a saying you’ve probably seen in your courses that a startup enterprise comes to a point where it reaches a level of maturity when you have to fire the founders. In other words, the attributes and the strengths and the motivations that got the company launched and on a successful trajectory are not the ones that will sustain it. The Internet, we still have almost all the pioneers with us and alive, and many contributing, but we’re gettin’ old and gray. And so I think that the new generation of leaders in the Internet, the thirty-somethings, the forty-somethings that we have today, their focus is going to be on identifying obstacles that’re out there which are much more complicated to deal with than— I mean, we thought in the 70s and 80s we were dealing with very complicated problems. Today’s problems are more complicated and require more intellect, more energy, more motivation. I think that my view of that, coming out of an academic environment, being an American educated in one of our best universities, I have a lot of respect for learning. And I have a lot of respect for the expectation of rigorous performance, if you will. In other words, you’ve probably had papers come back to you where the professor said basically “You didn’t have this right and you didn’t work hard enough on it.” So it’s really— You know, this is not easy stuff. You have to be smart, you have to be talented, you have to be motivated, and you have to work hard. And that’s characteristic of Internet people, characteristic of the people that’re being honored here. If we can maintain that sort of ethic, and that culture, we’ll be alright.