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.