Intertitle: Briefly describe your most vital contributions; what led you to become an Internet Hall of Fame member?
Larry Irving: I think primarily it’s my work on the digital divide. 1993, it’s a new presidential administration—the Clinton-Gore administration. We were focused on putting people first, and one of the things that we were going to put people first was bringing the Internet to the people of America. We had this thing called the National Information Infrastructure, which later became the Web, which later becomes the Internet, and my job really was to help figure out the ground rules for it. But also to help connect schools, and libraries, and hospitals, places where people would use the Internet.
I went with Secretary Ron Brown, who was my boss, out to Palo Alto, California—I’d gone to school at Stanford. I knew Palo Alto pretty well. And went to Cupertino, which is where Apple was headquartered. We went to visit this nice little school. This is ’94, ’95 and we were already doing some work with the Internet. But there were kids there in Cupertino, like eight to a desk that had these wonderful new iMacs. Later that day I happened to go up to Hunters Point, to a high school called Thurgood Marshall High School, predominantly black and Latino. Most of those kids had no idea that a thing called the Internet existed, had never seen a computer. And at that moment I kind of realized that the future of the country depended on those kids—bright kids, American kids, kids who wanted to learn, both having equivalent access.
Intertitle: What are the biggest challenges you had to overcome to achieve success; how did you overcome them? Was there an “aha” moment, a period of impact or a breakthrough realization or a steady flow?
Irving: There’s more black, Latino, Native American art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum than any museum in the country. But 95%, 99% of Americans are never gonna get to Washington to see it. Online they can all experience it. That’s what this thing’s about, and those are my aha moments. Every time I talk to to somebody…their aha moment became my aha moment. Because they’d see it through their lens, and that made me a better articulator of this vision. Because now I’ve got fifteen or twenty or thirty visions.
You go to a pueblo in New Mexico and you’re talking to a Native American elder, and he’s talking about how their language is dying and maybe they could use the Internet to preserve their language by connecting the different pueblos around New Mexico and figuring out what the art, what the history, what the languages are that’re beginning to die; keep that culture alive. Again, I never would’ve thought about it…put the technology in the hands of people, they’ll come up with great ideas every time.
Intertitle: Which people, experiences or developments were most crucial in your professional success and its impact?
Irving: So I’ve worked with men and women my entire life whose commitment was not just public service but public service for folks who really needed public service. You know, we weren’t just taking PAC checks from people who’d come to Washington and kind of dictate what was gonna happen. We’d go out in the community and say, “What do you need, how can we help you in Washington?” That’s the same thing I try to do with the Internet, go out to the people in the community and say how can we help you?
Intertitle: What are your hopes for the future Internet? Your fears? What action should be taken now for the best future?
Larry Irving: You know, I have a lot of fears about the Internet. I fear the loss of privacy. It is still seen by far too many people as the domain of other than minorities, of other than women, of other than poor people, and it’s got to be about all of us. I fear that it is becoming a pay-to-play ethic, and the thing you’re going to be having to pay with is your privacy. I dislike that a lot of companies say, “Hey, we’ll give you free Internet, and all you have to do is let us know everything about you that we’re going to sell to some third party.” That’s the main fear.
I have all these worries, but I’m one of those always optimistic people. That there’s nothing wrong with the Internet that can’t be fixed by what’s right with Amer— You know, I’m paraphrasing the old adage that there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America. There’s nothing wrong with the Internet that can’t be fixed by what’s right with the Internet. It’s up to us, the keepers of the flame, people who care about this, to make sure that that happens.
Intertitle: What advice do you have for the next generation working in your field?
Irving: I don’t think most kids in technology in America think that people in technology look like them. You know, every African American boy can tell you who Lebron James is, they can tell you who Antonio Brown is. And I wish I was as talented as Lebron James is, wish I could throw a football like Patrick Mahomes, but most of us can’t. Most of us however can contribute something in our community to bring the Internet to a school or a library. Most of us can help develop public policy. Most of us can figure out ways that we can use the tools that the Internet provides to make life better.
And here’s one of the other things that I’m really happy about. I’m one of the first kind of public policy people—lawyer slash…you know, non-engineers, the one who didn’t build the widgets but kind of built the policies. A large part of the growth of this Internet, what happens for the next ten, fifteen years with regard to Internet, is going to be at least as much a result of what happened with policymakers.
Intertitle: What has surprised you most about the Internet as it has developed?
Irving: I think the thing that’s really amazed me is how many people use it— How desperate we are as a people. It’s something about our just being human beings wanting to tell our own stories. The social media thing, everybody missed it…but I shouldn’t have because in 1994, ’95, we gave a grant to a housing project in Newark, New Jersey under the TIIAP program. A little girl wrote me a letter, said “Dear Mr. Irving, Thank you so much for giving me access to the Internet. I love my Internet. I love being able to go on the Internet and reading all these stories about the rest of the world. But you know what, Mr. Irving, you know what I really love? I love opening that window and shouting out my story.”
We all want to shout out our story. And that’s I think— When you look at what Twitter’s about, you look at Facebook, you look at Instagram, you look at Pinterest, it’s about shouting out your story. And that’s the thing—we have to find a way that we can have a civil, intelligent, non-bullying way to let people continue telling their stories.
Intertitle: What are the most positive Internet trends emerging today? What are the most worrisome challenges today?
Irving: The positive is just the level of connectivity. The positive is 5G, which is like broadband in your pocket. So you know, you basically have a fiber-optic cable connected to your phone.
The negative is are we going to connect everybody simultaneously. Are we going to leave some people behind? The negative is the cyberbullying. The negative is the loss of privacy. The negative is you know…there are reasons people are concerned about the size of some of the Internet companies. We didn’t see this massive consolidation.
All of these things are very very real. You know, when I look back at the work Laura Breeden and Bernie McGuire-Rivera and they were doing these initial TIIAP grants…you know, we had a very very simple job in a lot of ways. We were just connecting people to the Internet. And that was great. And I can always say for the rest of my life that at the beginning of the Internet I was there and played a small role.
This generation’s going to play a larger role. Because now you’ve got to fix something in real-time. It’s kinda like fixing an airplane going 600 miles an hour, while you’re flying. There are things with the Internet the desperately need to be fixed, and I’m not sure that we have the time or the capacity, or the willingness, to take, to tackle the tough job we’re gonna have.
Intertitle: How do you hope to see the Internet evolve?
Irving: None of us predicted YouTube, none of us predicted Facebook, none of us predicted Twitter, none of us predicted so many things we take for granted today. I’m not gonna get in the guessing game anymore. What I do think is, the more people of good intentions get involved in this, the more this becomes about people and less about profit, the better off we’ll be. Right now, we’re in a very interesting stage of Internet and technology evolution, where it seems to be more about the investors than it is about the folks who are using these products. Our theme in the 1990s was putting people first, I we’ll have a much better… That was the Clinton ministration’s model, putting people first. I think we’ll have a better and clearer path to an Internet future if we can go back to that old dictate of putting people first.
Intertitle: What does it mean to you to be one of the first African-American Hall of Fame inductees?
Irving: —but I think the important thing is I want every black and Latino boy and girl, I want every Native American, I want every Asian American, I want every trans— I want every person out there who kinda feels like they’re an other in a society that makes them feel like that to say you know what, this kid’s from a public housing project when he was born, public school educated, didn’t forget his roots, and did something important and powerful for this nation, and for the world. I mean that’s…that’s what it means to me.
But what’s important to note, nothing that I did did I do by myself. It was an amazing career. I had the 1927 Yankees, which they’re the ones people say they’re the best all-time baseball team? The people around me…Bernie McGuire, Laura Breeden, Tasha Williams. The native American focus I had was a young woman named Roanne Robinson. Becky Burr, Jane Coffins at the Internet Society. There are so many incredible, smart people who gave their lives, you know, sleepless nights, trying to get some of these projects up. Working with Capitol Hill. I want people to have that work ethic too. I want them to understand that all of us are part of a team. We were a diverse team of smart people. I happened to be the biggest mouth and had the corner office, but none of this would’ve been done without a whole bunch of folks. And the fact that the person who led the effort happened to be an African American male, I think is important because too many times, people think the Internet’s…that black folks didn’t have any involvement in it, Latinos didn’t have any involvement in it, the Native Americans didn’t have any involvement in it. And I can show them examples in each those communities that not only had a part but were integral to its success.
Intertitle: You mentioned the “digital divide” causes some minorities to feel even more on their own. As one of the first African-American Hall of Fame inductees, what would you say to a room full of people that may feel this way?
Irving: I’d say to them, don’t forget where you came from, but focus on where you want to get to. I mean, I— There’s never a moment that I’m not proud to be from Brooklyn, that I’m not proud to be black, that I’m not proud to be a working-class kid. But there’s never the moment when I didn’t know that I could be more than what I was, and that I couldn’t bring other people along with me to whatever their dreams were. I had no aspirations at 17 years old that I’d work for the President of the United States before I was 40. That I’d meet with the Vice President of the United States every day. You know, that was not within the realm of possibility for somebody in my community. It is in the realm of possibility for every one of those kids and I want them to know that, believe that, and if that’s what they want to do, realize that dream.
Internet Hall of Fame profile