Will “innovation from the edge” help with global warming?

On the eve of the climate meeting on Paris, I burrowed into Shane Greenstein’s new book, How the Internet Became Commercial: Innovation, Privatization, and the Birth of a New Network (Princeton, 2015).

A copy of Science magazine lay open before me, with alarming news about how warmer oceans are melting Greenland’s glaciers from below. Still, with thousands of bureaucrats converging on Paris to ratify a plan to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2020, I preferred reading about technological change.

This is the best book yet about the rise of the Internet.  Greenstein, of Harvard Business School, goes far beyond Janet Abbate (Inventing the Internet, MIT, 2000) and M. Mitchell Waldrop (The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal, Penguin, 2002) to tell the story from an economist’s perspective.

He describes how, “despite the absence of any large coordinating government planner, many independent factors tilted in the same direction, reinforcing one another at a market-wide level.” This happened thanks to the principle he calls “innovating from the edge” – multiple perspectives originating from multiple places in an industry with almost no concentrated decision-making.

An anomaly? Not at all, writes Greenstein. Internet exceptionalism may have been proclaimed far and wide at the height of the dot.com boom, but in fact a series of familiar economic archetypes shaped the Internet from its beginnings, in the early1960s. Following computers, semiconductors, microwave communication, and satellites, commercialization was always at the heart of the enterprise.

Five distinct communities were involved, originally mostly in the United States. The Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation for a couple of decades were the principal funders; programmers/developers/inventors, administrators, and application users were present from the creation.

For a time, advances were a matter of “collective invention,” in which improvements and experimental findings are regularly shared among vendors, more like science than proprietary technology. Gradually the implications for commerce became clearer. By the early 1980s, the military was tired of managing its Advanced Research Projects Agency network (ARPANET) for the benefit of the universities. The NSF took it over, renamed it, and, by 1989, was preparing to privatize its infrastructure. Congressional approval was forthcoming, and by 1993, the newly-elected Clinton administration featured reform-minded regulators, Federal Communications chair Reed Hundt in particular.

Greenstein separates the era of ultimate commercialization into three broad phases, Transition, Blossoming, and Exploration and Renewal.  Much can be gleaned simply from reading his timelines, which, in the book, serve as broad indices of the thirteen chapters. See which of these developments mean something to you.

.                                                      THE TRANSITION

1990: NSF conducts conversations about privatization; PSINet and UUNET begin first full year as private firms

1991: High Performance Computing Act of 1991 is passed; Tim Berners–Lee downloads code for web to shareware sites

1992: Network Solutions takes control of domain names system; Rich Boucher sponsors a bill to amend NSF charter; Internet Society founded and Internet Engineering Task Force becomes part of it

1993: Final NSF plan for privatization emerges, and NSF solicits bids; Mosaic browser made for UNIX and Windows OS; Earliest ads for ISPs in Boardwatch Magazine

1994: Founding of the World Wide Web Consortium; Mosaic Communications Company (MCC) founded; MCC changes name to Netscape and releases a beta browser

1995: Apache formed from different versions of National Center for Supercomputing Applications HTTPd server; NSFNET shut down, and Internet backbone privatized; Netscape IPO and Windows 95 launched in the same month

1996::Congress passes the 1996 Telecommunications Act; more than 2,000 ISPs advertise in Boardwatch Magazine

.                                                   THE BLOSSOMING

1992: David Clark speaks of “rough consensus and running code”; Internet Society founded and IETF becomes a part of it; Tim Berners-Lee visits the ITEF to standardize the web

1993 Louis Gerstner is hired as CEO at IBM; CERN renounces ownership rights to the World Wide Web code; earliest ads for ISPs appear in Boardwatch Magazine

1994: Vermeer founded, begins work on web-authoring tools; Tim Berners-Lee founds the World Wide Web Consortium; Brad Silverberg organizes team at Microsoft to examine web DITTO

1995: Gates circulates the memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave”; Netscape IPO and the launch of Windows 95; Hotmail founded, and “viral marketing” is invented

1996: Microsoft offers Internet Explorer at the price of zero; ATT WorldNet sold at $9.95 for unlimited service; AOL implements all-you-can-eat pricing

1997: 56K modems first introduced; tiered structure emerges among Internet data carriers; Netscape and Microsoft reach parity on browser features

1998: WorldCom merges with MCI, spins off backbone assets; over 65,000 phone numbers available for dial-up ISPs

1999: Dot.com boom reaches greatest height; WorldCom proposed merger with Sprint is called off

2000: Boardwatch Magazine records 7,000 ISPs; Internet adoption nears saturation at medium/large businesses

.                                                 EXPLORATION AND RENEWAL

1994: Lou Montulli invents the cookie at Netscape; Sergei Brin begins graduate studies

1995: Bill Gates writes “Internet Tidal Wave;” Netscape IPO and Windows 95 launch in the same month; Larry Page begins graduate studies

1996:  Microsoft begins pressuring partners not to support Netscape; Alan Greenspan makes speech about “irrational exuberance” wave of net entrants marks start of dor.com boom

1997: FCC issues final draft of Part-15 rules for spectrum; Steve Jobs makes deal so IE becomes default browser for Apple; Netscape and Microsoft reach near parity in browser features

1998: Senate hearings about Microsoft; Google founded by Page and Brin; Netscape coalition collapses, AOL eventually buys Netscape

1999: Dot.com boom reaches greatest height; telecom meltdown begins after rule change for CLECs; IEEE committee 802.11 issues design a & b, labeled “Wi-Fi”

2000: Federal Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson  issues judgments that find against Microsoft; NASDAQ reaches its peak in stock valuations for dot.coms

2001: Wi-Fi becomes available on Windows-based systems; PSINet declares bankruptcy; 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center; DOJ settles with Microsoft

2002: Internal accountant discovers fraud at WorldCom; Google scales quality-weighted second price auction; recession reaches its nadir

2003 Google launches AdSense; Intel launches Centrino

.                                                                    xxx

What are the implications of climate change? I haven’t the faintest idea. I thought immediately of Volkswagen, which was the first automotive manufacturer to incorporate onboard diagnostics in its designs, in 1968.

That the company that pioneered the technologies by which automotive emissions are controlled should have turned to self-sabotage is no more than a problem in corporate governance – a shocking one, to be sure, but relatively easily cured by severe sanctions. The fact that virtually all cars today are controlled by computers and regularly tested with them is a measure of how far, practically without knowing it, we have come in a relatively short period of time.

The Economist put it this way this week: “Radical innovation is the key to reducing emissions over the medium and long term, but it will not stop climate change from getting worse in the meantime.”  I don’t mean to suggest that it’s going to be easy. But the recent history of innovation includes fracking; smart grids; solar, wind, and battery technologies; and the vast Internet of things. The inventive and adaptive powers of humankind are very great.  What I do know is that in another twenty years, somebody is going to write a book like Greenstein’s about energy.

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