"Cynics Are Often Right, But They Never Get Anything Done": Why Bob Metcalfe Is an Internet Optimist

Xconomy National — 

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series examining the internet’s first 50 years and predicting the next half century. Join Xconomy and World Frontiers Forum on July 16 for Net@50, an event exploring the internet’s past and future.]

Right alongside Moore’s Law, which describes the exponential growth in computing power since the 1960s, there’s Metcalfe’s Law, which describes what we’ve done with all that power: namely, use it to connect the world.

The law proposes that the value of a network increases in proportion to the square of the number of endpoints—an idea that turns out to be roughly true, according to a couple of quantitative studies.

Before he got a law named after him, Bob Metcalfe earned his renown as the co-inventor of the Ethernet networking standard and the co-founder of 3Com. Today, he’s director of innovation initiatives at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Few people have a fuller perspective on how quickly the internet has grown and why it’s set to keep disrupting new industries. Metcalfe will join a panel predicting the internet’s next 50 years at Net@50 on July 16. I interviewed him for a pre-conference look at the forces shaping the internet’s future. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: If you had to guess, how long will it take to reach a 100 percent internet penetration? Will that happen for all 10 billion people who will be around by the year 2050 or 2060?

Bob Metcalfe: Well, we’ll never get all the way. It’s asymptotic. But it will be on the order of another 50 years to complete the adoption cycle, I think. It started 50 years ago at zero, and reached about halfway in just 50 years. Assuming a certain symmetry to the adoption curve, that would say another 50 years.

X: There’ll always be some people who aren’t on the internet, probably out of choice or just because they’re so remote or cut off by their governments.

BM: Yes. And you saw how I did that—there was no magic. I just assumed that the adoption curve is symmetrical.

X: So what follows from that? I mean, I think that we’ve discovered in the last few years that the wonders and glories of the internet, the things that everyone had stars in their eyes about for the first maybe 25 or 35 years, have their counterparts in the form of fake news and all the other pathologies of the internet. And I wonder whether having full connectivity, or close to full connectivity, would make those pathologies even harder to deal with?

BM: I think that the thing that’s created these pathologies is that the connectivity has grown so quickly it has temporarily outstripped our ability to handle it. So, we’re catching up. It’s happened so quickly, in just 50 years, depending on when you want to start the clock. And I think it has less to do with the penetration level than it does to the suddenness of it all. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with this connectivity, and we will. We will figure it out.

X: Do you think that will happen on a case-by-case basis, coming to grips with specific problems and coming up with a fix, and then waiting until the next one?

BM: Yes. I think we’re making [a mistake]. One that has attracted my attention is the fake news mess, where we all decided to ask Google and Facebook and Twitter et al. to filter out fake news. We asked them to do that, and then they made the mistake of agreeing to [filter] it out. And so, it’s going to take a while for us to recover from those errors. But we’re going down that dead end right now. It’s an example of an issue where we haven’t really figured out the correct answer. I think I know what the correct answer is, which is the branded composable filter, where we are in charge of filtering our own information.

X: You mentioned that in our emails before this interview. I wanted to ask you what you meant by that?

BM: Imagine that there is a workbench for building filters, and you have a bunch of branded ones like New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and Bob Metcalfe down the right-hand side. Then you take your mouse and you select some, and you pull them over and you compose [a set of filters].

What I mean by branded is, there’s a lot of them, and they have someone’s name on them. I like the New York Times. I suppose that they would have some filters to contribute to this. So, you then compose them, that means you can imagine this workbench allows you to add them and subtract them and complement them until you can compose a filter of all the existing filters. Then you could put your name on that and make that your branded composer. And then whenever you then come to this service, Facebook or Twitter or whatever it’s called, you would then look at it through your filter, so you would decide what’s fake news and what’s not. Or you can borrow other people, right, by choosing to put their filter inside of your composition.

X: I love this idea. It sounds adjacent to ideas like the old-fashion RSS reader, which has nearly disappeared, but there was a time only 10 or 15 years ago when you could set up a really cool personalized RSS reader and just pull in the feeds you wanted.

BM: Oh. I had forgotten about RSS feeds, but I’m imagining this composition tool being much richer than that. Anyway, do you want to start this company? We could just do it. You know, build the composition tool. I know Tim Berners-Lee has decided to start his own company, with pretty much the same idea, which is the people own their own information. In this case, people own their own filters.

X: Well, the problem with that would be, how do you get a VC to fund it, if it’s not driven by advertising?

BM: Why does it have to not be driven by advertising?

X: I feel like the examples we’ve seen today of advertising-based business models in social media and internet-based information have been imploding and kind of backfiring on us.

BM: I don’t remember you East Coasters complaining about the New York Times being advertising-based back before social media. I don’t remember you being all upset about how CBS and NBC were all advertising-based long before the internet.

X: Fair point, fair point. I really should have said “psychographically targeted advertising à la Facebook.” But this actually leads to a related question, I think, that gets back to our theme here. I like this idea of branded composable filters where you’re in charge of assembling your own way of filtering the news. But it feels like giant companies have been setting the agenda in so many areas, including creating the gateways that most people go through to find their news and information. Facebook is one of them. Google is another. So, is there a way in which we’ve allowed these giants to take over our access to information? Or maybe you could have said the same thing about Microsoft in 1992.

BM: And in 1985 you would have said the same thing about IBM.

X: I guess these monopolies die off eventually.

BM: They do! That’s the point. They come and go. And right now, it’s Google and Facebook screwing up.

X: So, I guess the question I was working toward is, does that worry you at all? Or do you think these big entities that have too much power will ultimately fumble and be replaced by other entities—who will eventually have too much power and then fumble?

BM: I think it will happen just like that. You know the old rule of adult supervision, that when you start a company and then the company outgrows the founding team, they bring in the adult supervision? Both Google and Facebook are now run by their founders—Larry [Page] and [Mark] Zuckerberg. And that’s the problem. They shouldn’t be running those companies. Google did a good thing by bringing in Eric Schmidt [as CEO in 2001], the adult supervision. And they gave it back to Larry. And Zuck did a good thing by bringing in Sheryl Sandberg to be his adult supervision. But he then made her COO instead of CEO. And he’s just not competent to run that company, and he’s just running it right into a buzz saw, by just not knowing what he was doing.

X: But that’s just kind of the drama we see over and over … Next Page »

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