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

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again I guess. These companies get reined in eventually by someone or by some force. And the next thing happens.

BM: Right. The last time, remember, it was the government that helped us break up the AT&T and IBM monopolies so that we could build the internet. That might happen again. Or it could just be competitors. Microsoft could come back. Bing is going better than I thought!

X: You made a remark in our pre-interview emails that I wanted to come back to, about how the internet will continue to disrupt industries, but even bigger ones. You know it’s already disrupted commerce and news.

BM: Journalism’s financial model has been completely disrupted, and we haven’t found a new one yet, and that’s a problem. Journalism needs a business model.

X: From your lips to God’s ears. But now you expect a similar thing to happen in education, energy, and health?

BM: Yeah, they’re the big ones. Much bigger than the ones the internet has already disrupted.

X: To me, the common fact about those three particular sectors is that they all have extremely sort of persistent built-in inertia, like they all have their own systems and their own technologies. And I think they may be resistant to change.

In healthcare, for example, they’re stuck with these electronic medical record systems that were written in some cases for billing and insurance purposes and can’t live up to the goal of becoming repositories for our personal health data. You have to kludge so much into an EMR to make it even usable for a modern hospital.

BM: I’m currently a registered patient on three different Epic systems, Epic being one of the leading brands of EMRs. And the three of them are not connected.

One thing that’s happened that’s bad, and it sort of agrees with you, is that the term “healthcare” has come to mean administration of records and billability and payables. And the whole healthcare industry has taken its eye off the ball, which is health! We should be improving everyone’s health, not their administrative health records system.

So, I think the emphasis is going to shift. The internet is going to allow us to shift our emphasis back to health instead of being preoccupied by the ideology and the administrivia of healthcare. And those record systems are going to cave. The internet is very good at standardizing databases. And the health records are being standardized even as we speak. So, I’m not as pessimistic as you just indicated you were. So, there are two things happening. One is, the internet is very good at connecting things. So, all those incompatible health record systems will be crushed into a decent system or several of them. And second, the emphasis on health instead of healthcare administration.

X: What about energy? How do you see the internet disrupting the energy sector?

BM: Energy should be viewed as a network, and we will be exchanging energy. We’ll be switching power packets around from random sources—from wind and solar—to meet random demand, at any time of day. So, matching the randomness of time of day and the randomness of supply will require storage. And so, we will be putting energy in storage and then switching it around. Energy will be solved not only by the science of thermodynamics, but also by using the internet model for exchanging power.

X: So, literally having a smarter grid that’s internet-based, but also just applying the idea of things traveling around in small pieces, on an on-demand, as-needed basis.

BM: With storage. So, remember when the internet started, there was no [data] storage in the internet. The telephone company had been built to be sure that the telephone call got through in less than 150 milliseconds, so you couldn’t have any storage. But look at the internet today: The internet is a big, distributed storage system. The servers, even the storage on your cell phone is huge. So, energy storage is the big, needed technology. And then data will be switched among these storage-enhanced energy consumers and producers.

X: OK, what about the last one, education?

BM: That’s the easy one. It’s happening already. Internet learning is replacing bricks-and-mortar education. You can get MBA and masters’ degrees in mechanical engineering without even showing up on campus now. And the price, the cost of an education, is plummeting because of these online systems. And predictably, the education system is in denial, with professors running around saying how important it is that they have personal interactions with their students. And meanwhile, more and more students are getting their degrees online.

X: That’s true. I was thinking of examples like Udacity and Coursera and edX that were all the rage five years ago, but haven’t grown as fast as people expected. MOOCs, massively open online courses, hasn’t turned out to be the be all and end all that people thought it would be yet.

BM: Yet! Oh, I’m so glad you said “yet,” because I was going to add it on.

X: So, you think that technology is just so appealing, in terms of its ability to help people learn remotely, that it’s going to succeed? Someone will find a way to make it profitable and successful?

BM: Well, they are already. I think you need to review the data again. But anyway, the costs are low. Production values are high. It’s lifelong learning. It’s wonderful. It’s happening. You should see all the degrees at Georgia Tech and Arizona State there. Those are two big leaders, offering their entire degrees set online.

X: You know, you just mentioned something a minute ago that makes me think about a conversation earlier today with Don Norman. We were talking about this question of whether you can rebuild the existing internet on the fly and patch it as you go along. You said you thought we could make up for the rapid connectivity and the problems that that’s created. But can we fix things like the lack of a proper system of identity and privacy within TCP/IP and HTTP and all these protocols, or do we need something fundamentally new? Do we need a second internet? Do we need to start over from scratch? That tends to Don Norman’s point of view—that the existing internet won’t go away, but somebody will have to build another one, a new one that has a better fundamental design or a design, and not one that sort of randomly grew out of university culture of the late ’60s. Right?

BM: I think Don’s onto something. Of course, he always is. One of the early flaws in that ’60s design was anonymity. The intelligentsia of the internet has from the beginning believed that anonymity should be the default, and that’s backwards. Anonymity should be the exception. You should be able to have anonymity if you want it, right? It should not be the default, the way it is today. And that’s the cause of our privacy problems, our security problems—that the internet’s default is anonymous. And the way a plumber like me notices that is that I know in my [Ethernet] packets I carefully put both a destination address and a source address, and no one ever pays any attention to the source address.

X: Because they didn’t care, or because they weren’t trained to think that way?

BM: They were 1960s grad students. I was. We were. And you know I wrote the first RFC [request for comment] in 1973 about a security breach of the internet, and no one until that time had imagined that anybody bad would ever get on the internet. And that turned out to be two high school students in Los Angeles. But the people who were screwing with the network now are much worse than that. Anyway, having anonymity means the bad actors can operate with impunity.

X: Right. And so, is that the kind of thing that we can fix by monkeying around the edges of the existing protocols that make up the internet? Or is that something that requires a fundamental rethink?

BM: I can’t answer that question. But Don Norman has raised it perfectly. Can we jack it up and fix the anonymity underneath, or do we have to start over? I guess I … Next Page »

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