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

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don’t know the answer to that. Starting over is really hard.

X: That was his point.

BM: Yeah. There’s just so much invested in standards and infrastructure. You know the TCP/IP/Ethernet standard was made in 1973. TCP on top of IP on top of Ethernet. All in Palo Alto, CA, in the summer of 1973. And here it is, it’s still ticking. There’s just enormous momentum in these compatibility standards. And you’ve watched how IP version 4 is still in the internet, not IP version 6. Just making that small change has proven so difficult. It’s not even accomplished yet. And it has been decades since we started. I used to write columns in InfoWorld in the ’90s about how IP version 6 was imminent.

X: Yeah, Don pointed that out as well, that IPv6 has been on the docket since like 1996, around that time, and it’s still not complete. You know there are portions of the internet that still aren’t using v6.

BM: Big portions of it.

X: That was actually the point I was trying to make when I asked you about education and energy and health care. Those are also sectors that have infrastructure that’s really hard to change, that’s just as hard to change as things like the fundamental protocols of the internet. Which is why I’m a little skeptical that they’ll be disrupted.

BM: The reason that they’re going to be disrupted successfully is that the internet is so powerful and connectivity is so powerful that it’s going to overcome those resistances.

X: Let’s talk about the Great Firewall of China for a minute. Can the internet
stay a unitary thing? Or are we in an age when more countries are figuring out that if they control the internet at their borders, they have much more control over their populations? Is there a chance that the internet will kind of fragment into multiple national internets or regional internets, and would that make any difference?

BM: It will definitely be a loss because it violates Metcalfe’s Law. Small, partitioned networks are worth less than unified ones. And I think it’s possible that, for a time, that partition may work, but eventually it’s a losing game, and the value of connectivity will overpower them. So, the internet is going to finally cure us of communism because of the reduction of friction of commerce and the enhancement of freedom of information which breeds democracy. I’m very optimistic.

X: That comes through. And that’s kind of where I wanted to end. You’re very optimistic, and most of the time I’m optimistic too; I feel like it’s part of my job. There’s no point in being a sourpuss about technology. We need to help people figure out how to make the best use of it. Where do you get your optimism?

BM: I guess I’ve learned over the years that cynics are often right, but they never get anything done. Cynicism and negativity are a dead end. Every once in a while, things look bleak, but then they get better. Like this current mess with social networks—it’s a passing thing. It too shall pass. And so, my optimism is based on having watched connectivity blossom over the last 50 years, and in my book, there’s no sign of it slowing down.

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