One of the side-effects of using Google+ is that I’m getting exposed to a kind of writing I usually avoid – ponderous divagations on how the Internet should be and the meaning of it all written by people who’ve never gotten their hands dirty actually making it work. No, I’m not talking about users – I don’t mind listening to those. I’m talking about punditry about the Internet, especially the kind full of grand prescriptive visions. The more I see of this, the more it irritates the crap out of me. But I’m not in the habit of writing in public about merely personal complaints; there’s a broader cultural problem here that needs to be aired.
The following rant will not name names. But if you are offended by it, you are probably meant to be.
I have been using the Internet since 1976. I got involved in its engineering in 1983. Over the years, I’ve influenced the design of the Domain Name System, written a widely-used SMTP transport, helped out with RFCs, and done time on IETF mailing lists. I’ve never been a major name in Internet engineering the way I have been post-1997 in the open-source movement, but I was a respectable minor contributor to the former long before I became famous in the latter. I know the people and the culture that gets the work done; they’re my peers and I am theirs. Which is why I’m going to switch from “them” to “us” and “we” now, and talk about something that really cranks us off.
We’re not thrilled by people who rave endlessly about the wonder of the net. We’re not impressed by brow-furrowing think-pieces about how it ought to written by people who aren’t doing the design and coding to make stuff work. We’d be far happier if pretty much everybody who has ever been described as ‘digerati’ were dropped in a deep hole where they can blabber at each other without inflicting their pompous vacuities on us or the rest of the world.
In our experience, generally the only non-engineers whose net-related speculations are worth listening to are science-fiction writers, and by no means all of those; anybody to whom the label “cyberpunk” has been attached usually deserves to be dropped in that deep hole along with the so-called digerati. We do respect the likes of John Brunner, Vernor Vinge, Neal Stephenson, and Charles Stross, and we’re occasionally inspired by them – but this just emphasizes what an uninspiring lot the non-fiction “serious thinkers” attaching themselves to the Internet usually are.
There are specific recurring kinds of errors in speculative writing about the Internet that we get exceedingly tired of seeing over and over again. One is blindness to problems of scale; another is handwaving about deployment costs; and a third is inability to notice when a proposed cooperative ‘solution’ is ruined by misalignment of incentives. There are others, but these will stand as representative for why we very seldom find any value in the writings of people who talk but don’t build.
We seldom complain about this in public because, really, how would it help? The world seems to be oversupplied with publishers willing to drop money on journalists, communications majors, lawyers, marketers manqué, and other glib riff-raff who have persuaded themselves that they have deep insights about the net. Beneath their verbal razzle-dazzle and coining of pointless neologisms it’s extremely uncommon for such people to think up anything true that hasn’t been old hat to us for decades, but we can’t see how to do anything to dampen the demand for their vaporous musings. So we just sigh and go back to work.
Yes, we have our own shining visions of the Internet future, and if you ask us we might well tell you about them. It’s even fair to say we have a broadly shared vision of that future; design principles like end-to-end, an allergy to systems with single-point failure modes, and a tradition of open source imply that much. But, with a limited exception during crisis periods imposed by external politics, we don’t normally make a lot of public noise about that vision. Because talk is cheap, and we believe we teach the vision best by making it live in what we design and deploy.
Here are some of the principles we live by: An ounce of technical specification beats a pound of manifesto. The superior man underpromises and overperforms. Mechanism outlasts policy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a pilot deployment is worth a million. The future belongs to those who show up to build it. Shut up and show us the code.
If you can live by these principles too, roll up your sleeves and join us; there’s plenty of work to be done. Otherwise, do everybody a favor and stop with the writing and the speeches. You aren’t special, you aren’t precious, and you aren’t helping.