Freshwater Will Be the New Oil

Vint Cerf is known as one of the “fathers of the internet.” He sat down with Alexander Görlach to talk about innovation, social networks, and the future of human society.

The European: When you started working on the Internet, did you have an idea of how big it would become one day?
Cerf: Bob Kahn and I had a sense of how powerful technology is. But we couldn’t possibly imagine what it would be like when 1/3 of the world’s population would be online. When we came up with an original design in 1973, we knew that new communication technologies would come along. At that time we couldn’t think of what they would be like – but we wanted the Internet to work on top of them.

The European: What did you do to ensure this?
Cerf: We said: let’s make sure that the Internet data packets don’t know how they’re being carried. And let’s make sure they don’t know what they’re carrying. Those are two very important pieces of the puzzle.

The European: What do you mean by that?
Cerf: The Internet was a network which was not designed for anything in particular, but could be used for everything. So, the first thing we said was: let’s make sure that none of the protocols require any knowledge of how the underlying carriage works. This is important: when a new communication technology comes along, you just sweep it into the Internet and start using it as a carriage mechanism. IP runs over everything.

The European: And the other move?
Cerf: The packets in the network don’t know the application they are supporting. It’s just a bag of bits being moved across the network. Only at the destination – for example, inside your laptop – are the bits turned into meaningful information. If you have a new application in mind, all you have to do is put the host up, run the application, and send the packets across the network and interpret them at the edges of the network. That’s why we can do video streaming, why we can do e-mail, why we can do web. Because the network doesn’t know what it is carrying.

The European: When the world wide web was born, did you feel elated?
Cerf: It was stunning. First of all, when Tim Berners-Lee turned on the first World Wide Web servers in 1991, not too many people noticed he did that. And when they released it for anyone who wanted to try it out, it took our world by storm.

The European: One popular story is that the Internet originated from military projects. Was that ever a concern to you?
Cerf: There’s a bit of confusion about the history of the Internet. People think that the military ARPANET was designed for an Internet-like purpose, but that is wrong. It was designed for research sharing. At least after 1993, the fact that the world wide web had military origins becomes largely irrelevant. What was more important is that the Internet worked! Things that work have a lot of credibility.

The European: From the beginning, you envisioned the Internet as free, freely accessible, and lacking a business model.
Cerf: But this is a business model! The business model is to create infrastructure on top of which other people can build businesses and products.

The European: What is your take on the rise of social networks?
Cerf: From the very beginning, the Internet had a social aspect to it. For example, when e-mail showed up in 1971 on the ARPANET, we discovered instantly that e-mails were a social network phenomenon.

The European: How?
Cerf: The first distribution list is the SciFi-Lovers. It was created soon after e-mails burst onto the scene. People on the list traded book reports and author descriptions. Shortly afterwards, somebody at Stanford started a list called “Yum-Yum” which turned out to be a restaurant revue distribution list. And we thought it couldn’t be more social: book reports and restaurant reviews. So instantly it was clear that e-mail is a powerful social networking tool.

The European: Was that the prime use of e-mails – to serve as early tools for online social exchange?
Cerf: No, we also used it for managing projects. We recognised that we had overcome the time zone problem: before the web you had to go together, face to face, in different time zones. So we thought: hey, this is going to reduce the cost of travel, we could use e-mail instead! But we were totally wrong.

The European: Seriously?
Cerf: Several years later I asked: how is the travel budget of our project doing? And the answer was: it is four times bigger. The number of people that were involved in our project went up. And the geographical distribution went up because of the nature of e-mail. Because of new technologies, we could manage a bigger project and involve more people. And we were surprised to discover the offline consequences of that development: when people have to get together, it involved larger numbers and greater distances, so travel budgets had to grow.

The European: Do you think that globalization will affect merely our behavior, or can it affect human nature itself?
Cerf: I think a lot about that. Privacy is really hard to come by today for the simple reason that we expose ourselves to visibility. I believe that we have to think more carefully about what kind of social norms we would like to enjoy. It’s going to be difficult to figure that out, because there are so many cultures around the world that are linked in to the Internet. Different views of what should be private, what shouldn’t be private, different senses of what’s offensive and of what isn’t offensive.

The European: Let’s look ahead even further: what will the Internet look like a century from today?
Cerf: We are talking about 2112, the second decade of the 22nd century! Think about 1912 and try to imagine predicting the world of 2012: it’s very hard. In 1912, radio had barely been invented. We had the telephone and telegraph networks, and Einstein had already issued his first 1905 paper on relativity. But even the big block buster of 1919 – when Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed through observations – was still to come.

The European: So it’s impossible to make any predictions?
Cerf: No. In the 22nd century, we will surely have self-driving vehicles. Conversations with computers will be natural and they will understand human gestures. Real-time language translation will be common and will be used in all kinds of face-to-face and conferenced discussions. Everyone on the planet will be networked. By 2112, something more advanced than the Internet will have been developed. Think about the telephone system, which was invented in 1876. By 1996, 120 years later, we were seeing the beginning of the “dot-boom.” The Internet was operational in 1983, so we can expect something very different for the year 2103.

The European: Anything else you can think of?
Cerf: Huge amounts of knowledge will be available, and we will have sufficient processing power to go with it. Augmented reality will be normal. Our homes, cars, offices, and bodies will be thoroughly instrumented and monitored. Preventative health measures will be regularly invoked to keep us functioning in good condition. We will have transitioned from internal combustion engines and an oil-based economy to electrical power. Most carbon-chain raw materials will be artificially produced with salt-ocean algae. The world’s population will probably have peaked at nine billion by 2050. Populations will have declined in some countries such as Japan and Russia, perhaps in Europe as well. The interplanetary extension of the Internet will be well populated with relays that include the outer planets. The relays will use nuclear power for the outer planets, since solar power is too weak. An interstellar mission will have been launched around 2060, so it will be halfway to the nearest star Alpha Centauri by 2112. This will likely be a robotic mission. We will have satellites and base stations orbiting around Mars, Saturn, Jupiter and some of their moons.

The European: And what about scientific developments?
Cerf: Our understanding of the universe will have improved. We will have a clear sense of the origin of dark matter and dark energy. In the early 22nd century, we will already experience serious consequences of global warming. Mass evacuations will have been forced by rising sea levels especially after 2075. Freshwater will be the “new oil,” and massive desalinization systems will be needed. Resource shortages will create new tensions and will either lead to serious nation-state conflict or force more global planning and distribution of resources.

The European: What steps do we have to take in the near future to steer those long-term developments into a good direction?
Cerf: Dystopia will be hard to fend off with resource shortages and changes in arable land. Power will be the most important of our resources: we have to think about desalination, hydroponics, water pipelines and pumps, about large-scale transportation infrastructures. Whether we can cope with the highest population densities especially in Asia remains to be seen. Domestic unrest may spill out into international conflict over resources. Can democracy be made sufficiently efficient, or will survival depend on enlightened despots? All of this remains to be seen.

The European: What will governments look like?
Cerf: Our culture will be more global. We will at least have regional governance structures, if not a global government.

The European: Will religion and ideology still be around?
Cerf: Religion will still be with us. It has not departed from human culture within the last 20,000 years, and I see no reason why it would disappear in the next century. “Truth” will still be debated.

The European: How will we debate truth, or argue about what is most important to us?
Cerf: I would ask: what will be our utopia? We don’t know. People call me chief Internet envangelist. Some misunderstood this and thought that it meant I was using the Internet to promote religion. I have to explain that I’m geek-orthodox. I see many good things in the world, but I also see some bad things. I believe that we really have the choice to use technology and the infrastructure of the Internet towards very positive ends. But like any infrastructure, it is open to abuse. We are reaching a point now where governments are concerned about the impact of the Internet infrastructure on citizens and on society.

The European: What issue do you regard as most critical in this regard?
Cerf: We frequently form our governments to protect society from abuses of power, so this is not new in principle. A challenge with the Internet is its global nature: it doesn’t stop at national borders, it was designed to be insensitive to the unit of the nation-state. The Internet was originally designed with the needs of the military in mind. One could never be quite sure where conflicts would occur and what boundaries might separate nation-states. For that reason, I did not want to replicate national boundaries on the Internet. But we struggle to figure out the relationship between the sovereign role of states and the non-national character of the Internet. The ability of people to communicate freely is essential, especially across boundaries. The dialogue around those questions is still in its infancy.

The European: What will be the outcome of that dialogue?
Cerf: I think we have to live through a series of experiences that will teach us what rules or conventions are appropriate. It’s not very easy for us to imagine all the things that will happen, especially if we consider changes like the rise in mobile technologies, the spread of misinformation through networks, cyber-attacks and malware. If we are going to achieve a utopian outcome, we will have to learn how to settle the Internet without losing the creativity and exploration that goes along with it. I sometimes wonder whether the settling of the American West is a metaphor for this.

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