Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Understand the internet? Icann't.

"Thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth." Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

The Internet Engineering Task Force was in Dublin last week, one of three annual meetings to sort out problems and keep the net going swimmingly. The group has a chair, but no formal structure. Anyone can attend the meetings; this time, 1200 people from all around the planet. Who runs the internet? Officially, no one. A lot of folks seem to be involved, and things are sorted out by some sort of apparently magical consensus.

Does anyone understand how the internet works? Perhaps only Jon Postel, and he's dead. OK, I'm sure there must be a lot of people -- like the ones who met in Dublin -- who have a pretty good idea what's going on, but I haven't a clue, and I have never met anyone who does. There are presently 1.5 billion internet users, with staggering quantities of data flying around the world at essentially the speed of light, and no one seems to be in charge, and who the hell owns the hardware? and who makes money? and how? and who is monitoring the traffic? and why? and who's in charge of security? There was a time some years ago when everyone thought the internet would crash for lack of bandwidth, but that problem has miraculously gone away.

My sons were prescient enough to latch onto raymo.com and raymo.net before anyone else, and presumably some of the pittance they paid goes to Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a private, US government-supported outfit in -- where? -- California? And there are root servers somewhere. And protocols like TCP/IP. And all those little packets of 1s and 0s flying around as you read this, to be recomposed on your screen. It makes my head spin.

It's all rather anarchic, and yet it works, presumably because of an incredible amount of built-in redundancy and distributed "DNA," rather like a living organism. No one knows completely how the human body works, but it does, and it can take a lots of damage and go on functioning, as long as the master text file at the top of the spine remains intact and the power stays plugged in.