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lynx-dev Postel's legacy

From: Philip Webb
Subject: lynx-dev Postel's legacy
Date: Tue, 20 Oct 1998 00:18:46 -0400 (EDT)

[ some of this applies -- scaled down -- to lynx-dev ]

Financial Times (London) 981020

Jon Postel : The net's loss -- Peter Martin

When Jon Postel died last week at 55, an Internet era died with him.
Postel was an important figure in the creation of the net,
but his death implies more than just the loss of his talents:
it also symbolises the transition from an Internet managed by computer
scientists with an academic set of priorities to one reflecting
commercial and governmental pressures.

Postel himself had been actively preparing for this transition.
He knew his health was not good -- the heart condition that eventually
killed him had been a source of concern for years -- and was keen to hand
his own role in the Internet's machinery to a solidly based new body.

What was that role?  It is worth exploring in detail, as its very obscurity
reveals some important truths about the way the Internet works.

Postel's full-time job was running the Computer Networks Division
of the Information Sciences Institute at U of S California (LA):
he was a computer-science middle manager -- one of seven at the institute --
with a staff of 70.  His power over the Internet came from his role
as operator of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
Some years ago, when the US government still provided the funding
for the Internet, it authorised IANA to allocate those numbers,
making it the central node in the web of interconnections
that bind the Internet together.

Postel had yet another role, also shrouded in obscurity: he was the editor
of the electronic documents known as RFCs -- Requests for Comments -- ,
which enshrine the Internet's protocols (rules), in which lies its power,
setting out the standards which allow every computer everywhere in the World
to communicate: as RFC editor, Postel shaped, selected and maintained them,
writing some of the most important documents himself.

The rush to replace the structure the founders created with one more attuned
to commercial realities risks missing the point.  The Internet's ad-hoc
flexible consensual structure offers powerful lessons to everyone in business:
in some ways a prototype of the way companies will have to operate in future.

The Internet works because computer scientists all over the world are prepared
to reach agreement on the best standards to adopt.  The process of reaching
that agreement is managed by a relatively small number of people,
of whom Postel was one.  Their power stems not from official status
or governmental nomination but from their ability to create consensus,
which in turn stems from a shared purpose: the creation of a network
that allows easy communication.  This is in part a technical vision
& requires deep knowledge of computer science, but it is also ideological,
requiring a humanistic commitment to freedom of expression and to a medium
of communication that rises above the interests of government or commerce.

The era of unfettered academic control is drawing to a close, as the Internet
becomes part of the global central nervous system.  The ad-hoc management
that has served it so well in the past needs some form of reinforcement,
if only to cope with the sad fact of human mortality.  The haggling
over how the transition should proceed has been, at times, acrimonious,
pitting the Internet's founders against a clutch of squabbling rivals
incl the US & overseas governments, owners of big consumer brands,
companies already making profits from the Internet, the ITU and others.
Few of them see eye to eye, but in recent weeks a compromise seemed likely,
based on Postel's proposals for an international independent successor to IANA.

Whether or not this compromise works, there is a broader lesson to be drawn
from Postel's achievements and from the history of the Internet.  An ethic
of collaboration and open discussion around a common purpose is
an extraordinarily powerful and creative force, which in this instance has
created a global communications system where once there was Babel,
but there is a wider relevance: this is a style of working -- within companies
and between them -- which is particularly suited to the modern era.
Knowledge workers, spread around the World, cannot easily be herded,
but they can be encouraged and inspired to work together in a common framework,
a process that can be both speedy and efficient.

That is the lesson of the Internet's early years.  The Postel era is ending,
but the principles of consensus, debate and agreement deserve to live on.
SUPPORT     ___________//___,  Philip Webb : address@hidden
ELECTRIC   /] [] [] [] [] []|  Centre for Urban & Community Studies
TRANSIT    `-O----------O---'  University of Toronto

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