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The importance of being a dynamist.

by Scott Bradner

Three an a half years ago I tried to explain to one of the judges in the Communications Decency Act case that too much reliance on centrally mandated standards would hurt the Internet. I was not as articulate as I would have liked to have been and was only able to say "What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos. It's the ability to have the forum to innovate." The recent book "The future and its Enemies" by Virginia Postrel does a lot better job than I did in explaining what I was trying to say.

This is a wide ranging book, taking on everybody from Newt Gingrich to the unibomber. In the words of the author "this book examines the clash between stasis and dynamism and explores those contrasting views." I now know that I fall into the dynamism camp and what I was trying to explain to the judge was some of the implications of following the stasis path.

Historically the Internet has been an environment to experiment in. There have been a few basic rules. The most important are the standards for the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). There are other important standards for promulgating routing information and the like but the real power of the Internet idea is that there are not mandated standards for what can run over the Net. Anyone who adheres to the TCP/IP standards can create new applications and run them without getting anyone's permission. No Internet service provider even has to know you are experimenting (or playing, that is also OK.) This freedom produces unpredictable results. New industries can be created almost overnight and existing industries severely impacted. Look at the impact of MP3 on the recording industry for an example.

The stasis camp wants to control these innovations, "shape technology" in the words of Gingrich. A dynamist wants to let the market decide. So far the Internet has been let follow the dynamism path - it was mostly ignored by the traditional telecommunications industry. Being ignored was the best thing that could have happened.

A friend of mine spent some time a couple of years ago explaining the Internet to people in state government. He reported that the dominate theme of the reaction of the bureaucrats was "How do we stop or control this thing?" Lucky for innovation they were not paying attention when they could have had a serious impact.

But the threat is not over. The stasists fear the complexity and unpredictability that the Internet is bringing to the economy and to society. They will continue to try to find ways to control its impact. As a dynamist I will keep trying to find ways around their fears.

disclaimer: Viewed over Harvard's 363 years even the most static institutions turn out to be dynamic but the above plea for chaos is mine.