My TEDx talk: The four superpowers of the Internet

10 09 2014

I gave a talk at the inaugural TEDxWellington this year, called “The four superpowers of the Internet”, which are being direct, open, accessible and free.  These superpowers are all underpinned by the golden rule, that we should treat all others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.  This modern force of good has driven the explosive growth of the Internet, and can turn all of us into leaders and heroes.  It includes an homage to entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs as the heroes of our generation leading the creative destruction that will bring about a better world, a hat-tip to TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong and her Charter for Compassion, as well as a brief history of the Internet and its governance and why humming is an effective tool in bringing about consensus.

Enjoy.  A transcript follows.

Kia ora koutou and warm greetings – I’m Dave Moskovitz.

Six years ago, theologian and former nun Karen Armstrong won the TED prize with her wish for a Charter for Compassion, which calls upon each of us to live the “golden rule”, and treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. I want to start my talk by saying “thank you” to Karen Armstrong and the TED community. The text was crowdsourced by religious leaders worldwide, and it’s been a strong force of religious cohesion here in New Zealand and around the world.

This talk isn’t about Karen Armstrong, but it is about the golden rule, and how it underpins the core values that have driven the explosive growth of the Internet. These core values are: Being direct, open, accessible, and free. They are so simple and so powerful that I call them the Internet’s superpowers.

This is a story about how good can arise from evil, how all of us are smarter than any of us, and of how these superpowers turn each of into leaders.

I arrived in Wellington on the first day of Summer in 1982 in a stiff southerly with pelting rain. I fell in love with early 1980’s New Zealand: it’s classlessness, giving everyone a fair go, respect for diversity, and how everyone has direct access to anyone. But most of all, people seemed to really care about each other. Looking back, the things I love about New Zealand resonate with these superpowers and the golden rule.

In contemporary times, many people feel that technology is an isolating force, a tool used by the state and corporations to trap us in a capitalist downward spiral, as we trudge through our lives staring at our smartphones hoping for fulfilment in the next dollar, gadget, or lolcat.

These are the birthing pains of a new era. We are currently experiencing a silent revolution where power hierarchies are being destroyed. We are refactoring society into a collaborative economy of networked value, where everyone has something to receive and to give, and we treat all others in the way we wish to be treated ourselves.

In order to understand how these superpowers came about, I’d like to give you a short whirlwind history of the Internet.

I was born in 1960, in the dark years of the pre-Internet age, when everything was disconnected. A year later in 1961, Leonard Kleinrock wrote the first paper on packet switching theory, which in modern times controls how data flows on the Internet. On my birthday in 1969, the Network Working Group issued the first “Request for Comment”– RFC 1 – defining the specifics of how computers could talk to each other on an open network, and later that year the first four computers were connected in the US Defence Department’s ARPAnet. Thus you could say the Internet is the bastard child of an unholy union between the war machine of the most powerful country in the world, and a group of geeky academics.

I wrote my first computer program in 1971. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw rapid developments in computing, but in the commercial world, for the most part, computers were islands; when they were connected at all, they were mostly restricted to proprietary networks linking the computers of one organisation.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the WorldWideWeb project, and by 1993 Mosaic, the first web browser was released, and the Web as we know it was born. There were 623 web sites at the end of ‘93, 10,000 by the end of ‘94, and earlier this year we crossed the billion mark.

How do you manage such explosive growth, across billions of people, millions of organisations, in 249 country codes? You can’t manage it centrally – it’s too big for anyone or anything to control by themselves. The Internet is the world’s largest and most important collaborative project to date. Its design encourages cooperation, so that ordinary people can benefit from it, so that businesses can profit from it, academics can learn from it, and so on. In the lingo of Internet governance, this is called “multistakeholderism”.

Multistakeholderism means all affected parties can be part of the conversation and decision making process. In other words, “nothing about us without us”.

Why? Because people are a lot more important than the technology. As the Māori proverb says, “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.” Technology is only an enabler – the people are the enabled.

We just heard about the first “Request for Comment” or RFC. The Internet isn’t built on laws, it’s built on these RFC’s agreed by multistakeholder processes. RFC’s cover broad topics like email and file transfer protocols, how domain names work, and so on. There are even RFC’s that address interplanetary communications and datagram delivery by avian carriers … that used to be homing pigeons, but now it’s quadcopters.

One of the most fundamental RFC’s, RFC 760 was issued in 1980, and formalised the Internet Protocol, or IP. Its editor, the late Jon Postel, said that “in general, an implementation should be conservative in its sending behavior, and liberal in its receiving behavior.” Fifteen years later, when Postel was referred to as “the god of the Internet”, he replied, “[T]here isn’t any ‘God of the Internet.’ The Internet works because a lot of people cooperate to do things together.”

The latest governance-related RFC is RFC 7282, just issued in June 2014. It codifies the decision making process in the Internet Engineering Task Force or IETF. It specifically says that “We reject: kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.” And how do they arrive at this rough consensus without voting? According to RFC7282, the when chair of the working group wants to get a ‘sense of the room’, instead of a show of hands, the chair might ask for each side to hum on a particular question, either ‘for’ or ‘against’.”

You know you have rough consensus when the hums on one side are a lot louder than the hums on the other.

Let’s practice this – I know you can all hum, so let’s try this now. If you like this decision making process, please hum now.

And if you think it’s stupid, please hum now.

The Internet is what it is today because a small number of people chose to get together, talk, reach consensus, and act. Those who chose to act made a real difference.

Multistakeholder processes were used to determine these four core values in 2009 at the Internet Governance Forum or IGF. These were: End-to-end, Open Standards, Universal Access, and Freedom of expression. These core values are the Internet’s superpowers.

Each of these four superpowers helps us become better as a society, levels the playing field between people, corporations, and nations, and unleashes huge latent economic and social value. In fact, each of us can use the Internet’s superpowers to become heroes. We can activate them through two simple but powerful tools we have – how we spend our time and how we spend our money.

Each superpower has a dark side though, that we must heed to ensure that they are used for good and not evil – that’s up to each of us individually and collectively, it’s not something we can fully delegate to network management algorithms, the IETF, or governments. The best defence against the dark arts, in the words of JK Rowling’s Mad-eye Moody is: CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

Let’s look at these superpowers more closely.

The first is End-to-end, or “being direct”. The edge-dominant end-to-end model of the Internet means that the network itself should be largely transparent. Any person or device should be able to freely and directly communicate with any other person or device on the network. Intermediaries are unnecessary, unless they add real value.

Being direct is important because it enables us to paint our own picture of the truth, based on data gleaned from the source. In a world without asymmetric knowledge, where everything is knowable, we no longer need external parties to interpret and re-interpret the truth for us.

Being direct results in massive economic value as we can work with smaller and smaller pieces of each other’s value chains, only the bits that are useful to us. We don’t need to buy the whole album when we only want one song. We don’t need to be part of a big company to contribute to society, we only need to do one small thing very well, and work directly with the people to whom that is useful.

But there is a dark side of being direct. Without legislation protecting employees, the environment, and other externalities, we run the risk of all becoming mechanical turks, working piecemeal, competing in an unregulated market for the lowest price.

You can become a hero by using the direct superpower – this is within everyone’s ability. You are a direct hero when you purchase content rather than pirating it, when you upgrade free apps on your phone to paid versions, when you donate to a crowdfunding campaign, when you join a civic cause or help a neighbour you met on the ‘net.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the direct superpower?

The second superpower is Open Standards, or just Open for short. We’ve seen how the RFC process allows everyone to know the rules, and to help make or revise them. These open standards enable full interoperability on the ‘net – this is what lets your iPad talk to my Android.

Open standards turn proprietary Towers of Babel into a cooperative world, where we understand each other, and collaborate in an economy of networked value. If you don’t like one implementation of those standards, use another or write your own. Hate Internet Explorer? Use Firefox. The economic value of these open standards is huge, as well as the value of business ecosystems built around open source, open data, and open content.

One dark side to Open is that security vulnerabilities can hide in broad daylight, as happened recently with the heartbleed exploit, by which millions of web site passwords were stolen. It’s rumoured that the NSA knew about heartbleed for two years before it was discovered, but found it a useful tool for gathering intelligence. Frankly, I’d rather have my vulnerabilities available to everyone to look at and fix, implementing what Eric Raymond called “Linus’s Law”: given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.

You are an open hero when you use this superpower to join the conversation at a multistakeholder forum like NetHui or an IGF; when you contribute to an Open Source project, when you license one of your works under a Creative Commons or other open license.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the open superpower?

The third superpower is Universal access, or accessible for short. Everyone can play, everyone has equal access, and there is no distinction between producers and consumers – everyone is a participant. You may have heard about this in discussions about the “digital divide” and “net neutrality”. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, and it doesn’t matter. Or that you’re Bill Gates, or living below the poverty line, or Deaf, or in New Zealand, or sitting on the throne. Commercially, this extends our potential market as buyers, sellers, contributors or collaborators to everyone, globally. Or any specific niche. Anywhere.

One dark side of universal access is that the bad guys all have access too, and also have have direct, no-cost access to everyone else. That’s why according to Symantec, 68% of all email traffic is SPAM – but the good news is that this is down from nearly 80% a few years ago.

You are an accessible hero whenever you help someone who isn’t as computer literate as you, whenever you donate your old computer for educational use , or give your time or money to organisations who are working to bridge the digital divide; whenever you install security software on your computer to prevent it from becoming infected and infectious.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the accessible superpower?

The fourth superpower is Freedom of expression, or just free. Everyone has the right to participate, securely, privately and anonymously if necessary. Information wants to be free, especially in the sense of “free speech”, but often also in the sense of “free beer”. In the words of John Gilmore, “The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.

It’s a cliché, but with freedom comes responsibility, and we should be empathetic to those around us and avoid hurting people through exercising our own freedoms.

Of the four superpowers, “free” has the blurriest edges. And the dark side is very dark indeed. How objectionable does content need to be before it should be banned? Should we allow images of child abuse, hate speech, sedition? I believe that these aren’t network issues at all, but rather legal issues for society to decide – your rights are your rights, offline or online.

You are a free hero whenever you add your considered opinion constructively to the debate, when you call out governments and other organisations who are infringing your right to free expression or your right to privacy; when you call out other people who are abusing their freedoms to be hurtful to others. When you donate your time or money to organisations that protect our freedom.

Can you think of a time when you’ve used the free superpower?

If you’ve ever used any of these superpowers, I’d like you to hum now.

If you haven’t used any of these superpowers, I’d like you to hum now.

Thanks – we have consensus, we’re all heroes! Wow!! The whole time, you’ve been a hero and didn’t even know it!

These superpowers have a big economic impact. According to McKinsey is that the Internet accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in mature economies during the period 2006-2011.

They also have a long-lasting social impact. Although I am religious, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I believe that when our lives are finished, we leave behind a legacy defined by the transaction trail of how we’ve chosen to act, how we’ve spent our time and money. Judgement Day doesn’t come at the end of your life or the end of time, Judgement Day is every day as we and those around us continually re-evaluate the value of our actions.

Moment by moment, we each make choices that turn each one of us into leaders as we create our own heavens or hells around us through our actions and transactions, drawing others into our either virtuous or vicious cycles.

So I salute you all – you’re the heroes and leaders that will leave us the legacy of the Internet we all deserve – and the world that we all deserve.

But there’s one special group of leaders that I’d like to single out for being our not-so-secret weapon in destroying power hierarchies and creating a collaborative economy of networked value – entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. They’re the people risking everything they have, staring failure in the face every day, leading the creative destruction necessary to bring about a better world, inspiring everyone to be more than they thought possible. They’re the true leaders of the future.

But here’s the most powerful thing of all: We get the best leverage on our superpowers when we help others use their superpowers. In the words of Tom Peters, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”. Building the future we want to live in, treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Please use your newly discovered superpowers wisely.

Be a hero.

Be a leader.

And don’t forget the Golden Rule.

Thank you.

[Please note the following corrigenda from the video: (1) we crossed the billion web sites mark earlier this year, not the ten billion mark.  My mouth was ahead of my brain.  (2) The late Mr Postel’s first name was spelled “Jon”, not “John”, as it appears on the slide.]




Does New Zealand enjoy freedom of speech?

9 11 2009

The New Zealand Society of Authors is presenting an evening discussion chaired by Nelson Wattie with Dennis Welch, Nicky Hager, Bill Hastings, and Maureen Birchfield on the topic:

Does New Zealand enjoy freedom of speech?

When: Monday 16 November, 7pm
Where: Thistle Inn, 3 Mulgrave St Wellington

See you there!

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