The Privatized Internet Is NOT Failing Our Kids!

Combinations of unrealistic, idealistic, selfish, technology-ignorant people/entities ARE failing our kids!

[The email newsletter prompting this article. Screenshot photo from author’s private collection.]

The travesty of a poorly worded email newsletter title

This morning I was greeted with an article in a newsletter — one of hundreds of emails I get daily–called Pattern Matching, published by Medium’s OneZero. I receive too many emails and personal messages on sites like LinkedIn as well as hundreds of phone calls daily and my health is now so extremely poor that I really no longer have time to read nearly any messages at all, let alone respond. These are my circumstances now. However, I quickly reviewed a few of the top dozen emails in one of my main email accounts and found this article. It had two different titles, oddly — one for the emailed version and a different one for the actual article that had been published on OneZero’s site. The one I saw first, via email, was titled “The travesty of remote learning is unfolding in real time” and was attributed to no particular author. There was a link, however, to view it in a browser. I clicked on that link and was greeted with what appeared to be the same story, but was instead titled “The Privatized Internet Is Failing Our Kids” with a sub-title that read “The failure of online schooling highlights a basic flaw in our digital infrastructure: It wasn’t built to supply public goods.” The author was Will Oremus, a senior writer at OneZero, who apparently focuses on tech issues.

My regular day: an email inbox full of thousands of unread emails
[A typical day in my life: 1516 unread emails in just one of my email accounts. Screenshot photo from author’s private collection.]

Now I had an immediate reaction when I saw and read through this article. My reaction was a bit heated and emotional, yet not remotely new or original. Indeed, the subject of the article has been a topic, or series of topics (and later reactions), that those of us old enough to remember and to have been involved in have been trying to put out there for decades — literally — and increasingly so over the past decade or more.

Caveats

Let me admit a few things up front. I do not know the author and have no issue with him. I also agree with the basic thesis of his sub-title. However, I take issue with the original title I first saw, the one in the email version. It just feels deliberately misleading to me, despite the fact that the author did hit on a crux of the issue in the sub-title of the article published online. Perhaps his editors ran with the email title without his signing off on it while they didn’t realize it really seemed to change the tone of the piece. I don’t know and am in no position to speculate. Finally, I intend to respond, but will likely write a response that may initially seem confusing to some, because I do not intend to debate or refute Mr. Oremus and this article point by point. Rather, I want to make some comments, observations, assertions, etc., that have been obvious to many old school “geeks” and should be obvious to most in an ideal world — but we’ve discovered this year that the world is anything but ideal — and frankly I intend to chastise a few unspecified people for acting spoiled, entitled, impatient and ignorant when some basic research should help smooth things out. (I would advise reading the original article first before going on with the rest of this article.)

Why are my opinions/assertions relevant?

First, some pertinent info about me. I got my first computer in 1982, took my first programming class in 1984 and got on “the Internet” in sending the first of many emails in 1984 as well. (There’s a common misconception that “the Internet” is the World Wide Web and that is factually incorrect. The Internet existed decades before the Web was invented. It is merely one of many Internet protocols, just as email, FTP, Usenet news, telnet, and old search-type protocols like Gopher, Archie, etc., existed and were used before the Web was created, the latter of which was something that eventually lead most to believe the WWW is “the Internet.” No, merely one of many protocols.) I quickly became involved in BBS’s (Bulletin Board Systems), as well as minor league hacking (the film Wargames had come out recently, inspiring Reagan’s Star Wars initiative as well as imaginations and habits of many young people who didn’t understand that some entities would not look kindly on people intruding on their systems), became fascinated with and started working in computer security, joined The WELL, a hugely influential BBS, etc. I took a lot of tech classes while working full time in publishing after having gotten degrees in other fields. I eventually started getting many great job offers from some of the biggest and well known tech companies in the world. Typical of me, I went against the grain and actually took a pay cut to go with an L.A. ISP I felt had serious growth potential, made sure to get stock options, and spent the next four years in the Engineering division of what would become the world’s second largest ISP, behind only AOL. I devoted a lot of my time at the company, as well as a lot of time in my consulting business (and also a lot of volunteer time) in reading, researching, collaborating on and helping to to shape certain Internet standards such as part of the infamous 802.x standard we all use today, as well as playing a role as a network protocols designer with groups such as IEEE (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), while also doing a lot of beta testing for many companies, such as Yahoo!, Netcom, Medium, Sierra Online, Pac Bell Internet and many others. I eventually spent much of my time trying to carry on the tradition of the pioneers who “invented” what would become known as the Internet, like all of the gods at Xerox PARC or Vint Cerf, who created and (co)wrote (with Bob Khan) the TCP protocol, formally documented in 1974 and as the TCP/IP stack, which came to be officially known as the “Internet Protocol Suite,” a good bit of which the entire Internet actually still stands (and I have an autographed photo of Cerf by my main computer). Cerf and Khan were able to create the protocol with the support of DARPA (a military research agency) on behalf of the fairly new ARPANET, later to be known as the Internet.

TCP/IP Stack
[TCP/IP Stack. Source: ResearchGate.]

An interjection

[This section is for those of you who want to geek out a little. The early network protocols were often developed separate from one another, some at universities such as Stanford, UCLA, UCSB and the University of Utah, others at research labs/companies like SRI, Xerox PARC and BBN. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded a great deal of this, obviously on behalf of the U.S. military, and work began around 1966 under the leadership of a very unique man named Bob Taylor. However, due to a lack of solid organizational oversight as well as other factors, the protocols that emerged resulting in a working ARPANET have often been viewed as having been sort of slapped together and hanging together with a lot of duct tape, or something similar. In other words, things were moving so fast back then and everyone was in a competitive rush to beat others at the other locations, that a number of protocols were developed that were often viewed as more temporary than permanent, many still undergoing revisions, and many were never designed to be as robust as they would later be called on to be. At the time, ARPANET was more a series of small, separate networks that the geniuses behind all of it were trying to transform into a larger unified network that would connect on a large scale through the use of a newer concept called “packet switching” (as well as the later TCP/IP protocol stack). This was famously accomplished in 1969 when UCLA students attempted to make a host to host connection with programmers at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). A UCLA student infamously began typing “login” to access SRI’s computer. One of the reasons this is legendary is not so much because it was the first time such computers/networks connected, but that SRI’s computer crashed during the login process, thus making the first characters ever transmitted over the ARPANET (Internet) “lo.” Fortunately, it only took about an hour to get everything up and running again, and this time it was successful, so the Internet as we now know it officially made its debut in 1969.

A couple of final notes. By the mid-‘70s, ARPANET was officially declared to be Operational and shortly after that, it was decided it would be expanded, initially with the addition of more universities, research labs and researchers. Thus, the NSF took over while DARPA eventually eased out of the picture. Around the same time, with more people involved, some experienced increasing frustration with the fact the a number of these government-funded networks (other important ones were in the UK and France) didn’t play well with some commercial components sponsored by companies like DEC and IBM, which contained some proprietary standards, so as a result, the ISO organization many of us know today decided it was time to develop a new series of standards and protocols to supplement, if not replace, the aging TCP/IP model. Thus, in the mid-1980s, this effort resulted in a new reference model commonly referred to as the OSI Model (which actually stands for Open Systems Interconnection Reference Model). The OSI Model used the TCP/IP stack as a guideline while adding several new layers at the Application layer of the original TCP model. They complement each other in some ways, and you’ll often see them compared to each other in side by side visuals such as the following:]

Comparison chart between OSI Model and TCP/IP Model
[OSI and TCP/IP Models. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

Back from the interjection

Now, to finish my bio and partial history. Like so many old schoolers, we following them were also idealists, with many simply naive because we shared dreams of helping all people one day obtain Internet access since it would level the playing field for all, allowing impoverished children and families in Africa to obtain information to better their lives, for poor American children to obtain an education they’d never otherwise be able to obtain, etc. Many of my colleagues actually talked about how great it will be when everyone could finally be online and simply walk through the digital doors of the Library of Congress to learn this and that. Yes, we were morons. What fools! What 12-year-old non-geek is going to want to visit the LOC when they could be blowing up aliens in a cool game or playing pranks on the unsuspecting or seeing more porn in one month than many people did during their entire lives, pre-Web? That’s right — virtually none. We used to laugh at who and what were called Luddites (if you’re not familiar, google the term), but as I’ve aged and become more jaded, the concept seems more and more appealing to me. Frankly, in my interactions with old colleagues and friends from the previous century, I’ve found I’m not the only one who has regrets, mostly for feeling like we let the genie out of the bottle in our naive wishes for a more utopian world. Don’t misunderstand — many of us became more and more nervous about potentially looming negative possibilities even back in the early 1990s as more and more phreaking/hacking transitioned to black hat hacking for profit, destruction and eventually warfare, when previously old school hackers simply believed in the slogan that Information Should Be Free and broke into systems for learning opportunities and bragging rights. Yes, Kevin Mitnick stole 40,000 credit card numbers, but he NEVER used any! It’s a different world now. None of us ever envisioned global kiddie porn, carders, the “Dark Web,” ransomware, cyberwarfare and so much more — and I even took part in giving security lectures and seminars to groups such as the LAPD and FBI! I even published a very influential computer security newsletter and co-authored a book on Internet security.

So much has changed since then, yet so much remains the same. The latter tends to be behind the scenes, below the surface, and more on the technical end of things though. And that is really the purpose of what follows. I actually wrote an email to my wife (something I do often while the poor dear suffers without complaint, although I’m pretty sure she doesn’t read them all), and I think I made some of the very comments I intend to make here, so I may just use that as the skeleton with which to form this bit with a little editing, in part because my time is limited. So…

Here’s the beef

I have some serious issues with this article, most specifically the first title I saw in the emailed newsletter and that could have been on the editors, not the author. In any event, it struck me as disingenuous and reeked of sensationalism, which I found disappointing from a publication where I have grown to expect quality material and not gimmicks. It ticks me off and the author and/or editors apparently seemed to have little idea what the article (particularly via the headline) in the piece sounds like, or at least that it appears to represent many stereotypical entitled, idealistic, impatient jerks because after ONE darn week (perhaps two in some places) these various people around the country expect something designed by the military for military use as well as *some* researchers back in the 1960s that had been nervously handed over to various commercial “guardians” by the early-90s (with many old schoolers — including me — thinking it was a bad idea which could possibly result in chaos and disaster — wonder how those misgivings worked out?) simply because with the commercialization of the Internet (particularly through the Pandora’s Box of the WWW, which was NOT intended for commercial use) the U.S. government felt it Could and Should no longer fiscally or logistically shoulder the load of what the ARPANET never was intended for and which was being taken over by commercial entities such as the commercial online services (AOL, etc.), browser companies, (Netscape, etc.), online investing (E*TRADE anyone?) and obviously Microsoft, which made it free and easy for Everyone buying any PC anywhere to have Internet access when they integrated IE with Win95 in a perceived anti-trust action of the highest magnitude, and which accelerated exactly what was happening back then — People HAD to get PCs, though most didn’t know why. Then people (and companies) HAD to get on the Internet, though virtually no one knew why or more importantly, how. But since they want it, let them have it and good luck with that, right? That was the thinking at the time. Sure, the Internet and its incredible growth seemed for all of the lurching, swaying, starting and stopping to continue making progress after the transition, but as more and more people and more and more companies got online (though most still didn’t know why — where did the revenue appear in the business models and plans?), and with big money coming out of it, sparked by porn and gambling initially, followed later with DIY online investing without people having to pay broker fees (because as we’d all discover later, who needs experts when you can DIY? There is an excellent and influential book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters which is specifically American and quite relevant these days — I advise people read it.), America and the rest of the world right behind it was moving much faster to get online and do *Something* online, despite the lack of scalable architecture.

Out of control

The Internet grew way too big way too fast and certainly was never intended to, nor built for that type of scalability, and while there were Internet and networking standards bodies, it seemed there was never enough time for people to develop many new technical protocols to replace the bits and pieces that had been patched together by experts like Cerf, who helped create the TCP/IP stack 25+ years before (let alone 45+ years now). Way back in the early 1970s when only a couple of dozen universities (recall the first connection was between Stanford’s SRI and UCLA), a few hundred researchers and several hundred more military experts were the only ones “online.” Before GUI interfaces were common and back when “the Net” was a series of small independent networks essentially hooked together piecemeal though brilliant technical hacks like Cerf’s — NONE of which were ever intended for, let alone even imagined to serve on a much more robust scale — let alone anything even a fraction as big as today. The fact that we are still sitting on and depending on technical protocols nearly a half century old is a testament to the genius of those who invented everything from such inventions, protocols and standards like Ethernet to personal computers that were more than just circuit boards for geeks, but actually had small GUI interfaces, as well as connected devices such as a mouse and keyboard (you should look up the first real computer mouse if you get a chance — mid ’60s, total genius, but made of wood — awesome!).

To try to provide an example of how nuts this seems to certain nerds, imagine having a custom designed very high-end, very expensive PC custom built for you, running one of the most recent versions of Windows. Happens every day. I happen to enjoy designing custom configurations and have a number of my own, my current main one a Falcon NorthWest MACH V that’s a year old, isn’t the best or more expensive, but still has an i9–9980XE chip with 18 cores, 36 threads and overclocked, a killer ASUS motherboard, multiple high-end overclocked NVIDIA GPUs, a heck of a lot of high-quality memory, several M.2 Samsung SSDs, a few more “regular” Samsung SSDs, as well as a couple of 10 TB WD data drives thrown in for substantial storage, a custom paint and design job, custom liquid cooling, and much more. I run benchmarks on this thing weekly and it routinely comes out as the fastest rig on the RealBench benchmarking scores, among others, and last night it wasted a very strenuous benchmark called SPECviewperf, which commercial companies such as HP, Lenovo, Dell, etc., use to benchmark all of their higher end machines and it’s well known for being pretty strenuous on systems. To my shock, my rig’s scores wasted about 120 of the 130 machines tested, all of which had higher grade CPUs and GPUs than you’ll find in consumer PCs. Cool, right? What if I were to tell you that a rig like this — not close to the most expensive, but more so than many cars — with all the seeming bells and whistles has traditionally used the Windows OS interface to essentially hide the fact that it’s sitting on top of and running to a various extent the old DOS OS from the 1980s? Would you believe me? Well, look it up because you might be surprised at what’s been under the Windows hood all these years, so when you go out and have a $30K or $50K or $100K rig custom built, you naturally expect the world — just like many people do with the Internet today — but if you don’t know that despite the cost, despite what these can seemingly do, some expectations will never be met because under the surface a lot of new-seeming, showy things are running on decades old, largely obsolete technology — the ultimate irony to people like me!

Going back to Cerf himself, he has typically supported many other experts who have been basically shouting (metaphorically) for many years that the old, original network protocols were never intended for major scalability, were never built for scalability on any large scale like we see now, let alone to THIS demanding degree, and need to be replaced or seriously modified at the very least, in order for the Internet to more safely and securely exist, grow and grow the right ways, be dependable, be more secure and become scalable to the enormous degrees being demanded of it, yet despite the public outcry by the experts who invented this life changing technology, do you think the greedy entities running it (or anyone else) have seriously listened, let alone cared? NO! They say, “We can’t interrupt the Great Golden Goose long enough for a bunch of ‘sky is falling’ ancient nerds to try to get things the way they want it! We’ve got to keep making money and the Net works just fine — most of the time — and when there are major security breaches or hacking incidents, we just won’t make those public because we need the public to continue having trust in us so they’ll continue putting money into us, making us more rich by the day.”

Dr. Vint Cerf (Source: Wikipedia)

Question. So how’s that working out? Huh, could it be those dinosaurs who created this thing decades ago could actually be kind of right? “Nah, we’ll just get some young whiz kids fresh out of MIT, Caltech, Harvard and Stanford to look things over and reassure everyone things are just fine. And if they turn out to be capitalists like us (possibly Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc.?), all the better, right, because they’ll be doing the right tech/geek stuff in overseeing everything, especially security, while also helping themselves to some of the pie, like every good capitalist. It’s not buying them off so much as integrating them into our culture…” And how has that worked? Well, looks like it’s worked out pretty well — for these companies, but maybe not for the consumer.

EarthLink Network’s former Pasadena data center
[The largest data center on the west coast, circa 1996. Photo from author’s private collection.]

Wrapping up

A few things come to mind. No one ever really expected Billions of people (originally) to be putting hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars into and through systems never built for that, that were never adequately safe or secure for that degree of commercialization, and when there may be security breaches and breakdowns, surely any company suffering from a major hack would make it public so their customers would know of potential danger, right, because that’s what responsible entities do in a good world. If not, the public might never learn of these incidents and would lose trust that “we” know what’s best for all and are in complete control. Right? Nor did “we” ever realize that it might be possible, let alone might even happen, that these previously mentioned “teen” hackers who liked breaking into systems and looking around for proprietary manuals or maybe the next cool unreleased game, would eventually morph into the previously mentioned cesspool of global pedophile rings, murder-for-hire schemes, and provide places for Hitler-wannabees, fascists and terrorists to recruit and learn to kill people and for international states to actually wage war against each other using this? Couldn’t happen. Only cyberpunks like William Gibson or creative loonies like Philip K. Dick could come up with scenarios that crazy!

And yet who would have further thought that global users would eventually grow to be and act so uncivil and simply hateful to each other (as well as entitled in general) that should anyone or anything dare to disturb, let alone threaten to “shut off or shut down” the Internet (a laughable concept), the whole world would seemingly go into shock, have tantrums and panic attacks and get so ticked they’d start threatening governments and companies with possible harm? But now people are so intertwined with the Internet — just as we had hoped decades ago in our utopian dreams for social good — that if for some never-going-to-happen reason, people actually started taking classes on computer networks from actual legit universities, and on a huge scale, and while this surely could never happen, if for some theoretical impossible nightmare scenario, some society in some third world country actually felt it necessary to somehow (and with little warning, no chance for infrastructure buildout, let alone time or money or even a strategy, or even one that deciders can agree on) demand and expect this Internet “we” oversee so the rich can get richer might actually be used to educate everyone in their entire sh*thole country (as a national leader might one day unwisely publicly describe certain countries) and gripe about things after a couple of weeks while not realizing that if it were even logistically possible using ancient networking protocols from the ’60s and ’70s that should obviously have been upgraded and replaced decades ago, and to do so efficiently and easily with no hiccups let alone total breakdowns, AND for everyone in their sh*thole country to have equal access (if that were even logistically feasible, let alone desirable) and for said people to possibly publicly express dissatisfaction, let alone have the gall to publicly seriously gripe about what can’t be done, was never meant to be done, was never anticipated nor prepared for, and certainly something no one would ever give a crap about because after all, where’s the mega-cash in THAT — but for some silly fool who probably doesn’t know any of this to start raising cain a week after such demands are placed on the system (and the entities responsible for overseeing parts of that system) to do the virtual impossible and for it to also be ideally perfect immediately would not only be rude, moronic, stupid, naive, hopelessly unrealistic and seemingly insane, but would show the world just how dumb people can be and the whole world would laugh at such people — unless for some reason the whole world came down with a bad case of crazy and actually expressed expectations and dissatisfaction on some similar large scale and would actually SUPPORT the complainers when such a scenario would be just crazy, rude, dumb, ignorant, entitled (“we — the privatized overseers of the Internet — are the only ones with a right to entitlement and that should be repaid by thousands of percent — hundreds of billions — for all the great we do for the general public and all the crap we have to thanklessly deal [or our underpaid IT geeks] with in overseeing this annoying pain in the ass insecure network”) and this surely would never happen in a million years, because who could make that stuff up? Right? Right!

Scott C. Holstad

September 15, 2020

(Every word, thought or [personal] photograph in this article are solely those of the author and in no way represent anyone or anything in any official capacity, most especially EarthLink Network. All photos not in the author’s personal collection have been properly credited.)

  • Originally published in The Innovation, September 2020

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