Last summer I attended a Bingham event at the Discovery Theatre in NYC’s Time Square to celebrate the Terracotta Warriors of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. What struck me was how far our Asian ancestors had advanced technically, socially and intellectually beyond our western forefathers by 200 BC. Huang's reign, which included the building of major transportation and information networks was followed by a period of nearly 1,500 years of relative peace (and stagnation) in China. It would take another 1,000 years for the westerners to catch up during periods of war, plague and socio-political upheaval. But once they passed their Asian brethren by the 15th and 16th centuries they never looked back. Having just finished Art of War, by Sun Tsu, I asked myself, is war and strife necessary for mankind to advance?
This question was reinforced over the holidays upon visiting the Loire Valley in France, which most people associate with beautiful Louis XIV chateaus, a rich fairy-tale medieval history, and good wines. What most people don’t realize is that the Loire was a war-torn area for the better part of 400 years as the French (Counts of Blois) and English (Counts of Anjou; precursors to the Plantagenet dynasty of England) vied for domination of a then emerging Europe. The parallels between China and France 1,000 years later couldn’t have been more poignant.
After the French finally kicked the English out in the 1400s this once war-torn region became the center of the European renaissance and later the birthplace of the age of enlightenment. Francois 1st brought Leonardo from Italy for the last 3 years of his life and the French seized upon his way of thinking; to be followed a few centuries later by Voltaire and Rousseau. The French aristocracy, without wars to fight, invited them to stay in their Chateaus, built on the fortifications of the medieval castles, and develop their enduring principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. These in turn would become the foundations upon which America broadly based its constitution and structure of government; all of which in theory supports and leads to competitive markets and network neutrality; the basis of the internet.
And before I left on my trip, I bought a kindle version of Sex, Bombs and Burgers by Peter Nowak on the recommendation of an acquaintance at Bloomberg. Nowak’s premise is to base much of America’s advancement and success over the past 50 years on our warrior instincts and need to procreate and sustain life. I liked the book and recommend it to anyone, especially as I used to quip, “Web 1.0 of the 1990s was scaled by the 4 (application) horsemen: Content, Commerce, Communication and hard/soft-Core porn.” But the book also provides great insights beyond the growth of porn on the internet into our food industry and where our current military investments might be taking us physically and biologically.
While the book meanders on occasion, my take-away and answer to my above question is that war (and the struggle to survive by procreating and eating) increases the rate of technological innovations, which often then result in new products; themselves often mistakes or unintended commercial consequences from their original military intent. War increases the pace of innovation out of necessity, intensity and focus. After all, our state of fear is unnaturally heightened when someone is trying to kill us, underscoring the notion that fear and greed are man’s primary psychological and commercial motivators; not love and happiness.
Most people generally believe the internet is an example of a technological innovation hatched from the militarily driven space race; which is the premise for another book I am just starting Where Wizards Stay Up Late, by Hafner and Lyon. What most people fail to realize, including Nowak, is that the internet was an unintended consequence of the breakup of AT&T in 1983; another type of conflict or economic war that had been waged in the 1950s-1970s. In that war we had General William McGowan of MCI (microwave, the M in MCI, was a technology principally scaled during WW II) battling MaBell along with his ally the DOJ. At the same time, a group of civilian scientists in the Pentagon had been developing the ARPAnet, a weapon/tool developed to get around MaBell’s monopoly long-distance fortifications to enable low cost computer communications across the US and globally.
The two conflicts aligned in the late 1980s as the remnants of MaBell, the Baby Bells, sought regulatory relief through state and federal regulators from a viciously competitive WAN/long-distance sector to preserve two arcane, piggishly profitable monopoly revenue streams; namely intrastate tolls and terminating access. The regulatory relief provided was to expand local calling areas (LATAs) and go to flat rate (all you can eat) pricing models. By then modems and routers, outgrowths of ARPA related initiatives, had gotten cheap enough that the earliest ISPs could cost effectively build and market their own layer 1-2 nationwide "data bypass" networks across 5,000 local calling areas.
These networks allowed people to dial up a free or low cost local number and stay connected with a computer or database or server anywhere all day long. The notions of “free” and “cheap” and the collapse of distance were born. The internet started and scaled in the US because of partially competitive communications networks, whom no one else had in 1990. It would be 10 years before the ROW had an unlimited flat-rate access topology like the US.
Only after these foundational (pricing and infrastructure) elements were in place, did the government allow commercial nets to interconnect via the ARPAnet in 1988. This was followed by Tim B Lee's WWW in 1989 (a layer 3 address simplification standard) and http and html in subsequent years providing the basis for a simple to use, mass-market browser, mosaic, the precursor to Netscape, in 1993. The result was the Internet or Web 1.0, which was a 4 or 5 layer asynchronous communications stack mostly used as a store and forward database lookup tool.
The internet was the result of two wars being fought against the monopolies of the Soviet communists and American bellheads; both of which, ironically, share(d) common principles. Participants and commentators in the current network neutrality, access/USF reform and ITU debates, including Nowak, should be aware of these conflict-driven beginnings of the internet, in particular the power and impact of price, as it would modify their positions significantly with respect to these debates. Issues like horizontal scaling, vertical disintermediation and completeness, balanced settlement systems and open/equal access need to be better analyzed and addressed. What we find in almost every instance on the part of every participant in these debates is hypocritical and paradoxical positions, since people do not fully appreciate history and how they arrived at their relative and absolute positions.