Growing pains of a new technology

Growing pains of a new technology

The recent hash war seemed vaguely familiar. What does all this remind you of?

– A new technology with the potential to change the world
– Rival groups fighting over protocols they each see as critical to its future
– Issues around government and regulation
– Nobody knowing what the killer app will be, but convinced it will emerge
– Obscure techy decisions that may have lasting consequences

To me, it’s a rerun of the development of the Internet. I’ve been reading a fascinating history of that time, called Where Wizards Stay Up Late.

So how similar are the two narratives? Well, here are a few things from many decades ago that rang bells:

The Internet began with a problem: how could computers at America’s top universities be linked together so that information could be exchanged between them? Apart from the question of how to send the information, in the late 1960s, the computers used many different operating systems so they couldn’t talk to each other.

The solution was through the creation of a special network of dedicated computers to act as nodes that passed ‘packet switched’ messages (bits of messages that were reassembled at their destination) between the host computers at the universities.

The equivalent problem in the crypto world was how to create a digital currency whose security and value were independent of any existing institution. The solution lay in blockchain technology and a proof of work system by which mining computers were rewarded for maintaining the network.

So far, so technical. But what about human factors? As today with crypto, there were sceptics about the potential of the Internet. Even the future principal hardware designer for ARPAnet (the original, government-sponsored network which led to the Internet), Severo Ornstein, had his doubts when asked by his boss to comment on a request for proposals for a contract to build the first version of the network:

“I took it home and looked it over and came back a day or two later and put it down on his desk and said “Well, sure, I suppose we could build that if you wanted to, but I can’t see what one would want such a thing for.” (Laugh) Prophetic words …Anyway, I certainly confess to being absolutely dead wrong about the thing at the time. (Laugh).”

Cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies are in the same spot today: between passionate visionaries, like the early enthusiasts putting out the contract for the US government agency, and others who can’t see the point of it all.

With the Internet, the unexpected success turned out to be email, which soon took on a life of its own. The US Post Office tried to jump on the bandwagon with a clunky idea to send email messages between post offices and then deliver printouts through people’s letter boxes. Today, big financial institutions are developing plans for crypto, some of which are no doubt also doomed because they too see crypto in terms of their existing business rather than as a new paradigm.

But even the success of email didn’t come easily. Decisions about how it would work were fought over with with exactly the same kind of passion as those over block size and checkpoint protocol are today. The fact that every email has “To”, “From” and “Subject” fields at the top was not inevitable. It was the outcome of a protracted battle in an obscure 1970s messaging board called the MsgGroup. The long arguments about setting a standard format were known as the Header Wars – sounds familiar?

The debates had a fierce intensity: “MsgGroup members could argue about anything,” according to authors Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. “You’d swear you’d just dropped in on a heated group of lawyers, or grammarians, or rabbis.” Flaming was a new kind of personal attack used in the cause of establishing an agreed format for email headers.

Over time, and after countless discussions and arguments, protocols that created today’s Internet were gradually agreed. TCP/IP was the standard adopted for communication, rather than its rivals. New users gained access to the Internet through the development of ethernet networks. And somehow, in different ways, the system was paid for commercially when government funding was phased out.

Does that happy outcome bode well for crypto development or suggest how today’s disputes will be settled? Not precisely, but there may be something to be learnt from this description of how, after a few years, the heated MsgGroup disputes just faded away:

“It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint when or why …but by the early 1980s, note by note, the orchestra that had been performing magnificently and that had collectively created email over a decade, began abandoning the score, almost imperceptibly at first.” The work was done; the technology was adopted. Former enemies discovered they had more in common with each other than with those who were indifferent to it all.

The work is still being done in crypto and there’s no sign of universal harmony breaking out any time soon. But it’s worth remembering that raised voices are – to coin a phrase – proof of work. The benefits of fiercely fought arguments will likely be enjoyed by billions of users in the years to come.

In 1994, twenty-five years after building their pioneering pre-Internet projects, some of the original engineers got together for a reunion. By that time the Internet was becoming a household word. In his speech, one of the key figures, Frank Heart, reflected on the opportunity they’d had: “only a small fraction of the technically trained population get a shot at riding a technological rocket, and then get to see that revolution change the world”.

I take two lessons from that: first, although crypto is a decade old, it took a quarter of a century for the Internet to permeate into most people’s lives; and second, it’s a rare privilege to be at the centre of arguments that will determine the direction of significant technological change. Enjoy!

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