‘Eureka’ moment as humble graduate offering leads to birth of internet
Steve Crocker’s 1969 paper initiated the process of defining the rules that govern virtually all data exchange
Crocker started losing sleep over the problem, hence the 3am bathroom session.
However, what emerged as a result was an open and inclusive mode of collaboration that set the tone for later movements such as open source, Linux and Wikinomics.
To hedge against opprobrium from above he gave his text a humble title, Request For Comments, and made its tone as inclusive as possible.
In RFC 3, he elaborated on the rules for future RFCs.
In effect, there was none. An RFC could be contributed by anyone and could be as short as a sentence.
“These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas.
“Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition.”
A later elaboration of this principle by Dave Clarke of the internet engineering taskforce was: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”
The graduate students were able to take this freewheeling approach thanks to a “very, very light hand from Washington”. Both US government and military had learned the importance of investing in scientific research during the second World War.
“That wisdom, in a certain sense, led to a very expansive role in terms of funding research with an adult or evolved understanding that you must not try to control exactly everything that was going on, that it’s important to cast your bread upon the waters and wait and see what happens.”
Crocker is concerned about the level of scientific funding in the United States.
Darpa, which supported the early work on the internet, “was given extremely broad authority to create technology and not ask permission but just go do it”.
It had been founded in response to the launch of Sputnik, which demonstrated Soviet mastery of rocketry and galvanised radical research and development in the US in the late 1950s.
Crocker fears that the highest level of government is distracted from long-term R&D.
He says that whereas the second World War and the Cold War focused minds, “we do not yet have a crisis that is competing at the same level”.
As our conversation moves on to privacy, Crocker says there is no perfect solution.
“Privacy is a two-edged sword. If you walk into a hotel that you have frequented before and the concierge greets you by name and has your favourite drink waiting, is that a violation of your privacy or is that high-quality service?”