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Doug Van Houweling on The Things That Really Matter

November 4, 2014

Earlier this year, Internet Hall of Famer Dr. Doug Van Houweling explained in a video how, back in the 1980s, he created the network that ran the NSFNet – the foundation on which the Internet was built. He followed up recently in a question-and-answer session that focused on the future of the Internet, key moments in its development and his take on its current challenges. Here’s what he had to say:

Q. In your Internet Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Hong Kong, you spoke about how the Internet can free us to do “things that really matter.” What are some of those things?

A. There’s been a lot of conversation about how the Internet has negatively affected personal interactions -- how kids spend their time online instead of going outside to play with other kids. Well, any new technology affects the way you allocate your time, but I’m hoping that the Internet of Things will automate the more uninteresting parts of our lives so that, for example, your car will change so that you don’t have to hold the steering wheel. In other words, the Internet of Things can free us to do creative, enjoyable things instead of repetitive, tedious things. There are more trivial examples: For example, there are times when it’s enjoyable to cook, but many of us have had times when we’ve thought, Gosh, tonight it might be nice if food could cook itself.

Q. You also spoke of the threats the Internet brings with it, such as corporate and government intrusion into our lives. Which intrusions worry you most, and are there any good ways to limit or eliminate those intrusions without engaging in censorship or endangering people’s rights to free speech?

A. There’s no good short answer to that -- and maybe no good long answer, either. Although there’s been enormous focus on how governments monitor our activities, I’m much more worried about how corporations monitor our activities. Europe does a better job than we do, allowing folks more control over how their information is used in corporate settings. I want corporations to improve their service to me, but I want to limit the amount of my data that they give to other corporations or organizations. This may be changing: I see that developers for the new Apple watches won’t be allowed to release any health data associated with the watch, so they seem to be getting it right. But not all corporations are doing that. I fly on Delta Airlines quite a bit because they’re based near me, in Detroit. Six months ago, one of my colleagues showed us how Delta handles info about its customers. They’re aggregating information about me, and they’re under no constraints to keep that info confidential. What the government does with our data is constrained by laws, but all we can do with corporations is walk away from them and not use their products. (And even then, they still have my data, and can do whatever they want with it.)

Q. You predicted that in the future, we’ll have an “Interpersonal Internet.” What did you mean by that?

A. Maybe my prediction is really a “retrodiction” since, from the earliest days of the Internet, we humans have used it to communicate with one another. At first, ARPAnet was built to connect computers, but lo and behold, scientists used it mostly to send email to one another. Social media now are just the latest manifestation of that trend. I do see an increasingly personalized way of interacting with the people we care about. Facebook is certainly an imperfect solution; the “distributed” nature of the Internet is, in a way, contradicted by Facebook and other social media. Still, some day, we may have social media that don’t depend on centralized, corporate control.

Q. You probably have as good a perspective on the Internet’s history as anyone. What would you say were the key moments in the development of the Internet so far?

A. For me, there were several key moments: Among them were the realization that it met such a wide variety of human needs; the invention of the browser, at the University of Illinois; the enormous volunteering of information and expertise that its development elicited (exactly what motivated so many people to contribute to it is still not understood); and then of course, the social-media phenomenon. Right now, I have an NSF grant with [fellow Internet Hall of Famer] Larry Landweber, to study the growth of the Internet between 1987 (when the University of Michigan won the grant to develop the NSFnet backbone) and 1995, when the Internet went from a government project to a corporate enterprise. We hope to produce a book shedding light on how that all happened. 

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