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Behind the curtain

We talk a little bit about the technology behind the internet, in order that you can see how things got to be the way they are, and why we think that their nature is unlikely to change. You can skip this section if you are utterly uninterested in mechanism.

In the previous section we explained the ways in which the electronic communication fostered by the internet was different from seemingly-similar communication with telephones, radio, television, satellites, pagers, newspapers, magazines, books, and all that.

In this section we look inside, just a little, to see how sweeping the changes are, so that we can be confident that internet communication will not be gradually pulled back into being like something else.

Centralized and decentralized communication

When telephones were invented about a century ago, the telephone system was very centralized, and all of the technology was at the centre. Telephones contained no logic or intelligence, and even today when telephones have all manner of sophisticated capabilities, those capabilities are not implemented in the telephone itself, but in some unseen central device to which the telephone connects. (This is somewhat less true of mobile phones).

The world's communication system is evolving into something that is more decentralized. Where traditionally there was one telephone service, usually run by the government, many countries now have competing telephone companies. At least a dozen countries have more than 10 competing telephone companies. This competition not only gives better pricing (its original goal), it also causes the further development of telecommunications infrastructure to be more decentralized.

While telephony has historically been centralized, and the early government-funded internet prototypes were centralized, the commercial internet has always been decentralized. There are thousands of Internet Service Provider companies around the world; not even the largest has the sort of power that telephone monopolies had a generation ago. It is convenient to think of any system as centralized, and to refer to the invisible part in the middle as monolithic, but the internet is administratively, physically, politically, and economically decentralized.

Evolution from hardware to software

The raw materials out of which network communication is built are computing and data transport. People usually use the word 'bandwidth' to describe the capacity for transporting data, so an engineer would say that as 'compute power and bandwidth'.

Adding new capability to a telephone system often involves upgrading or replacing the telephone switch in the middle. Adding new capability to an internet system usually involves trying a new server, or installing new software on your computer. If you want a new feature, you install the software. Not only is this convenient and inexpensive, it is also quite hard to regulate. If you have to buy a special device to use encrypted communication, it is easy for governments to regulate the manufacture or sale of that device. But if all you need for encrypted communication is to install some software that was written in another country, it is very difficult for any regulatory process to prevent you from getting it.

Moving the sophistication to the edges

One of the reasons that the internet can be decentralized is that it relies much less on clever devices in the middle. A collection of telephones is not much use without some sort of telephone switch to connect them and route calls, but a collection of computers just needs to have a hub into which they connect; the computers can take care of their own connection needs.

This means that you can add new capability to your internet communication world by adding new software to your computer. You don't have to have a manufactured device, and you don't have to wait for some central service provider to upgrade its facilities. The most sophisticated computer networks don't even have a middle; it's all done with connectivity at the edges.

Rigid and flexible protocols

When a communication system is centralized, when the magic is in the middle, then either everybody has some new feature, or nobody has it. When the mechanism and control has moved to the edges, then any communication can negotiate, between the sender and receiver, the protocol that will be used.

You have probably heard fax machines do this. When one fax machine dials another, they beep at each other for a few seconds before the transmission begins. This beeping is the two fax machines negotiating with one another about how they are going to handle this transmission.

The same concept, much more generally, characterizes much internet communication. As long as there is rigid agreement between sender and receivers as to the vocabulary of negotiation, then any sort of extension or extra capability can be negotiated. This is a powerful tool whose consequences can be large, because it can divide the network into groups that are not very compatible with one another.

Regulation and deregulation

The combined effects of deregulation, decentralization, and the moving of intelligence to the edges of the network create an environment in which dramatic change is likely. When there is one regulated communication system, it changes slowly if at all. But deregulation makes it politically easy to try something new, decentralization makes it technically easy to try something new, and sophisticated edge devices mean it is easy for the new and the old to interoperate. The economic advantages of this deregulated and decentralized world are strong enough that it is unlikely any government will want to try to reregulate or recentralize them.

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