In 1995, Newsweek published the article (picture above) claiming that “No online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” Keep in mind that, back then, internet was just becoming available to the masses and people were trying to wrap their heads around it. To put things in perspective, here is a video from an NBC show from 1994:
Sometime around the same year as the Newsweek article shared above, an American Businessman by the name of Dave Garrison was appointed as the CEO of a then famous ISP (Internet Service Provider) known as NETCOM. When hired, Dave Garrison didn’t know much about the Internet, and one of his first tasks as CEO was to explain what it is to Bankers and Investors in order to raise money for the company.
In 2006, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, in their book titled ‘The Starfish and the Spider’, revisited one of Dave Garrisons most important meeting with the investors that took place in a restaurant named Michelin in Paris.
In Dave’s own words:
There were about 30 people in the room all very well dressed, speaking in hushed tones. It was like they were hearing fantastic tales from this young American about some computer technology that will change the world… But then everybody got stumped. One of the investors started asking: who is the president of the Internet?
We went in circles about how ‘there is no president.’ … this is 1995, so the Internet is still a fairly unknown thing. We’re explaining, ‘Imagine what it would be like if all the customers of a department store could organize in a fashion and share information, and it shifts the balance of power.’ We’re laying this stuff out, and people are like, ‘Who are these guys? What drugs are you on?’
‘Then we tried another approach: the Internet was a network of networks.’ We said, ‘There are thirty to forty thousand networks, and they all share in the burden of communication.’ And they said, ‘But who decides?’ And we said, ‘No one decides. It’s a standard that people subscribe to. No one decides.’ And they kept coming back, saying, ‘You don’t understand the question, it must be lost in translation, who is the president of the Internet?’
“And honestly, I, I — I tried to be very up front in describing [it] the best way [I could], but I was deeply unable to.”
Eventually Dave surrendered. He gave the French what they wanted.
“I said I was the president of the Internet, ’cause otherwise we weren’t going to get through with the sales pitch. I wasn’t trying to be flippant. I wanted to move on, I wanted to sell securities. So I will tell you, I was the first president of the Internet, claimed so in Paris in 1995. Absolutely, I was”
As the authors later explain
Those French investors were not flat-earthers. The Internet, after all, was a brand-new technology at the time. They had a right to be concerned, and it was good that they asked so many questions. But the interaction does point to a common human trait: when we’re used to seeing something in a certain way, it’s hard to imagine it being any other way. They were used to seeing things in a particular way: organizations have structures, rules, hierarchies, and, of course, a president.
In a nutshell: the French mistook a starfish for a spider.
At first glance, you see two creatures, one (starfish) having 5 arms coming out of a central body and the other (spider) having 8 legs. However, in reality, these are both fundamentally very different.
With the spider, what you see is what you get. There is head connected to a body which has 8 (or sometimes more) legs. The head runs the show. The spider might survive without a leg or two, but cut it in half and it will die. Starfish has more to it then what you see. There is no head. Even it’s central body is not in charge. All its major organs are replicated inside each arm. This makes it the most relevant example of decentralization found in nature. If you cut a starfish’s arm, most of them will grow a new one. I say most because some other, more rare, starfish known as Linckia, have the ability to replicate themselves from a single arm. So you can cut the Linckia into a bunch of pieces, and each one will regenerate into a whole new starfish.
They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality, a starfish is a neural network — basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network. Get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to do so. The arm starts moving, and then — in a process that no one fully understands — the other arms cooperate and move as well. The brain doesn’t “yea” or “nay” the decision. In truth, there isn’t even a brain to declare a “yea” or “nay.” The starfish doesn’t have a brain. There is no central command. Biologists are still scratching their heads over how this creature operates.
Coming back to the Dave Garrison story
Living in a world of spiders, it was hard for the French investors to fully understand the starfish (i.e. the internet), let alone appreciate its potential. That’s why they needed a president of the Internet.
Moving on, once Dave put them out of their dilemma he got his investment. Like Netcom, many other ISP’s became operational worldwide and contrary to newsweek’s article, Internet did end up becoming nirvana. A centralized nirvana that is. As somewhere along the line, everyone lost sight of the starfish.
I believe that just like Dave Garrison gave up in trying to properly explain the decentralized internet to his french investors, we as a community failed to properly understand, build and use it like one.
As Chris Dixon eloquently explained in his article, Why Decentralization Matters, the internet did start as services built on top of open protocols that were controlled by the internet community. The internet community ensured that these protocols and their rules won’t change allowing the users to confidently build their digital presence as they pleased. However, somewhere around the mid 2000s for-profit tech companies built software and services that rapidly outpaced the capabilities of open protocols causing developers and users to switch to these new and more sophisticated centralized services. They gave them free access to some amazing technologies and a large user base, but took away their freedom to grow without worrying about centralized platforms changing the rules on them, taking away their audiences and profits. Remember how many businesses were affected when twitter started to kill third party apps?
Thanks to all these centralized platforms, and the ‘free convenience’ they give to developers, the Internet, that was envisioned to be a decentralized network of networks, has become a network of a few centralized networks. A network that
- governments are now trying to regulate
- for-profit tech companies are trying to make more transparent and
- the entire user base in trying to keep trusting
Quoting Chris again, “Centralized platforms have been dominant for so long that many people have forgotten there is a better way to build internet services”.
What’s the better way?
Is Blockchain the Starfish we need?
Assuming you all know what blockchain is (or have just learned about it from the links shared above), please note that I am not going to make any claims that Blockchain is the most disruptive technology since the internet itself. Nor am I going to say that it will solve every problem that exists with the Internet today.
I am just going to say this: we are living in interesting times, sort of like the time, people discussed above were living in 1994/95. All we need to do is not be negative about this new technology.
Like Dave’s french investors mentioned above, most people don’t understand what blockchain is, and the rest don’t want to understand. I know when we’re used to seeing something in a certain way, it’s hard to imagine it being any other way.
But unlike Dave’s investors we should try see things differently:
Internet has come a long way, Blockchain will go a long way too. We just need to figure out the right use cases for it. Unlike the Long island iced tea company that just used the word blockchain to increase their stock value by 200%.
The Gartner Hype Cycle of emerging technologies 2018 shows blockchain is currently moving from “peak of inflated expectations” segment into the “trough of disillusionment” segment.
Meaning everyone who is really involved in this technology has figured out almost everything they cannot do with it. Which means a lot of successful use cases are next. As we all know this famous quote:
Internet was supposed to be a starfish. Here’s hoping blockchain makes this possible!