According to Wikipedia, Jon Postel was known as the “god” of the internet. Our guest in seminar last week, Professor Jonathan Zittrain, talked about him extensively, but until then I had never heard of him (I hope I’m not alone). But how can this be!? It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I have used the internet for hours a day for most of my life and had no knowledge of one of the most important figures in the history of the internet until a week ago.
What struck me most about learning about Postel is that he was a single person with so much influence over the internet. I may not know exactly what the extent of the internet was during his lifetime, and I know it has grown and developed since his passing in 1998, but it is mind-blowing to reconcile my image of the internet as this huge, seemingly ungoverned space with that of one person that users depended on for IP address allocation and, as Professor Zittrain discussed extensively, root-zone management in DNS. It makes the internet far more personal— which was likely fitting in Postel’s time. Nevertheless, it also demonstrates the risks of having one person take on so much responsibility independently—when Postel died suddenly of heart complications during surgery, others had to scramble to pick up the pieces and standardize the work he had been doing.
To switch gears a bit, Professor Zittrain also discussed the move from unowned to owned when it comes to the internet. He clarified his statement by bringing up Internet applications, which are a form of ownership because when using an app the user can only access the internet in the ways through which its designer intended. And apps are becoming increasingly prevalent, leading to a gradual shift from browsers themselves to apps. I worry that this threatens or at least limits free speech—At least, that it limits the accessibility and frequency with which users will be able to access the free internet. Apps lead to increased curation of the internet, which can be very effective when they are used for specific purposes. But if we go too far in this direction they may become like blinkers, blocking any information that the user doesn’t purposefully seek out as blinkers block out any peripheral vision.