The Unfinished Internet: Vint Cerf on Expansion, Education, and Preservation
Forty years after helping create the Internet, Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google, believes there’s still work to be done. The Internet, according to Cerf, isn’t yet complete for several reasons: Around 3.5 billion people worldwide still don’t have adequate Internet access, including millions of Californians; education supporting sophisticated use of the Internet needs more widespread establishment; and network technologies could benefit from significant improvement, especially in the field of digital archiving. Cerf believes that ultimately the Internet serves as a human network, connecting people and ideas around the globe.
At CENIC’s annual conference in March 2018, Cerf applauded what headway the CENIC community has already made on these issues. In describing the CENIC community, Cerf noted, “The people at this conference represent an extraordinarily rich and devoted group of people who want to make more networking happen and make it happen better.” Cerf lauded the community’s efforts to expand equitable connectivity, saying, “You’re already much involved in the broadband wired and wireless access to the Internet. I congratulate you on that and encourage continued work in that space, especially this idea of just making the entire state of California one gigantic wireless mesh.”
Cerf has been involved in his own non-profit organization — the People Centered Internet (PCI) — since 2015, when he co-founded it with Mei-Lin Fung, a prominent Internet pioneer. PCI functions by convening leading organizations — governments, banks, and industry innovators — in working sessions to hasten expanded Internet access. Cerf recently described PCI’s mission as “We have a great desire to do good and use the Internet to achieve that. Only half of the world’s population has access to the Internet, so we have a long way to go. Part of our interest is in helping to get more people online and to encourage policies and practices that would lead to that outcome.” PCI’s most recent efforts have focused on establishing sorely needed connectivity in Puerto Rico while it rebuilds after the destruction of hurricane Maria.
Equally as important as establishing connectivity is promoting Internet education and sophisticated Internet navigation skills, argued Cerf. Being able to distinguish between fact-based information and unsupported falsities becomes even more crucial as widespread misinformation on the Internet becomes epidemic. “People should get accustomed to asking questions like: Where did this information come from? Is there any corroborating evidence? Is there some motivation for putting this into the Net? What could possibly have been that motivation?” Cerf advised. He sees establishing Internet-related curriculum and high-speed connectivity in K-12 schools as potential solutions to this problem. Though many K-12 schools in California are already hooked up to CENIC’s California Research and Education Network (CalREN), a standard Internet curriculum has yet to be implemented.
Cerf also called attention to a possible coming “digital dark age.” “My fear is that a lot of the digital content we create every day is going to evaporate,” said Cerf, “and the reason is fairly simple.” Cerf’s concern is that the rapid technological obsolescence of our era could make vast amounts of information inaccessible — how many people have floppy disc readers these days? Without a reader, whatever information is on the floppy disc is irretrievable. Even with a reader, the software needed to open the files on a computer might itself be out of date. The issue, Cerf noted, is that there is a severe lack of permanent storage and retrieval capabilities. Combined with digital information’s ephemerality, this could prove to be a serious problem. “If you’re thinking a hundred years or two hundred, or five hundred years ahead, the question is what will people do with our bits of information?” asked Cerf. He suggested that libraries and universities could offer a solution: “If we do decide to store bits for long periods of time, what is the business model? I think that libraries and universities may have a big role to play, as they have served as the archives of our knowledge in the past.”
Cerf is not the only person in the CENIC community to have such a concern. The Internet Archive, founded and run by Brewster Kahle, is dedicated to preserving the entire Internet. It establishes the precedent that, with the right support, digital archiving solutions are within our grasp. Preserving knowledge is essential to preserving the Internet as a space for people around the world to share and access important knowledge. Allowing information to slip away would drastically undermine such a mission.
Cerf admitted that during the early days, he and his collaborators didn’t imagine the Internet would be as massive as it is now. But as its usage and utility grow with each passing year, the importance of establishing connectivity for all communities becomes more urgent. “I’m feeling more optimistic now than I ever did before that we will get the other 3.5 billion people up and online,” said Cerf. CENIC’s goals, too, are to continue expanding access to underserved schools and institutions, to promote education and smart Internet usage, and to provide reliable, high-speed access to research and education facilities that will help us preserve the past for the future. Cerf and CENIC share the same vision of making the Internet a human network, designed to connect people and communities around the globe.