Alexandria Online

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Network of Networks

"The Fundamental challenge these network pioneers faced— and the one that remains at the heart of the Internet’s DNA— was designing not just a network but a network of networks."

Blum, Andrew (2012-05-29). Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (p. 42). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The network of networks that Blum is describing in this excerpt is the fiber infrastructure, switches, routers, and programming that comprised the nascent internet. But Blum goes on to emphasize again and again that it was also a network of people, engineers, deal-makers, content providers and carriers. The best network engineers worked with the best social engineers to negotiate, bargain and fight over the future of the internet.

The internet is not just an engineering marvel; it is a social marvel. It is a place we wander through, where we meet, where we dwell - as humans with a curiosity to feed. It does not come to us; we go there.

In the early days of connectivity, when schools first installed dial-up connections, and then ISDN lines and finally T-1's, you could read the phrase, "teacher as bottle-neck" in various publications. The assumption was that the knowledge would flow into the students through the internet once the teacher got out of the way. It didn't happen that way. We needed teachers more than ever to guide students down rivers of information.

At the board meetings I attend for a local consortium that provides broadband to educational institutions, the post-meeting conversations turn toward establishing new, shorter routes or redundant routes, or routes without signal regeneration stations. Some of the members are school administrators filling in as technology directors. They meet and greet and provide governance. But some members are hard-core engineers. I like to listen to the engineers talking about routing issues, squirrel problems, ice damage and line fires. I like to talk with the civilians about their institutional challenges and opportunities. The network engineers talk with the social engineers.

During our Fall semester, our internet service provider had difficulty meeting the expanding needs of its customers. We experienced severe slowness and sometimes failed connections during the school day. It was the first time in many years that the faculty have not been able to connect to the resources they need for their classes and it made them madder than a half-swatted hornet.

Poor bandwidth is no longer tolerable in a school. Campus is the place that students go to meet their guides, who take them out through the portal of education. Often that portal depends on signals transmitted over fiber optic cable.

Education is a fundamentally social enterprise. As humans we hunger to create and share knowledge. Learning thrives where there are powerful networks and inter-networks, and it withers when the bandwidth is choked off.