Robert Lucky on Anarchy and it's role in the Internet's success

This article originally appeared in Robert Lucky's column "Reflections" in the November 1996 issue of Spectrum Magazine. It is "reprinted" here with the permission of the author.

Honk if you're for anarchy

Sometimes when I'm driving in the rush hour, I look for analogies between the behavior of traffic on the highways and in telecommunications. This morning, for example, I am worrying about the oft-predicted collapse of the Internet. There will be too much congestion, the doomsayers lament, and nobody actually controls the Net. Anarchy won't work, they say.

These predicted Internet diseases are exactly what I see about me on the highways--congestion and anarchy. Why does everyone have to be on the highway at the same time? Why don't they behave courteously? Why does it have to be everybody for themselves, instead of cooperation for the joint good?

The Internet is likewise a miraculous example of cooperation and competition. No one controls or regulates the Net. Yet thousands of companies provide its products and services, many more thousands of volunteers contribute to its design and standardization, and millions of users implicitly and explicitly guide its socialization and usage patterns. But somehow, it works. It all plays together. Mostly.

The notion that the Net is anarchic bothers a lot of people, a lot of companies, and a lot of governments. Earlier this year I got a telephone call from a voice-from-the-past. This engineer, long retired, was once the all-powerful being in charge of engineering the Bell System. His office in Manhattan was filled with plans for the evolution of the telephone network. In 10 years, a certain system would be deployed. In 20, that system would be followed by such and such. Everything was planned.

I met this former executive for lunch, because he said he "wanted to know what was going on." As soon as we were seated at the restaurant, he asked, "I want to know who runs the Internet." I promptly answered, "No one." He pounded the table: "That's not the way we did it in my day!" he exclaimed passionately.

I understand his concern. Years ago I would have trembled at the thought that the telecommunications environment would look like anarchy. But now, strangely, I'm comfortable with this idea. For one thing, I often feel glad that the Internet isn't owned by a single corporation, in spite of the aspirations that some of them have entertained. I can imagine an Internet run by a particular company (fill in your own favorite), which decides what content would be permitted and what technologies would be promulgated, and I'm thankful for the seething kettle of innovation and competition that we actually have.

And anarchy doesn't necessarily equate with chaos. Networks have a propensity for self-organization. Users try to maximize their own value, and as a consequence, often adopt the techniques and practices of the majority. We rally behind TCP/IP and HTML, for example. We do it out of self-interest, but in the process we create the highest total value for the overall user population. It is a most curious process, and it leads to the "winner-take-all" phenomenon that has so greatly benefited Intel and Microsoft.

Of course, winner-take-all is great if you're the winner. Losing companies couldn't care less about maximizing user value. Their natural motivation is for closed, proprietary solutions that lock in business for themselves. They curse the user's predilection for what they see as the technologically inferior solutions of their competitors. They cry out for anti-trust suits and regulation.

In addition, the Net has evolved ways of self-policing. Spammers, who flood foes with e-mail, are subjected to e-mail bombs. People caught violating the Net's unwritten etiquette are ostracized. Moreover, a friend observed that the Net is self-policing with respect to decency. "Every time I get near any pornography," he said, "there is so much traffic I can't get through."

The problem is that acting in self-interest does not always optimize group value. On the highway in front of me, there is a long jam at an exit ramp. As a good citizen, I have merged into the right lane. Other motorists, however, stream down the left lanes in order to jump the queue at the exit. Because the line is constantly interrupted by these queue-jumpers, traffic in the right lane is stopped. The people using the left lanes are optimizing their own travel time at the expense of everyone else.

Unfortunately, there may be more examples of competitive behavior than cooperative behavior in road traffic. An alternate merge is a rare example of individual cooperation. More common is cooperation within groups for competition against other groups, as when a stream of cars makes a left-hand turn in a capture effect, or when the entire traffic stream during rush hour flows at speeds in excess of the limit, providing joint immunity to arrest.

On several occasions I have experienced what I consider to be the prototypical dilemma of self-interest on the highway--waiting in long jams to discover upon reaching the front of the line that the middle of the road was blocked by a fallen carton. I then had the choice of proceeding around the carton, or stopping and moving the carton so as to free the entire jam. There is this overpowering feeling that since I had waited, the people behind me could wait, too. I confess that I always drive on. Awful, isn't it?

There are similar examples in the Net. People can hog the transmission facility with broadband traffic, or hang on the line for hours.With flat-rate pricing, individuals can maximize their own benefits at the expense of others. Yet the whole community is better off, in my opinion, if we behave in a fashion that makes usage-based pricing unnecessary.

Given selfish behavior and anarchy, will the Internet survive? I believe so. In spite of this traffic jam, I will get into my car again. It is an inalienable part of life. So, now, is the Net. It will survive jams, rude behavior, and road closings. Anarchy can cause frustrations, but sometimes it works and is better than the alternatives.

Robert W. Lucky