Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

They say that success has many parents but failure is an orphan. Judged by that standard—or any other—the Internet is a success. Al Gore invented it. Tim Berners-Lee got a knighthood out of it. Everyone was using it before it was cool. But only two men have ever borne the title "Father of the Internet." One is computer scientist Bob Kahn. The other is Vint Cerf.

If it's hard to appreciate what Vint Cerf accomplished, it's only because of its ever-presence. Somewhere around 1973, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn found a way to make machines talk to each other using a protocol called TCP/IP. The protocol was simple, elegant, and catchy. Nearly anything could use it. People said it would run over two tin cans and a piece of string. Today, it runs over everything. It's not just computers. In the "Internet of Things," thermostats, refrigerators and toasters are using it. Television programming and telephone networks are switching to it. It's like Douglas Adams' babelfish reduced to a series of packet headers. When we finally have to bow down to our robot overlords, we'll probably have to learn how to speak TCP/IP just to beg for our lives. Thanks, Vint.

Vint Cerf's interests and accomplishments range far and wide. When we spoke with him, he was working on latency problems associated with sending and receiving network signals to and from deep space. And he was preoccupied by global warming. Obviously, there was a lot to find out about Vint Cerf.

But what we really wanted to find out was how the father of the Internet would handle a 7-10 split.

Words and interview by Erik Stallman and Jeff Jetton. Photos by John Ulaszek.

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

GIZMODO: As I understand it, much of the work that you did grew out of DARPA, and DARPA was an agency that had to think about big ideas, not sort of immediate needs, but things that are long term. And in a way it was sort of a response to a big idea like Sputnik.

Vint Cerf: That’s partly right, although I think DARPA doesn’t quite characterize itself as just big ideas. The way they would characterize it is DARPA ‘hard problems’ that are things that are super risky in the sense that you’re not trying to find a solution at all, and that nobody else is tackling them. So they’re not too interested in trying to do something somebody else is doing, they’re not interested in competing with anybody.

In the case of the Internet, this was an exploration of whether this particular technology, packet switching, which was considered nuts at the time, by the conventional telephonic community. AT&T wanted nothing to do with it, it wasn’t going to work, they didn’t care to waste their time on it. They’d be happy to lease dedicated circuits to the idiots who wanted to build this ARPANET thing. So the DAPRA-hard problems tend to be ones that have really high risk and really high payoff, if you can actually make it work. And a lot of what they do is to push the edges and limits of almost everything.

When we got started in 1958 it was to try to get us into space. Because Sputnik just triggered all things within us in the U.S. What we need is similar Sputnik moments, really. If we were looking, generically, for a way to galvanize the country, a Sputnik moment is what we need. I thought we might have had it with global warming, but it doesn’t happen in a sufficiently instantaneous way to build up a ballyhoo of holy crap if we don’t do something about this we’re in deep trouble. It’s sort of like we’re being boiled in water slowly like the frog in the experiment.

GIZMODO: What kind of asshole boils a frog in water just to see if it dies? So this is high-risk, high-payoff…

VC: Right now we’ve got lots of high risk when it comes to this global climate change. And the payoff of course is survival. But a lot of people just don’t get it, and it really is quite amazing.

GIZMODO: So you’re an environmentalist, then?

VC: Well I wouldn’t qualify to be an environmentalist, but I do believe we’ve got a problem. The CO2 levels are way off the charts. The thing that scares me more than anything is the hydrates that are down at the bottom of the ocean. The Methanyl hydrates. Right now they’re sequestered there because temperatures are low enough. But there’s some evidence, geological evidence, that about 50 million years ago, there was sufficient warming, with the sun cycle I guess, that the hydrates actually started to melt. And they released methane. Well methane is 27 times worse than carbon dioxide; it’s a greenhouse gas. So it triggered a significant warming of several degrees over a period of I don’t how many hundreds or thousands of years.

Anyway you didn’t come to talk about that. But this is the thing that really scares me, is not that the CO2 is the problem, but if it triggered something that’s absolutely unstoppable…we may be a smart species, but we may not be smart enough to figure out how to survive if there is a really significant global warming.

GIZMODO: Until it’s too late. Until these high risk situations are already…

VC: Already happening.

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

VC: What would you actually like to talk about? Wait, do you know what DARPA just did? This project that started at the jet propulsion laboratory in 1998. Interplanetary extension of the internet. They said they’re really serious about this. We’ve done the design, we have the plans, aboard the space station… they're on board the mars science landers. DARPA funded testing, initially, for tactical military simulated environments.

GIZMODO: Is it latency tolerance disruption?

VC: DARPA just released another half million dollar study about the design of a spacecraft to get to the nearest star in a hundred years time. So I’m part of the team that won that…it’s a grant. So it’s not a contract, it’s just a grant. And it’s just a study; nobody’s going to build anything. But the problems and the challenges are absolutely wonderful. First of all, we’ve got to get up to twenty percent of the speed of light in order to get there, to the halfway point in fifty years’ time…otherwise you fly through the Andromeda system to get two pictures, and that’s the end. Not good enough. So you’ve got to slow down and get into orbit. Second, the current propulsion systems would take us 65,000 years to get there. So we have work to do.

Then there’s communication. How do you generate a signal to four light years away that you can reliably detect. So that’s my problem is to try to think through that. And then there’s navigation. Because stars aren’t where they look like they are. Light takes time to get here. So it’s actually all a big fake. You gotta imagine…you’re a light year away from earth, and you have to figure well where do I go now? How do I do the mid-course corrections? And you can’t do it remotely, right? Because it takes a whole year for the light signal to go back and forth. By the time you say “You should do x,” you know, they’re already another light year away.

GIZMODO: Give or take a light year.

VC: So anyway that’s a project that may not even launch in my lifetime, but I don’t care. This is one of those things where it’s just a part of it.

GIZMODO: Is this for DARPA or is this for Google maps?

VC: (laughs) It’s for DARPA, in this case. Although we do have Google Mars, and Google Moon, and Google Sky at Google Earth.

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

GIZMODO: What’s next?

VC: You know what I would like to do? I would kind of like to do something with Google Earth where you zoom in and then you discover the flora, and the fauna, and the other things. How about the encyclopedia of life? What’s there? What can I grow there?

GIZMODO: What kind of mold is on your roof? [laughter]

VC: And then, what about the inner universe? We haven’t done anything about…we’ve done a little bit of ocean stuff, but we haven’t done very much about—you know, what if you burrow into the earth…What if you looked inside organisms? People…we do a Google organism. And human beings are an interesting choice. Because we’ve got some enormous amount of bacterial DNA in our bodies. A hundred times more bacterial DNA than human DNA. But we’ve grown up, we’ve evolved with these things.

GIZMODO: Do you ever Google yourself at work?

VC: I don’t actually do that. But I did leave a Google Alert going because it’s nice to know who’s attacking me now. So I don’t really. I actually have been reasonably well treated. There’s a little tiff going on right now with the FCC because I was a little critical of their broadband report.

GIZMODO: Which broadband report?

VC: You know, every year the FCC puts out a report on how well we are doing deploying broadband. And you know, this one, this glowing report; every ISP is between 85 and 107 percent of its advertised capacity, or bandwidth. And I don't think any of us in the research community who have been measuring this stuff have ever seen any numbers anywhere close to the advertised bandwidth. So, a lot of us are gathering data independently of whatever they use to generate that report, and we’re going to compare and see what happens.

GIZMODO: What data is the FCC relying on?

VC: Well, there’s a company called SamKnows, that they contracted with, and they had servers around that they were measuring from. We’re a little puzzled by the overly favorable, what I consider to be overly favorable results. But we don't know how to evaluate that until they release the data. So one of the things that my team at Google has been saying can we get the data, and the methodology that was used to collect and analyze the statistics? Just so that it can be reproduced.

GIZMODO: Do you remember the Matthew Broderick movie War Games?

VC: Yes. 1982 or something like that?

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

GIZMODO: ‘81, ‘82? What were your thoughts on that at the time?

VC: Well I thought it was a silly fantasy movie. It wouldn’t be that easy for a kid to go hack his way in. On the other hand, it was a fun movie anyway. It’s like any entertainment, right? This is called the willing suspension of disbelief so you can have fun. Which is why I still read the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and the Oz books.

GIZMODO: Hunger Games?

VC: I haven’t actually either seen or read that. Maybe I should. I’m a big science fiction fan, but it’s usually stuff coming out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, like Heinlein. Ray Bradbury, who just passed away. Orson Scott Card, is a newer one. He did Ender’s Game. He’s got about 15 or 16 books. So those are the kinds of guys I tend to read.

GIZMODO: Did you get to the Dune series?

VC: The Dune series? You know, I read the first one. And then I kind of got a little…it was kind of like reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But I used to also read a guy who’s also passed away from JPL, or Caltech, one of those dudes. Robert L. Forward. Who’s an astrophysicist. In the books he stuck to real nuts and bolts. And in the appendixes, he would say, “This is how you build a time machine.” And you know, set aside the fact that you would need a substantial amount of energy we don’t have available right now. “Oh, you need a monopole or two, or five.” But it was credible physics, or slightly extrapolated physics. And now Higgs boson has been discovered. You know, you can kind of see somebody beginning to extrapolate quantum gravity theory, because now you have a particle that’s supposed to imbue things with mass. Once you have particle and a force field for mass, now you’re beginning to bring gravitational notions into the standard model. That’s pretty exciting.

GIZMODO: So would it be like a big magnet?

VC: Well, what has to happen—the book that you should read, it’s called Time Masters, and it’s about a guy who actually manages to create enough spatial distortion, it’s like a wormhole, it has the odd property when you go from one end to the other end you do it faster than light would do it, if it were traveling through a geodesic in the universe. And once you do that you’ve built yourself a time machine. If you enjoy the consequences of being able to do that and you enjoy the fact that this is an extrapolation of known physics, for me that’s a lot of fun. Because then you can just imagine that it might be possible.

GIZMODO: What about Philip K. Dick?

VC: Not as much. Although I like my Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter……….. I don’t like it to mess up my science. So don’t mess with my science.

GIZMODO: There’s no hard science in Harry Potter?

VC: Well, there is the wand, but…

GIZMODO: Most people will rightly acknowledge the Internet’s main use as a global tool for quick and reliable access to pornography. What are your thoughts on being the father of that vehicle?

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

VC: First of all, the thing that I think is most apparent about the net, and the thing that struck me as being the most interesting, is after Tim Berners-Lee put together the World Wide Web idea, he codified ways of pointing to content. And of transporting that content, so HTTP and HTML. The implementation of that idea comes in browsers and servers.

When he first did it it was like 1989, and the official release of his first browser and server was December 25, 1991. And nobody noticed. Except for a couple of guys, named Mark Andreessen and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. They developed Mosaic, which was the graphical version of this thing. When that hit around ’92, everybody went nuts. Because suddenly the net was colorful, it was imagery, it wasn’t just text. You didn’t have to know UNIX and grep lines. Suddenly anybody could use it because it was visually intuitive.

One of the lessons it’s taught me is as soon as you make it easy for people to create and share information, they’ll do it. They’re not looking for pecuniary compensation. What they’re looking for is satisfaction that something they knew, and they shared, is useful to someone else. So there’s this tsunami of content. Which of course immediately drives the need for some kind of search engine, because you can’t find anything in this ocean.

So watching people pour information into the net was really exciting. Course, that meant that the general public had to have access to it. And there’s a whole story about finally coming to that point. Up until 1988 no access was available to the general public. It was strictly government-sponsored things, whether it was university research or defense department or some other government thing. So some of us worked really hard to break that limitation.

Once the general public gets access to that plus the web tool, then they start generating content. There was one other trick that it may have been intentional, but not necessarily with the intent in mind, but the effect that it had. And that’s the ability to look at a web page and ask the browser to show you “How is that generated? Show me the HTML.” That is, view source or show source. So everybody who is curious about how to make web pages learned how to do it from other people who had already made a web page. By just looking at the coding. And they could fiddle with it, they could copy it, there was no access control, there was no intellectual property constraint, people could just put the web page up.

So we had webmasters invent themselves in effect, by learning from everybody else. And then propagating. That’s part of what triggered this avalanche. Anybody who wanted to could write their own HTML. So that exposure of mechanism allowed the general public to do whatever it wanted to do, and of course this is a reflection of the entire society. Internet is like a mirror. And it reflects back whatever the society is. And so people get all upset about pornography and hate speech, and they get upset about terrorism websites. I mean, all these bad things. Or fraud and abuse, stalking, all these bad things happen. It’s true, they happen without the Internet, and they happen on the Internet, because the general public is there. Well. So here we have this mirror showing us all these bad stuff. Then the question is, what happens when you see bad stuff in the mirror? Well you don’t fix the mirror. The Internet is a mirror. That doesn’t do any good. Fixing the Internet will not fix the problem. You gotta fix the people that are reflected in the mirror.

GIZMODO: DARPA hard problem!

GIZMODO: Just going back to TCP/IP for a second, I think this is sort of interesting that in 1973…so now we live in a world where coffee makers have IP addresses. Where television is migrating to IP, everything, almost every bit of data that flows across the world is—

VC: Embedded in an IP packet.

GIZMODO: Right. So questions are in 1973 did you have any idea what you were on to, and this is a second question, but for a while I remember if you installed networks in the early ‘90s there were other weird protocols. There was NetBIOS and IPS-XPS and all these things. Why did TCP/IP win?

VC: It was a huge battle. Let me try and answer your two questions. The first one is, did we have any clue about what was going to happen? And of course, a literal honest answer would be no, but it wouldn’t be accurate. You have to realize that in 1973, the ARPANET had already been in operation since 1969, early 1970s. So we had three years of experience with it. The reason that’s important is that by 1971 network email had been invented. It was around before, in time period machines, where you have to file for somebody, it didn't have the same utility that network email did. So that shows up around 1970, and instantly it’s a hit. Instantly you discover it’s a social phenomenon. Mailing lists get created very quickly after the email stuff pops up. And the first two that I remember were Sci-fi Lovers and Yum Yum. Look, we’re a bunch of geeks!

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

GIZMODO: And the forum one, come on.

VC: Actually, that stuff showed up—Yum Yum was restaurant reviews coming out of Palo Alto. Sci-Fi Lovers, I don’t know who started it but you know, we all talked about books we liked.

Actually, the porn stuff doesn’t actually show up there. It shows up in Usenet. Usenet’s another phenomenon over here. It’s UNIX and the UUCP. Usenet is a very clever structure for dropping something in to the stream, and have everybody pick it out. There are big arguments over who manages, what the topics are, and all this other stuff. That’s really where that stuff started; the sharing of digitized images, and text-based news, and things like that.

The thing that was interesting for us was that eventually Usenet immerses itself into the Internet. Which was also what happened to a lot of other systems. BITNET uses file transfer protocol, or remote job submission particle, to move stuff from one machine to another. And eventually that although it grew very big…eventually that just got submerged into the Internet as well. All of those systems eventually migrated over to the Internet, simply because the Internet’s infrastructure kept growing and was available. And it was triggered in part by the academic community, and investments by organizations like the National Science Foundation. Actually spending money using international connections to link other research networks outside of the U.S. together to the rest of the Internet in the U.S. So this regular practice of expanding the system from the government’s point of view was very important.

GIZMODO: How much of your workday is spent just browsing the Internet?

VC: Not much. I’m not out there browsing just for the sake of browsing. I’m on the net though, using Google a lot. But it’s mostly to pull up specific information I need. If I’m writing a paper or preparing a speech or doing something else, trying to make a policy argument, I’m frequently pulling up information, facts, wherever I can. But not just randomly browsing. What I’ve found that is really quite fascinating…I used to write—many many years ago, I used to write things down longhand. And somebody would type it. And then along came word processing, and I liked that better because I can type very quickly. And I found after a few years of using processing programs that I did not want to write anything down anymore.

I preferred having this accessible tool. Then I discovered when the power went out and the Internet wasn’t accessible, and I was in the middle of writing something, well I still had my laptop and I still had battery power…I didn’t want to write unless I was online. And the reason was I didn't have the freedom to go and look something up right in the middle. I mean, you’re starting to write something and you realize you don’t know. And the ability to open up a web page and go look something up in a Google search…I was surprised that I did not want to sit there and type text when I wasn't connected. I hadn’t anticipated that.

So I’ve become very much addicted to having access to information all the time. It feels like we are getting accustomed to it because we’ve got our information lingo in our purses or whatever. I don’t know what we used to do when we got lost.

GIZMODO: Do you think there are psychological implications for that addiction?

VC: There have been some reports on people who say they are addicted to the internet. Some people are saying you should take an hour a day and just disconnect. Just to remember what it’s like not to be connected. Somebody else said are we getting stupid because we don’t remember anything, we just Google it?

But my reaction to that particular line of reasoning is sort of just imagining that you’ve just invented writing. And the village storyteller is outraged at this idea. He says, “That’s awful. Nobody will ever remember anything. They’ll just write it down. That’s terrible, our memories will just all disintegrate.” And now we know that writing has turned out to be very important.

One thing I really worry about is the potential to lose critical thinking. So here’s a little anecdote. I’m giving a talk, and the teacher gets up and says she’s really angry about the Internet. Now why is that? Students come into my classroom with their laptops. And they’re on the net. And now I’m thinking well is she going to complain because they’re on Facebook or some other thing? And I say well what is it that they’re doing? She says well they’re looking up stuff that I’m talking about. And I say and your point was…? Well they get into arguments. But that’s good! That means they’re engaged! You should consider that a good sign.

Bowling with God: Vint Cerf Talks Time Travel, Porn, and Web Addiction

So I say you should take advantage of this. Now here’s what you should do. You give people a choice of any ten pages, you give them a set of pages, and choose one. Your assignment is to go look at that website and analyze its contents, and come back and explain why you should or shouldn't believe it. Or how much credibility does this website have? YOU need to document your results. And you’re not done with the assignment if all you do is use online sources. There’s this place called a library and it has these things called books. And not everything in the library is online on the net. And if you’re going to do due diligence on the quality and content of that website, you’re going to have to go to the library too.

So you need to demonstrate that you need both of those things. This is called critical thinking, and it is the most important skill you could ever had. And it’s not just because there’s a lot of misinformation on the net. There’s misinformation everywhere. You get it in newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, your friends, your parents…they all are subject to misunderstanding. So this notion of teaching people to be skeptical of what they read and hear or see is a very important skill. It doesn't have to be rude, it doesn't have to be ‘you’re a liar and I don't believe anything you have to say’, it’s like I want to try and decide for myself.

And I think if we don’t do that, then we will end up with a lot of people who have no insight at all. It’s because they don’t have the ability to analyze anything. And I consider that to be a major hazard.

Photos by John Ulaszek, a photographer working in the Washington DC area.