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The Dumb Network Paradigm

Excerpts from Gilder Technology Report, January 1998

by George Gilder & David Isenberg

David Isenberg's concussive essay, "The Rise of the Stupid Network," in June sent seismic shock waves through the telco establishment and illustrated the power of an idea unleashed on the Internet, where his bosses had innocently permitted him to hide it. No one will notice, they must have assumed, if a brilliant engineer of intelligent networks at Bell Labs calls for a new reign of stupidity. But Isenberg made his point.

. . . [Isenberg] had no idea that [George Gilder] had been writing about dumb networks for years (beginning with Why Cable Will Win, Forbes, 1990; The Coming of the Fibersphere, ForbesASAP, December 7, 1992). But the data led both [Isenberg and Gilder] to the same observation: that a bandwidth explosion was overthrowing the telephone company paradigm of scarce wires. As Isenberg put it, "Telcos invented the stored program control switch in the 1970s…and then fell asleep at this very switch."

. . .

A Stupid Network feeds on plentiful infrastructure-cheap bandwidth and switching-that is about as smart as a river. The water in a river, or the data in a Stupid Network, gets to where it must go, adaptively, Innovation is easier, because it occurs on the periphery of the network, isolated from the middle of the network by layered protocols and clean interfaces.

. . .

Dumb nets are underspecified. . . . So is a system of roads. Its traffic can be anything from pedestrians to cars to monster 18-wheel trucks. The owner of each vehicle determines the vehicle's contents. Each vehicle, like each packet in an IP network, is under its own control. And like the Internet, the system of roads is a self-organizing system. There no controlling authority that sets up the route of every vehicle before it enters the network. And like the Internet, sometimes there is congestion, and sometimes there are crashes. But on the whole, the ability of each vehicle, or each packet, to self configure and self route is massively useful. Considering the big picture, the convenience of underspecification more than makes up for the occasional traffic jam.

Date last modified: 18 Jan 98