Myths and the Need for Innovation

It all started when one person asked a very simple question: Why can’t we reduce packet drops throughout the network during congestion events (thus reducing the impact of RTT) with a more intelligent network that is able to refer back to caches of such information from a prior hop and resend, so that transparently the drop in the fabric is repaired? This all seems pretty simple, and yes, I’ve proposed such a mechanism myself. It is doable. Why not try it out? The usual “old” answer is that we don’t need to do anything. After all, everything we need to know about the Internet is already known, and this isn’t a problem. But is this true? Nobody knows for sure, but it’s a good way to stifle questions, isn’t it?

This is not a trivial issue. I see these technology debates springing up all over the research and development landscape, from operating systems to networking to applications. And I see the same answer tendered: shut up, we’ve already solved the problem, and if we stomp out the questioners, the problem won’t exist. This isn’t really a debate between the “old” versus “new” (some “old” designers are among the most innovative and creative people I’ve ever met), but more fundamentally, centers around the ability to question fundamental assumptions in an intellectually open and honest manner. In other words, the battle centers on the purveyors of myth versus the questioners of myth. And reputations are made or broken on the results.

In Matt Miller’s The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, Miller posits that Americans have become so unthinkingly accepting of their myths that they do not question things even when it defies their own experience. Miller views technology as one of the drivers out of this malaise. Unfortunately, the tendency to cleave to myth is not just the province of bankers, politicians and voters. And the consequences for abandoning reasonable discourse and proactive work can result in unanticipated disasters.

Scientists too are prone to this all-to-human tendency to discount uncomfortable data in favor of desired results, even if those results are based on faulty or incomplete data. And woe to those scientists who cater to the desperation of others in an attempt to aggrandize themselves. Witness the recent Office of Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (aka “the virus court”) ruling that MMR and thimerosal do not induce autism – the initial data presented by Wakefield stating autism and MMR shots were linked has been definitively demonstrated to have been fabricated for financial gain, yet there were some other published studies by other scientists that claimed the same results. Only after very large serious studies did this claim get disproved, but in the meantime children who did not receive the vaccines because of scientific validation early on have suffered or died from these very preventable diseases because of a bogeyman of autism (which to say the least doesn’t kill the patient). People were desperate for a cause, and instead of saying “We don’t know”, some scientists told them exactly what they wished.

Homeostasis in ideas cripples independent action. People hold off and put down ideas which could be carefully tested and developed in a considered manner because they are threatened by their potential “success” and fear the dimming of reputations and connections. Only when things completely break do people reach for other ideas, and by then (as witness the current financial crisis) it is really very very difficult to repair matters with a reasonable assurance of success. The events are driven by fear and need. During these times of crisis, people are prone to extreme or under-justified ideas – so long as they are simplistic and appear to “solve the problem”. Got a problem with autism. Don’t get vaccinated. Who needs vaccines anyway? Got a problem with banks? Bail them out. Nationalize them. Eliminate them. Go right. Go left. Shoot the messenger. The nuances of medical studies or derivatives and financial instruments are not interesting to people who are fearful and angry. If you think you’ve been living in dangerous times, Miller points out you haven’t even begun to experience how crazy it can get when people lose their mythic lifelines.

So what’s this have to do with the Internet. The Internet is increasingly the *only* source of information for millions of people. Where people once read print magazines and newspapers, went to the library for books, joined clubs and organizations and kept up with letters over the course of years, now many read / view / communicate only via a browser abstraction. A collapse in the Internet due to years of denial and neglect about the nuances of its structure would be a catastrophe to hundreds of millions of people.

As such, it is important to ask how we can improve the Internet *now* without resorting to old myths and relationships that make us feel comfortable. Because the day will soon come when our old assumptions blind us to new issues, and we will allow this grand experiment to fail. And if that day comes, it will not be the reputable or reasoned scientists who’s voices will be heard. It will be the ones who tell people what they want to hear. Is defending a myth worth this price?

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Lynne

Lynne Jolitz is a startup entrepreneur, inventor, and creator of new innovative technologies. Lynne is also a writer on tech trends for publications like Byte and Dr. Dobbs Journal.

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