The Network Really Is the Computer

by
06/08/2000

I usually speak extemporaneously rather than reading a prepared speech, but when I'm giving a new talk for the first time, I'll often write out a version of it in advance, to get my thoughts in order. This is the talk I prepared for my keynote at JavaOne on June 8, 2000. The streaming video of the actual talk will also be available, and eventually a transcript as well, so when that happens, you'll be able to compare what I meant to say, and how it actually turned out.

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I have a feeling I was invited here because I'm the person associated with the open source movement who is most likely to say nice things about Sun. So why don't I get that out of the way right up front.

It looks like more people paid a lot of money to get into this room than went to any talk at LinuxWorld for free, so you guys must be doing something right!

But seriously, I'm not here to talk about the differences between Sun's Java license and various open source licenses, but to talk about Sun's slogan, The Network is the Computer, and the way that it is wrapped up in both the history and the future of open source.

Preamble: Ecology and Architecture

Before I start, though, I want to introduce a few concepts that give a foundation for thinking about the spread of technologies as well. The first of these concepts come from ecology.

You may think that I want to bring in ecology because O'Reilly's books all have animals on the cover, but it really does go deeper than that!

First off, ecology teaches us that it takes a web of cooperating species to create a truly rich environment. Each of us depends on thousands, if not millions, of other organisms, each pursuing its own selfish goals, yet somehow weaving a cooperative web that, for the most part, benefits all. I believe that open source has many parallels to a functioning ecology. Each developer builds for his own use, and that of his friends, but also makes it easy for collateral benefits to accrue to others he or she doesn't know. And the open source developer contributes even his failures back into the environment, to enrich the soil from which other innovations can grow.

Second, ecology teaches us that a rich environment takes time to evolve. One species prepares the ground for another. For example, lichens and mosses break down rock, creating soil that can support more complex plants. Ecological succession takes time. But as the substrate laid down by simple organisms grows richer, the possibilities for complexity increase.

(Those of you who are science fiction fans will find a wonderful depiction of this process in Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy about the terraforming of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. These books really got me thinking about the way ecologies evolve and change, and the way that, in the open source world, one project makes the next one more possible.)

But there's an interesting twist. I read recently that the recovery of the blasted land around Mount St. Helens in Washington shows the role of chance -- the species that somehow survived the volcanic eruption -- in just how an ecosystem evolves. Those random plants and animals that survived had a chance to shape the rebirth of the entire ecosystem. But you don't need to be starting an ecosystem from scratch to see this effect. Anyone who has a garden finds constant "volunteers."

So there are three themes here: cooperation, evolution, and surprise.

One of the things that I like best about open source software is that it so clearly demonstrates the power of chance and unintended cooperation in helping the computer industry to evolve. I'll try to highlight that idea as I go forward.

Another set of core concepts that I want to share with you come from Lawrence Lessig's remarkable book Code and other Laws of Cyberspace. Lessig is a constitutional lawyer, and the principal focus of his book is on the way that attempts at government regulation need to take into account the changing architecture of cyberspace -- and the way that cyberspace is changing the architecture of our society as a whole. I don't have time to discuss Lessig's points in detail -- I highly recommend that you read his book for that -- but what I do want to share with you is the way he led me to think about the nature of the computer system and network architecture that has supported the open source movement. What I discovered when I thought about it provides much of the substance of this talk.

With that preamble, let me turn to my theme: The network really is the computer. Many of the things I'm going to mention are equivalent to the mosses and lichens I talked about a moment ago. What excites me so much, though, is the future they hint at.

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