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“The Internet is proof that the government doesn’t bungle everything”

logoThe LA Times discusses the Internet and the government’s role in basic research.

“Since it’s so fashionable these days to question whether government can do anything right …  it’s worth noting that we’re about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the most important federal initiatives of our time … the Internet.

“[Bob] Taylor tried to interest private industry in his project, but the companies he approached dismissed the idea. IBM told him its computers already talked to one another, completely missing his point that their computers should talk to everyone else’s.  AT&T, then the monopoly proprietor of the phone system over which the network would operate, fought Taylor’s project tooth and nail, contending that the network’s ‘packet switching’ technology (a method of transmitting data in discrete blocks) wouldn’t work on its phone lines and might even damage them. Packet switching remains the Internet’s governing technology to this day.

“[Taylor’s] experience underscores the importance of a government role in fields like basic research, which profit-seeking enterprises tend to shun.

“‘Industry generally avoids long-term research because it entails risk,’ the veteran computer scientist Ed Lazowska told Congress a few years ago. Why? Because it’s hard to predict the results of such research, and since it has to be published and publicly validated, corporations can’t capitalize on their investments in isolation.  Yet once the research reaches a certain point, private industry piles in – Lazowska cited a National Research Council list of 19 multibillion-dollar industries that had been incubated with federal funding, generally via university grants – including the Internet, Web browsers and cellphones – before becoming commercially viable. Taylor’s ARPAnet was eventually turned over to the National Science Foundation, which in 1991 opened what was then known as NSFnet to commercial exploitation. Four years later, the dot-com boom was underway.

“The real world brims with other examples.”

Complete article here.

September 21, 2009