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Vint Cerf on the Future of Human Society

09/28/2012 03:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2012

Vint Cerf is known as one of the "fathers of the Internet." He sat down with Alexander Görlach to talk about innovation, social networks and the future of human society.

The European: When you started working on the Internet, did you have an idea of how big it would become one day?

Cerf: Bob Kahn and I had a sense of how powerful technology is. But we couldn't possibly imagine what it would be like when 1/3 of the world's population would be online. When we came up with an original design in 1973, we knew that new communication technologies would come along. At that time we couldn't think of what they would be like -- but we wanted the Internet to work on top of them.

The European: What did you do to ensure this?
Cerf: We said: Let's make sure that the Internet data packets don't know how they're being carried. And let's make sure they don't know what they're carrying. Those are two very important pieces of the puzzle.

The European: What do you mean by that?
Cerf: The Internet was a network which was not designed for anything in particular, but could be used for everything. So, the first thing we said was: Let's make sure that none of the protocols require any knowledge of how the underlying carriage works. This is important: When a new communication technology comes along, you just sweep it into the Internet and start using it as a carriage mechanism. IP runs over everything.

The European: And the other move?

Cerf: The packets in the network don't know the application they are supporting. It's just a bag of bits being moved across the network. Only at the destination -- for example, inside your laptop -- are the bits turned into meaningful information. If you have a new application in mind, all you have to do is put the host up, run the application and send the packets across the network and interpret them at the edges of the network. That's why we can do video streaming, why we can do email, why we can do web. Because the network doesn't know what it is carrying.

The European: When the world wide web was born, did you feel elated?
Cerf: It was stunning. First of all, when Tim Berners-Lee turned on the first World Wide Web servers in 1991, not too many people noticed he did that. And when they released it for anyone who wanted to try it out, it took our world by storm.

The European: One popular story is that the Internet originated from military projects. Was that ever a concern to you?
Cerf: There's a bit of confusion about the history of the Internet. People think that the military ARPANET was designed for an Internet-like purpose, but that is wrong. It was designed for research sharing. At least after 1993, the fact that the world wide web had military origins becomes largely irrelevant. What was more important is that the Internet worked! Things that work have a lot of credibility.

The European: From the beginning, you envisioned the Internet as free, freely accessible, and lacking a business model.
Cerf: But this is a business model! The business model is to create infrastructure on top of which other people can build businesses and products.

The European: What is your take on the rise of social networks?
Cerf: From the very beginning, the Internet had a social aspect to it. For example, when email showed up in 1971 on the ARPANET, we discovered instantly that emails were a social network phenomenon.

The European: How?
Cerf: The first distribution list is the SciFi-Lovers. It was created soon after emails burst onto the scene. People on the list traded book reports and author descriptions. Shortly afterwards, somebody at Stanford started a list called "Yum-Yum" which turned out to be a restaurant revue distribution list. And we thought it couldn't be more social: book reports and restaurant reviews. So instantly it was clear that email is a powerful social networking tool.

The European: Was that the prime use of emails -- to serve as early tools for online social exchange?
Cerf: No, we also used it for managing projects. We recognized that we had overcome the time zone problem: Before the web you had to go together, face to face, in different time zones. So we thought: Hey, this is going to reduce the cost of travel, we could use email instead! But we were totally wrong.

Read the complete article on The European.