Honk if You're for Anarchy

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov. 1996

Sometimes when I'm driving in rush hour traffic I look for analogies between the behavior of traffic on the highways and in telecommunications. This morning, for example, I am worrying about the oft-predicted collapse of the Internet. There will be too much congestion, the doom-sayers lament, and nobody actually controls the net. Anarchy won't work, they say.

These predicted Internet diseases are exactly what I see about me on the highways -- congestion and anarchy. Why does everyone else have to be on the highway at the same time as me? Why don't they behave courteously? Why does it have to be every person for themselves, instead of cooperation for the joint good?

The Internet is likewise a miraculous example of cooperative and competitive behavior. No one actually controls or regulates the net. Yet thousands of companies provide products and services, many more thousands of volunteers contribute to the design and standardization, and millions of users implicitly and explicitly guide the socialization and usage patterns of the net. But somehow, it works. It all plays together. Mostly.

The notion that the net is an anarchy bothers a lot of people, a lot of companies, and a lot of governments. Earlier this year I got a telephone call from a voice-from-the-past. This engineer, long retired, was once in the all-powerful position of being in charge of engineering the Bell System. His office in Manhattan was filled with plans for the evolution of the telephone network. In ten years a certain system would be deployed. In twenty it would be followed by such and such. Everything was planned.

I met this retired executive for lunch, because he said he "wanted to know what was going on." After we were seated at the restaurant, he immediately began with a question. "I want to know who runs the Internet," he said. Without hesitation I answered, "No one." He pounded the table. "That's not the way we did it in my day!" he exclaimed passionately.

I understand his concern. Years ago I would have trembled at the thought that the telecommunications environment would resemble an anarchy. But now, strangely, I'm comfortable with this idea. For one thing, I often feel glad that the Internet isn't owned by a single corporation, in spite of the aspirations that some of them have entertained. I imagine an Internet where a particular company (fill in your own favorite name) decided what content would be permitted and what technologies would be promulgated, and I'm thankful for the seething kettle of innovation and competition that we actually have.

The other thing is that anarchy doesn't necessarily equate with chaos. Networks have demonstrated a propensity for self-organization. Users try to maximize their own value, and as a consequence, often adopt the technologies and practices of the majority. We rally behind TCP/IP and HTML, for example. We do it for self-interest, but in the process we create the highest total value for the overall user population. It is a most curious process, and it leads to the "winner take all" phenomenon that has so greatly benefited Intel and Microsoft.

Of course, winner-take-all is great if you're the winner. Losing companies could care less about creating maximum user value. Their natural motivation is for closed, proprietary solutions that lock in business for themselves. They curse the predilection of users to flock to what they see as the technologically inferior solutions of their competitors. They cry out for anti-trust and for regulation. They don't like an anarchy that marches to the wrong drummer.

In addition to self-organization the net has evolved ways of self-policing. Spammers are subjected to email bombs. People caught violating the unwritten rules of etiquette on the net are ostracized. Moreover, a friend observed that the net is self-policing with respect to decency. "Every time I get near to any pornography," he said, "There is so much traffic I can't get through."

The problem is that acting in self-interest does not always optimize group value. On the highway in front of me there is a mile-long jam at a exit ramp. Like a good citizen, I have merged to the right lane in anticipation. However, other motorists stream down the left lanes in order to jump the queue at the exit ramp. Because of the stream being constantly interrupted by these queue-jumpers, traffic in the right lane is stopped. The people streaming down the left lane get through faster, optimizing their own travel time at the expense of everyone else.

Unfortunately, there may be more examples of competitive behavior than cooperative behavior in traffic. An alternate merge is a rare example of individual cooperation. More common is cooperation within groups for competition against other groups, such as when a stream of cars makes a left hand turn in a capture effect, or when the entire traffic stream flows during rush hour at speeds much in excess of the limit, providing joint immunity to arrest.

On several occasions I have experienced what I consider to be the prototypical dilemma of self-interest on the highway. On these occasions I waited in long jams to discover upon reaching the front of the line that the road was blocked by a fallen carton in the middle of the lane. I then had the choice of proceeding around the carton, like everyone else had done, or stopping and moving the carton so as to free the entire jam. What do you do in such a case? There is this overpowering feeling that since I waited my time, let the people behind me wait too. I confess that I always drive on. Awful, isn't it?

There are similar examples in the net. People can hog the transmission facility with broadband traffic, or hang on the line for hours while others get busy signals. With flat rate pricing, individuals can maximize their own benefits at the expense of others. Yet the whole community is better off, in my opinion, if we can behave in a fashion that makes usage-based pricing unnecessary. Careless and selfish net users flood the net with long mailing lists, send email ads, or endanger free speech with incendiary news postings.

Given self-motivated behavior and anarchy, will the Internet survive? I believe so. In spite of this traffic jam I will get in my car again. It is an inalienable part of life. So, now, is the net. It will survive jams, rude behavior, and road closings. Anarchy can cause frustrations, but sometimes it works and is better than the alternatives.

Robert W. Lucky