Vinton G. Cerf

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Conventional Wisdom Is Not Always Right

A true visionary will see what others cannot or will not and

will persist in the pursuit of that vision relentlessly, patiently, and

endlessly.

There is an old expression, “Nothing succeeds like success!”

I have always interpreted this to mean that once

you are successful at anything, you have a “success” label

stuck to you that will lead people to expect you to succeed in

other ways and will give you liberty to reach for new goals.

Even if these expectations and liberties are not well founded,

they should not be ignored. They lead you to future opportunities

and to new chances for more success.

Not every successful person will feel he or she has “thought

outside the box.” However, on careful analysis, it is often the

case that a person’s success can be attributed to a belief in

achieving a goal that others thought impossible or imagining

something that did not exist and then creating it.

It is sometimes joked that some remarkable achievements

are a consequence of not knowing the task is “impossible”

and going on to discover how to make progress. For

many young people, this is a key to success. Absent conventional

“wisdom” some very successful people simply plunge

ahead, solving problems that crop up because they don’t know

or share the common belief that what they are attempting

“can’t be done.”

When one realizes, for example, that the Wright Brothers

were thought to be crazy because everyone knew that things

that were heavier than air (unlike the hot air balloon) could

not possibly fly, it should be clear that conventional wisdom

Source: Printed with permission from Vinton G. Cerf.

is not always right. Of course, this does not mean that it is

always wrong. Gravity works and jumping off buildings because

you think you can fly is probably a bad idea.

In the early 1970s, my colleague, Robert Kahn, began thinking

about the ways in which computers communicated with

each other. Each computer manufacturer (e.g., IBM, HP,

Digital Equipment Corporation) had its own way of interconnecting

its computers. These methods were not compatible,

and it was unusual to find them part of the same network.

A U.S. Defense Department project developed an example of

a network that could interconnect these different computers;

it was called the ARPANET, and it was based on the concept

of “packet switching” (you can think of this as a kind of system

of electronic postcards). It was considered a silly idea by

conventional telecommunications engineers, but the project

went on to show that this idea really could work.

The two of us teamed up in 1973 (having worked together

before, along with many others, on the ARPANET). We quickly

discovered that the problem of interconnecting heterogeneous

packet networks had many constraints, so that eventually

the basic design emerged as a consequence. Ultimately,

we described the solution in a paper published in 1974 that

outlined what became the TCP/IP protocol suite. Protocols

are simply sets of conventions for computer communication.

If everyone follows the rules, everyone could communicate

effectively. We called the resulting system the Internet.

But that was just the beginning. Having envisioned the

possibilities, it was now left to actually work out all the details

and then, having done that on paper, actually implement

the system through the writing of a good deal of software. We

quickly found that testing the software for many computer

systems revealed mistakes and problems in the basic design.

So it was back to the drawing board for several iterations

until a design seemed stable. The version of protocols used

today on the Internet is the fourth iteration in the design

(TCP/IP version 4).

People often ask, “Did you realize what would happen

when you were working on the Internet so many years ago?”

I wish I could say, “yes, I foresaw everything that has happened,”

but the truth is that we did not know at the time all

the things that would later become possible. However, there

were true visionaries who as far back as the early 1960s foresaw

enough of what was possible to propose the design and

construction of packet switched networks. While they did not

see all the details, they saw enough of what might be possible

to motivate themselves and others to explore this new space

of ideas.

In the end, major successes almost always rely upon the

commitment of many people. A true visionary will see what

others cannot or will not and will persist in the pursuit of

that vision relentlessly, patiently and endlessly. Indeed, I have

learned from my own 30-year connection with the Internet

that persistence counts. Although it was meant to be funny,

there is a line in the popular movie, Galaxy Quest, that strikes

me as relevant. The principal character in the film has a tag

line, “Never give up!” and I think that sums up the life of person

committed to a vision of what is possible.