‘Freshwater Will Be the New Oil’
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 will governments look like?
Cerf: Our culture will be more global. We will at least have regional governance structures, if not a global government.
The European: Will religion and ideology still be around?
Cerf: Religion will still be with us. It has not departed from human culture within the last 20,000 years, and I see no reason why it would disappear in the next century. ‘Truth’ will still be debated.
The European: How will we debate truth, or argue about what is most important to us?
Cerf: I would ask: What will be our utopia? We don’t know. People call me chief Internet envangelist. Some misunderstood this and thought that it meant I was using the Internet to promote religion. I have to explain that I’m geek-orthodox. I see many good things in the world, but I also see some bad things. I believe that we really have the choice to use technology and the infrastructure of the Internet towards very positive ends. But like any infrastructure, it is open to abuse. We are reaching a point now where governments are concerned about the impact of the Internet infrastructure on citizens and on society.
The European: What issue do you regard as most critical in this regard?
Cerf: We frequently form our governments to protect society from abuses of power, so this is not new in principle. A challenge with the Internet is its global nature: It doesn’t stop at national borders, it was designed to be insensitive to the unit of the nation-state. The Internet was originally designed with the needs of the military in mind. One never could never be quite sure where conflicts would occur and what boundaries might separate nation-states. For that reason, I did not want to replicate national boundaries on the Internet. But we struggle to figure out the relationship between the sovereign role of states and the non-national character of the Internet. The ability of people to communicate freely is essential, especially across boundaries. The dialogue around those questions is still in its infancy.
The European: What will be the outcome of that dialogue?
Cerf: I think we have to live through a series of experiences that will teach us what rules or conventions are appropriate. It’s not very easy for us to imagine all the things that will happen, especially if we consider changes like the rise in mobile technologies, the spread of misinformation through networks, cyber-attacks and malware. If we are going to achieve a utopian outcome, we will have to learn how to settle the Internet without losing the creativity and exploration that goes along with it. I sometimes wonder whether the settling of the American West is a metaphor for this.