"If I Were a...": Internet2 and its Possibilities by Mihkel Pilv

goIf I Were a Scientist...
goIf I Were a Student...
goIf I Were a Businessman...
goConclusion

I recently read an interview between James Morrison and William H. Graves at the On the Horizon Web site. In addition to a number of other concepts, Graves and Morrison discuss Internet2, a project intended to create better connectivity for American universities.

The team developing Internet2 says that its primary goal is to give universities a better chance to develop themselves, through the assistance of an electronic medium specifically designed for institutions of higher learning. We can read from the Internet2 homepages that some time ago the original Internet was wide-open to various research work. But the situation has now changed, and the reason is simple:

...the privatization of that network and the frequent congestion of its commercial replacement have deprived many faculties of the network capability needed to support world class research. This unintended result has had a significant negative impact on the university research community.

While this above quote may be true, it also depends largely on circumstances. Often, the business world does have a negative impact on serious scientific research on the Internet. Many technology companies, existing within severely competitive market conditions, are pushing new products and ideas to the market, without caring much about real scientific research, or at least without scientific research being the primary aim of their efforts. Internet2 promises to deliver a virtual space in which scientific research can once again freely take place, without requiring business to give up its entrenched position on the original Internet, thereby offering the possibility of a renewed electronic co-existence of academic inquiry and market-driven production.

Let's take a closer, hypothetical look at how some of these scenarios could play out with the development of Internet2

If I Were a Scientist...

Let us suppose I am a research scientist at a large university. I am accustomed to doing my work according to the best traditions of the academic and scientific world. Furthermore, let us imagine that I have devoted myself to four years of intensive research and intend to publish a paper titled "Using Windows 3.11 Networking in Collaborative Learning Environments." The work is complete and everything is recorded and ready for presentation, but one major problem has occurred: because of the more rapid pace of technological development, the software industry has managed to leap well beyond the now-outmoded Window 3.11 system that I've been diligently writing about for so long and the scientists now discuss Windows NT and Novell 5th generation server software instead. The system on which my research is based has been consigned to the technological scrap-heap of history. The current incommensurate relationship between the market drive to develop new and better software and the researcher's detailed examination of existing data (i.e., operating systems, software, etc.) often causes scientific research to resemble archaeology by the time it is published.

If we want this kind of technological research to survive, we must quickly create a research space, separated from the rest of the Internet-frenzied world, in which scientists and cutting-edge developers of new technology can collaborate. This space should separate scientific research from the competitive business environment, allowing for an unfettered exchange of ideas (while still allowing for some control over intellectual property—-provisions can be made, as with online publishing, that credit is still given where credit is due). The final product and that product's general utility are ultimately the important things, not the identity of the person or company that makes it.

While such a model does fly in the face of traditional open-market business thinking, it also has the added benefit of allowing the scientific minds, rather than the market-driven producers of computer technology to set the standards. It may be idealistic to think so, but the purpose of scientific inquiry, even in the field of computer science, is not the creation of copyrightable and marketable products, but the accretion of knowledge and understanding. Internet2 can serve as a both a testing-ground for new ideas and as a lifeboat for researchers who cannot compete (in a business sense) with technology corporations in terms of access to and availability of resources.

Ideally, we involve the technology companies as partners for this kind of activity, both to defray the costs of the new system and to implement the discoveries made through the improved communication of ideas. Since this relationship provides mutual benefit, it is logical to ask those with the money to step forward and contribute, since those with the scientific and technical acumen will be contributing their knowledge.

I have not yet heard if Internet2 intends to follow this model, but some signs of what is in store are visible: Internet2 promotion uses lots of epithets like "cutting edge," "innovative," and so on, but it has not included mention of anything that is not already technically feasible within the Internet we know today. The main issue seems to be quantitative problems (i.e., the speed of the network, and making accessibility to the network simple for those it is intended to serve directly).

If I Were a Student...

Now let's pretend I am a student who is facing a life decision—for example, where am I going to get a job once I have my degree? I have the training to research and create something new in the field of information technology, but I don't know how to market myself. I browse the Internet to see what choices are available. The homepages of companies such as IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Netscape emphasize new products and visions that will come to pass in the near future, but they do not provide much information specifically geared towards the professional researcher.

Now, I open these companies' Internet2 pages. What are the most important messages here; what is highlighted? I see here schemata of new research and development successes, as well as the names and profiles of those who have made intellectual contributions. And the ideas themselves, the reason why Internet2 is brought to life—namely, sample software applications—are to be found somewhere within another corner of the same Web site, where they are housed to promote collaborative understanding and development of tools, a fine reason for creating Internet2.

So if I were a talented student, where would I like to work most, in business or at a university? One of the benefits of Internet2 is that it could lessen the stress of this decision by creating a bridge between these two worlds, making them less mutually exclusive.

American universities have often proven to the world that they can withstand direct competition with business communities. However, collaboration between universities and businesses can also be beneficial. University campuses contain huge potential in terms of both their faculty members and their students, who make up the next generation of experts. The Internet itself spent most of its infancy in such universities. The "old" Internet was conceived mostly from ideas originating on campuses. Organized projects that formed a system infrastructure came later, with the backing of corporate funding, but even these were shaped by ideas from the campuses. There is a radical difference between the Internet when it was young and Internet2 of today.

Success in the Information Age is measured by how effectively we can bind things together; how we organize this world into one whole. We find a statement addressing this idea on the Internet2 FAQ pages: "Part of the Internet2 mission is to ensure that the technology—both software and hardware—is based on open standards and is available to be adopted by others, including commercial network and Internet service providers." Good. However, further down on the same page, one finds another sentence characterizing Internet2 as follows: "It [Internet2] won't provide a link to things like the World Wide Web or e-mail." How Internet2 will accomplish the former statement without the readily accessible media mentioned in the latter is a problem that needs to be addressed in depth.

If I Were a Businessman...

Finally, let us pretend that I am a businessman who has helped sponsor Internet2. My company has contributed both money and personnel to the development of the system, and now videoconferencing speed via Internet2 is working at its optimum. Suddenly, I remember that it is my mother's birthday and I can't make it to her party. I want to be able to give her my sentiments in person, even if just to say, "I am sorry I couldn't make it." But there's no way to do it, because the videoconferencing technology that has been developed for Internet2 is for universities only. Of course, everybody understands that university research and educational opportunities are important to society and we must give them a great deal of attention; on the other hand, Mom is also important.

The kinds of technologies that can be developed and perfected through the Internet2 system, using it as a large online laboratory, can then be extended to the Internet used by the rest of the world, allowing me, as a businessman, not only to wish my mother a happy birthday, but also to conduct international conference calls more effectively. Internet2 can serve as a huge proving-ground for technologies, a virtual space in which the areas of highest priority—education and scientific research—have earliest access to the technology. This allows new tools to go where they are needed most as soon as possible, and also allows new technologies to be tested and perfected before they are released to the wider Internet.

Let us also pretend I have a son going to elementary school. The university is not the only educational level where good videoconferencing options are needed. We can't even say that universities are the most important educational level. Universities are no longer necessarily the starting-point for the technological education of students, and therefore Internet2 should assist in the effort to make technology affordable and accessible to educators at every level. The tools developed on Internet2 could be adapted and marketed in a form appropriate to all levels of education, helping to bring future scientists, students, and corporate workers up to speed in the new technologically-oriented world.

If I were a businessman facing this equity problem, perhaps I would choose to develop a quality, commercial Internet through-put device (satellites, Internet through electric wires, etc.), working jointly with commercial ISPs, so I too could get the benefits of Internet2. Using the investment I've made in Internet2 as a part of my research and development budget, this should be a much more feasible concept, both in terms of economics and technological knowledge.

Conclusion

Of course, this is currently all speculation. Still, it will be interesting to see how things pan out. Internet2 happens to be a really big organization, one that could be of much greater importance even than the idea it embodies. It has the potential to make some very positive changes in international relations. I can see it very well from my perch here on the far side of the Atlantic. Internet2 promises to help decrease the equity gap in technology between the United States and the rest of the world, by giving those nations with limited resources a relatively inexpensive and easily accessible space in which they can participate in both the discussion and actual research surrounding technology, even if this participation is only watching and learning at first. I can only see two real ways to eliminate the equity gap: either "we" (I speak here for the world outside America) begin to work more effectively and with better resources, or American technology research will have to slow down and let the rest of us catch up. Since the latter scenario is neither likely nor particularly desirable, I hope that Internet2 can help to make the former a reality. All of my imaginary selves await Internet2 with great anticipation.


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