Monday, August 01, 2005

Discussion with David Holtzman at Queen Street Commons

I had the great pleasure of getting to attend a talk with internet super-guru David Holtzman at the Queen Street Commons. The blog entry announcing the event and giving a good brief bio of Holtzman is here: Link.
While many have taken credit for inventing the Internet, thinker, activist, and writer David Holtzman is one of the few who can say he actually ran the most critical network in the world. As CTO of Network Solutions and the manager of the Internet's master root server during the late 1990s, Holtzman not only oversaw the growth of the commercial Internet from 500,000 domain names to over 20 million, he also led the way in imagining and inventing a world in which technology positively impacts every facet of human life.
It was an unbelievable treat to get to listen to what he had to say on every topic under the sun. The discussion ranged form what the future of Microsoft might be (becoming less and less relevant as they lose their grip on key market segments) to why certain gadgets take over a market (iPod and TiVo, because they weren't designed by engineers trying to cram every possible function into a cryptic set of controls.) to the Beatles and what was so special about early rock'n'roll.

The credit for organizing it goes to Dan James who got him to come and Robert Paterson who helped lead the discussion and offered very interesting perspectives himself.

I'm going to try and remember a few of the things we talked about.

Music, what is it about music and culture these days that makes it far less interesting than in the late 1960s? We thought that perhaps back then people didn't think they had everything already figured out. So a powerful force would come along like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix and the record companies didn't demand to control every aspect of their image and identity,and they hadn't yet mastered the art of manufacturing one-hit-wonder packaged pop.

A pretty significant insight that David shared with us was the fact that the internet's root name server, where everybody looks to to see where to go if you want to reach is only the root name server because everyone's managed to agree that that's what it should be. But if a few internet service providers decided to rebel and create their own domain name system, and pointed their servers to a different IP address to say 'this is the root name server' there would be nothing anyone could do about it.

The old philosophy of the internet as a decentralized network still has echo effects today. Like the BitTorrent protocol, which is basically a big encryption system for transferring large amounts of data. And Skype which lets you send messages and communicate by voice over a completely encrypted network. Rob said that it's so solid that the US military has banned Skype use by service people in Iraq because they can't monitor what people are saying.

I also pointed out that Skype's popularity in China has exploded, and wondered if escaping censorship had anything to do with that. David gave the common sense reply that it was certainly more to do with the fact that people could use it to make free voice calls, and that in an economy like China's that is a huge deal.

Dan mentioned that censorship of internet communication happens even closer than in China, pointing to Telus blocking access to pro-union websites as an example.

On another topic, we had a great discussion about online reputations and how people come to organically trust certain sources of information. In the last paragraph I linked to a post on Did I go through all the Google search results to see which one was the most informative and objective? Hell no, I'm far too lazy for that. I just went back to the place where I found the story in the first place, which is a site many people know and which is widely-enough read that if they were being blatantly dishonest it would have caused a big stir in the online world.

Reputation has become how people get around the scam artist around every corner. Ebay built its popularity with a reputation system. Yahoo! started out as a collection of website reviews, nothing more. David was at amazon when they were hammering out the review system, and he warned them about what eventually ended up happening, that their reviewer database malfunctioned and it revealed everyone's real names, and many many authors got caught writing positive reviews of their own books.

And the same becomes true for local areas and specialized domains. Dan and Rob talked about how the star rating for hotels was totally bogus, where you would get an extra half a star if you bought a certain company's drapes, or how you may not ever get a full star rating because you have wood paneling instead of a certain kind of wallpaper. Rob said that nearly all the business at a bed and breakfast he's familiar with comes from word of mouth and people hearing about it from sources they know.

David said that good taste has now become a valuable commodity in itself. This clicked with us immediately. I mentioned the fact that the respected opinions in the local Charlottetown music scene are the people who are in charge of booking certain venues and are known to consistently do a good job. I then totally namedropped and said that it's become the central hub for the music culture around Charlottetown, which just sort of grew up because like-minded people happened to find each other.

One more thing I'll mention, David came back to the topic of what a brilliant device the iPod shuffle is, and how it very obviously wasn't designed by an engineer who would have added a display and crammed as many little dinky features into there as he could have. Instead each button does only one thing, the device does one thing extremely well, and its usage fits perfectly with how people often want to listen to their music. I said that it was the equivalent to the analog watch, which people still use. It tells the time, and there's only one button. That's about all most people want out of a watch.

And he drew from this that the personal computer as we know it won't even exist in a few years, because people don't like a big scary box that doesn't do what they want and that they're tied to. They want things that do a task and do it well. And a writer would have a totally different kind of a device than an accountant or an engineer, instead of them all trying to use the same machine for different tasks.

By al - 11:14 p.m. |

Thanks for coming Alex. Great discussion. It was a pleasure to be able to host our first in many to come.
You are too kind Alex - you were in my mind the key host contibutor
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