‘Mother of Internet’ Radia Perlman argues for centralized infrastructure

Inventor of the spanning tree protocol gets heretical about blockchain, crypto, and why the broken internet is a blessing in disguise

Internet pioneer Radia Perlman has argued in favor of centralized infrastructure, while speaking at the International Symposium on Blockchain Advancements in Singapore on Friday.

Perlman said that conventional wisdom poses centralised systems as “bad” and decentralized as “good,” however decentralized entities are inherently problematic in multiple ways.

“Blockchain as a buzzword started as the technology behind Bitcoin. People made money on Bitcoin and the more hyped it was, the more start-ups leveraged the hype to claim their product has something to do with Blockchain” explained Perlman. “If you hear so much hype, eventually you assume well, it must be incredibly important.”

“I think pianos are wonderful, but I wouldn't use them for mass transportation. Everything has a purpose,” added the inventor of the spanning-tree protocol (STP).

Perlman said the purpose of Bitcoin’s blockchain was to evade governing organizations like countries or banks, and while those systems can at times be corrupt, they also have their uses.

“Centralized means one organization is in charge. It usually does mean that there are multiple servers so it doesn’t mean single point of failure. And usually means that the data is stored in lots of places, so your data is not going to get lost. And especially if your data is stored in a public cloud,” said Perlman.

The author and academic added that other added benefits are its clear who to blame when things go wrong and most applications require “adult supervision,” or someone to answer for the system’s problems.

“Now if you're using Bitcoin I'm not sure what you would buy with Bitcoin, probably something like a hitman. And if he doesn't kill, who could you complain to? How do you get your money back? So most of the time, centralized is exactly what you want,” she further reasoned.

In conversation with The Register after her presentation, Perlman said blockchain is more of a marketing term than an actual technology, a fad of the moment in its existing form that might have elements that play out in the future, but in essence isn't much different to a database and is often harder to use.

“I'm amazed that I am involved in this at all, because most of my thoughts are really anti blockchain,” Perlman told The Reg “I sort of don't think it's a fundamental technology that you should be focused on.”

Perlman’s spanning tree algorithm was published in 1985 and is fundamental to the operation of network bridges, and ultimately paved the way for the modern Ethernet to transform into a protocol that can handle large clouds.

She is often referred to as the “mother of the internet,” a title she tends to laugh off.

Perlman told The Reg if she hadn’t written the algorithm, someone else would have, although she feels quite certain it wouldn’t have been done as simply or elegantly because she believes her superpower lies in simplicity and pragmatism.

So how does the "mother of the internet" feel about the network of networks she helped to enable?

“If you'd asked me that question 10 years ago, I would have waxed rhapsodic about how miraculously it was transforming society,” she told The Register. “But these days, I think it's the end of civilization.”

Perlman described AI algorithms that lead to polarizing rabbit holes of content as among the top dystopian characteristics of the internet. Worse than that, it allows disaffected extremists to connect with one another.

“If there's only 50 terrorists in the country, it's no big deal, unless they can all find each other easily,” said Perlman.

“I don’t see any way out of this,” she told The Register., then added that fixing the internet is something now up to the next generation.

“Sometimes when I'm giving a talk at a university, and I talk about all this doom and gloom stuff, then I smile, and I say but you're all students. If I were to say that we solved all the problems in the world, what would you have to do? So aren't you grateful to us that we gave you such a broken thing?” ®

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