Internet Laws: an introduction

This is the first in a series of linked blog posts about the laws that govern the way the Internet works and how those laws impact our lives.

When I say law, I’m not talking about the statutory and regulatory writ of Government, or the laws of physics that underpin digital computing. I’m talking about socio-economic laws like Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law that describe and predict how, amongst other things, economic value is distributed across a network, people influence one another and the number of transistors on an integrated chip. In fact, many of the ‘Internet Laws’ we’ll explore in this series aren’t even laws at all, they’re more like general principles, hypotheses or in some cases pure conjecture. However, an eponymous law is a valuable thing so they tend to be framed as such.

The fact that they’re not scientific proofs doesn’t mean that they’re not important or valuable. Even when the evidence they provide is imprecise or of a very specific nature, they can be extremely influential. At the most prosaic level, these ‘Internet Laws’ help determine who we follow on Twitter, the content we share and consume on Facebook and the job offers we get on Linked In. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg – ‘Internet laws’ are shaping huge commercial investment decisions and cultural change. There are few parts of our lives that are not impacted by the digital networked economy – from relationships, privacy and trust to education, credit and healthcare.

These blog posts aim to shed a little more light on these fundamental ‘Internet laws’ and the often profound ways in which they’re shaping our lives.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law is a good case in point. Now, I’m not going to dwell on Moore’s Law for too long, because, it’s been the subject of much debate. However, Moore’s Law is too important to ignore, and it’s also a good example of how these laws are framed, their immediate impact and their wider significance. So it’s a good place to start.

Moore’s law was formulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who observed in a 1965 article that the number of transistors on integrated circuits had doubled approximately every two years since the development of the first integrated circuit.

The trend Moore observed remains, more or less, good to this day (which he did not predict). However, Moore’s Law is not a natural law – it was, in essence, a coincidence that held good for the first few years of the development of integrated circuits and one that he projected forward a few years into the future. Since Moore observed the law, it’s become what many people consider to be a self-fulfilling prophecy – a target that drives innovation and investment in the semiconductor  industry – the internal goal the industry sets itself to keep developing. In other words, Moore’s Law is an observer effect.

The Significance of Moore’s Law

But how significant is Moore’s Law itself? Wouldn’t the development of integrated chips proceeded at a roughly similar pace even if no one had reported on this early correlation? Does it have any wider relevance? What impact has it had on wider culture?

The technical impact of Moore’s Law is debatable – there are those who argue it has hampered development by narrowing horizons and others who claim it as a spur. We can never really know. And there are those that dismiss it as not mattering much anyway, Wirth’s Law – aka the Great Moore’s Law Compensator, was formulated in 1995 by Nicholas Wirth, it states:

“software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster”

In other words as hardware engineers make machines faster and more powerful, software engineers make more bloated and slower software – the implication being that the net gain is zero or even negative. While there might at times have been an element of truth to ‘Wirth’s Law’ it’s clearly not true in general – we see more powerful and capable computers all the time – smart phones can now run much more complex applications than once ran on a 4004. (Though to be fair to Wirth the law was formulated as part of a plea for leaner software which is hard to argue with).

So while the technical significance of Moore’s Law may be debatable – integrated circuits would have continued to develop without the law – the wider cultural and commercial significance of Moore’s Law is, I believe, much more difficult to dispute. Because Moore’s Law, like some of the other ‘Internet Laws’ we’ll look at, has transcended its technical origins to develop a wider cultural live of its own. Moore’s Law has become a meme (something we’ll examine in more detail later in this series).

So despite the fact that Moore’s Law is a tightly defined technical description of an observed trend and Gordon Moore has always been clear that his law specifically applies to the number of transistors on an integrated circuit – Moore’s law has been extended and extrapolated to become a general metaphor for technological advance. Nowadays it is probably more often misstated  than stated correctly – formulations like “computers double in power every two years” or  “technology gets twice as powerful every two years” are common.

This extrapolation has been taken to its extreme by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, Google executive and notable proponent of the concept of singularity (we’ll discuss that later in the series), in a 2001 essay in which he proposed ‘Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns’.

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially.”

And while Kurweil doesn’t mention Moore’s Law explicitly in this excerpt, it’s clear the notion of rapid or exponential change is grounded in Moore’s original observation.

As Moore himself has said:

“Moore’s law has been the name given to everything that changes exponentially. I say, if Gore invented the Internet, I invented the exponential.”

Despite the fact the Moore is wrong about Al Gore – he didn’t really claim to have invented the Internet  – Moore has definitely some cause to claim that his law has become a short hand for exponential growth.

I’d argue that Moore’s Law has become a focus, a short-hand way of describing and understanding the great technological shifts happening around us. And as such it underpins a range of technical, commercial and cultural assumptions. It provides a degree of certainty in an otherwise wildly confusing landscape – it allows us to peer dimly into the future – from both a technical and cultural perspective.

And that’s what all of these ‘Internet Laws’ do, to one extent or other. They’re not absolutes, but they are important and influential descriptions and predictions of reality that help drive technological, commercial and cultural development.

How and why is something I hope to explore in more detail in this series.

TL;DR

A forthcoming series of blog posts will look at the laws that govern the way the Internet works and how they impact our lives.

One thought on “Internet Laws: an introduction

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