Request for Comments

Preface: I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get this post published. I won’t bore you with my ruminations and remorse … instead, on with the show.

I still do analog. Case in point: A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime, a monograph by John Naughton, distributed on inked wood-pulp, and purchased by me in person at a used bookstore in Philadelphia off South Street about a month ago.

It’s a fine book. Naughton has a tremendous storytelling flair, but his greatest genius is for identifying and communicating the human depths and excellences that might be overlooked by a less gold-hearted storyteller. There are many, many nuggets here that invite careful rereading and contemplation, far too many for one blog post. I suspect I’ll eventually write about several.

For now, though, I want to share the story Naughton tells of Steve Crocker, one of the original members of ARPANET’s “Network Working Group.” This is the group Vint Cerf worked with as he helped to bring TCP/IP into being. I knew something of Cerf’s story. I recognized the names of Jeff Rulifson and Bill Duvall from SRI (part of Doug Engelbart’s group). I dimly recalled reading something about Steve Crocker. But what I didn’t know was the pivotal role Crocker played in building the platform for collective intelligence within the early ARPANET itself. He did this with a very special kind of protocol, the kind more closely linked with diplomacy than with networked computers “shaking hands.”

He did it by inventing a new genre of professional writing: the Request for Comments (RFC).

As Naughton tells the story, the young graduate students who were at the center of the Network Working Group found themselves with the future of the Internet in their hands. The big corporate brains knew about the machines that made up the network, but they didn’t know much about the network itself–it was too new, and it was an emergent phenomenon, not a thing they had built. The grad students in the NWG felt they were at great risk of offending the honchos, of overstepping their bounds as “vulnerable, insecure apprentices,” to use Naughton’s words. Crocker was especially worried they “would offend whomever the official protocol designers were….” But the work had to go forward. So Crocker invented the “Request for Comments,” what he called “humble words for our notes” that would document the discussions that would build the network.

Here’s how Crocker himself put it in this excerpt from RFC-3, “Documentation Conventions”:

Documentation of the NWG’s effort is through notes such as this. Notes may be produced at any site by anybody and included in this series…. [Content] may be any thought, suggestion, etc. related to the HOST software or other aspect of the network. Notes are encouraged to be timely rather than polished. Philosophical positions without examples or other specifics, specific suggestions or implementation techniques without introductory or background explication, and explicit questions without any attempted answers are all acceptable. The minimum length for a NWG note is one sentence.

These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition.

You can see the similarity to blogging right away. At least two primary Network Working Groups are involved: that of all the other people in the world (let’s call that civilization), and that of the network that constitutes one’s own cognition and the resulting “strange loop,” to use Douglas Hofstadter’s language. We are all of us in this macrocosm and this microcosm. Most of us will have multiple networks within these mirroring extremes, but the same principles will of course apply there as well. What is the ethos of the Network Working Group we call civilization? And for those of us engaged in the specific cognitive interventions we call education, what is the ethos of the Network Working Group we help out students to build and grow within themselves as learners? We discussed Ivan Illich in the Virginia Tech New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar today, and I was forcibly reminded that the NWG within sets the boundaries (and hopes) we have with which to craft our NWG without. School conditions what we expect in and from civilization.

I hope it’s also clear that these RFC-3 documentation conventions  specify a praxis of intellectual discourse–indeed, I’d even say scholarly communication–that is sadly absent from most academic work today.

Would such communciation be rigorous? Academic? Worthy of tenure and promotion? What did these RFCs accomplish, and how do they figure in the human record?  Naughton observes that this “Request for Comments” idea–and the title itself, now with many numerals following–has persisted as “the way the Internet discusses technical issues.” Naughton goes on to write that “it wasn’t just the title that endured … but the intelligent, friendly, co-operative, consensual attitude implied by it. With his modest, placatory style, Steve Crocker set the tone for the way the Net developed.” Naughton then quotes Katie Hafner’s and Matthew Lyon’s judgment that “the language of the RFC … was warm and welcoming. The idea was to promote cooperation, not ego.”

Naughton concludes,

The RFC archives contain an extraordinary record of thought in action, a riveting chronicle of the application of high intelligence to hard problems….

Why would we not want to produce such a record within the academy and share it with the public? Or are we content with the ordinary, forgotten, and non-riveting so long as the business model holds up?

Or have we been schooled so thoroughly that the very ambition makes no sense?

More Naughton:

The fundamental ethos of the Net was laid down in the deliberations of the Network Working Group. It was an ethos which assumed that nothing was secret, that problems existed to be solved collaboratively, that solutions emerged iteratively, and that everything which was produced should be in the public domain.

I think of the many faculty and department meetings I have been to. Some of them I have myself convened. The ethos of those Network Working Groups has varied considerably. I am disappointed to say that none of them has lived up to the fundamental ethos Naughton identifies above. I yearn for documentation conventions that will produce an extraordinary record of thought in action, with the production shared by all who work within a community of learning. And I wonder if I’m capable of Crocker’s humility or wisdom, and answerable to his invitation. I want to be.

4 thoughts on “Request for Comments

  1. Dang.. URLs disappeared on first attempt:

    Dear Dr. C and friends:

    A Conversation with Internet Inventors
    Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 7 – 8pm
    Join us for a conversation with Steve Crocker and Vinton Cerf, two of the Internet’s founding fathers. Crocker established protocols necessary for the workings of the Internet, and Cerf, a computer scientist, was instrumental in the development of the first commercial email system. They will discuss how the Internet changed the way we communicate.

    (thanks to Steve Huter and Dale Smith of for pointing this out)

  2. John’s got a new book coming out soon – 7 Things you need to know about the internet. Like A Brief History, he does a good job of wrapping up lots of stuff you sort of knew, and representing it back in a clear and insightful way.

  3. form == function == form

    The rfc is a kind of proof of concept of a participative network.
    The form of communication used by the NWG reflects the emerging form of the work itself? Their network topology as a form was/is discursive and iterative, a conversation? So yes a blog and more collaboratively wikipedia and free software are networked forms of expression and creation. They are possible because the underlying infrastructure has been built with that kind of distributed read write capability in mind.

    Manuel Castells produced this talk about network theories of power which might be of interest.

  4. Pingback: Blogs and Baobabs « Gardner Writes

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