Internet Infrastructure

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= Discussion on the internet AS infrastructure

Excerpts from an overview by Doc Searls at

The internet IS infrastructure

Doc Searls:

"Linux and the Internet are infrastructure, in the sense that they qualify for the American Heritage Dictionary's #1 meaning: "An underlying base or foundation especially for an organization or system". Infra is Latin for under, and you can find Linux under countless applications on devices that range from supercomputers to cell phones to wireless picture frames. Linux is also the platform of choice for many (perhaps most) sturdy and popular Web sites and services, including Google's search and Amazon's S3 and EC2 (to name too few among way too many).

And you'll find the Internet under Linux. If we're stacking up connected people and devices, nothing could be more infra, more fundamental, than the Net itself. In fact, the Net is so infra that two legacy forms of widespread commercial infrastructure — telephony and television — now run on it as well. Your cable and phone bills may suggest otherwise, but the fact remains that voice and video are just two among many forms of data that travel via the Internet protocol.

Yet neither Linux nor the Net are generally seen as infrastructure. If you're not a Linux geek or a Net-head, your answers to the opening questions above are likely to be the latter ones. How come?

Here are a few reasons:

1. While Linux and the Net are clearly infra, they are not structure in the physical sense. Linux is software, while the Net is a set of protocols. There are soft forms of structure, but those are not what the word brings first to mind.

2. They are products of neither public nor private enterprise. They are odd breeds that exceed the scope of both categories. Linux began with a single programmer and grew to become the project of a development community comprised of thousands of individual programmers — with nearly as many different employers. (Significantly, most of those programmers will tell you they are not under anybody's command, at least as far as their kernel hacking work is concerned.) The Internet grew out of academic and defense work, while its most familiar subsystem, the World Wide Web, grew out of work at high energy physics laboratories. And while both Linux and the Net were popularized by commercial activities, they are better built to support business than to make money for themselves. This is why...

3. They generate relatively little wealth. Instead they support an incalculable sum of it. That is, while much money has been made with both Linux and the Net, that sum is dwarfed by the amount of money made because of both. Their main job is to support countless purposes other than their own "business models", which don't exist. In this sense they are like geology, sunlight and atmosphere: they are free in both the free-as-in-freedom and free-as-in-beer senses of the word. It's as silly to ask Linux and the Net for their business models as it is to ask the same of H2O. Sure, you can sell bottled water, but how big is that business compared to what the oceans support?

4. They are seen as external to base economic activity. Which is buying and selling goods. As I wrote in Greater Goods, "Abundant free software production and use might be seen as a network externality, resulting from the network effects caused by cost-free goods that are easily obtained and used — which is fine. But there is a cost to this perspective." That cost is a near-universal disregard for the foundational economic importance of these essential goods. For today's economy, the roles of Linux and the Net are better conceived as internal rather than external, much as the role of the Earth is internal to everything that relies on it.

5. Their ideals are "NEA": Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them. Note that these are ideals, rather than facts. What matters is that free software and open source programmers have principles anchored in an understanding of software that is largely antithetical to conventional notions about simple property. Even if it's "mine", it's right for others to take it, copy it, use it, modify it, and improve on it. And, in the founding case of the GPL, insist that the same freedoms are kept as permanent fixtures upon which there can be no other improvement.

NEA ideals are what make free and open source software highly generative. It is the generativity of Linux and the Net that makes both function as an essential yet poorly understood form of infrastructure: a kind that serves ecological as well as geological and architectural functions. As generative technologies, they support origination, production and reproduction to an extreme of fecundity that shames the most reproductive species. In addition to a host of commercial applications and services, Linux and the Net today support nearly the entire FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) portfolio. This proliferation derives from a nature as practical (and in some cases as essential) as any element in the periodic table, yet with unrestricted variety. Which is why their population is growing on pace to outnumber the world's species — while evolving faster than any of them." (

The Internet as Generative Infrastructure

"In his new book, In The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2008) Jonathan Zittrain defines Generativity as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences."

In an earlier research paper, The Generative Internet, he explains,

- Generativity denotes a technology’s overall capacity to produce unprompted change driven by large, varied, and uncoordinated audiences. The grid of PCs connected by the Internet has developed in such a way that it is consummately generative. From the beginning, the PC has been designed to run almost any program created by the manufacturer, the user, or a remote third party and to make the creation of such programs a relatively easy task. When these highly adaptable machines are connected to a network with little centralized control, the result is a grid that is nearly completely open to the creation and rapid distribution of the innovations of technology-savvy users to a mass audience that can enjoy those innovations without having to know how they work.

Linux and the rest of the FOSS population fit this description, yet exceed it to the degree that they are not products of "audiences", but rather of engineers, working in coordinated ways to create and improve the code itself.

FOSS code is pure building material. The free, abundant and practical nature of this building material gives it some qualities of commodities; yet its generative nature is exceptional to traditional economic constructs. It inconveniences economic belief systems that anchor their perspective in the work of business or government, because it grows abundantly outside either context.

In The Future of the Internet, Jonathan Zittrain shows how the Net and PC operating systems are generative by locating them at the waists of hourglasses:

See graphic at

Both make possible an endless variety of invention and innovation both above and below them. They are like a universal joint making the stuff above independent of the stuff below.

Note that both are not at the bottoms of these illustrations. Their infra roles are in the middle. Their native flexibility is a form of structure that is both sturdy and liberating.

Yet being in the middle presents a conceptual problem Because Linux and the Net run on media and hardware, they seem to be dependent variables of those. They are higher up in "the stack", and therefore less infra than the stuff below them." (

The Internet as Open and Public Domain Infrastructure

Paraphrased from

See the graphs illustrating Burton Matrix:

  1. Burton Matrix Graph
  2. Ubiquity creates infrastructure

Craig Burton uses a quadrant structure [1] with the vertical matrix dividing Open and Closed, and the horizontal axis dividing Proprietary and Public Domain.

He locates infrastructure in the upper right corner [2], a combination of Open and Public Domain.

Closed and Proprietary creates scarcity, Open and Public Domain creates Ubiquity.

"The process of moving from scarcity to ubiquity is one of commoditization. The arrow is a strategic vector. If you want to create new markets, or disrupt old ones, you create ubiquitous infrastructure. That's what happened with Linux and the Net." [3]

More Information

  1. Internet as Hourglass Infrastructure
  2. Burton Matrix Graph
  3. Ubiquity creates infrastructure