This article is part of Technology Newsletter. You can Register here to receive it weekdays.
We’ve been on Zoom work calls, Netflix marathons, and most of us more online for over a year. everything. And the Internet hasn’t gone up in smoke yet, as some experts fear the outbreak of a pandemic.
Households, organizations, and individual websites have had connectivity issues, but the basic plumbing of the internet is mostly already connected. It shows that technologists have learned from past mistakes when the Internet did disrupt and build a more adaptive system over the decades.
As the US begins to open up more, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate what went right and appreciate the people and technology that have made our digital lives sustainable. Nerds, I salute you.
I called Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, to ask her why there were no catastrophic internet crashes despite a spike in online traffic during the pandemic. Last year, even Mark Zuckerberg worried that his company might not be able to keep up with everyone who uses Facebook’s app.
Dr. Sherry gave me two explanations. First, she says, the Internet’s biggest flaw – its interconnectedness – is also its greatest strength. And second, digital services have been intelligently designed for the odd and imperfect conditions.
Dr. Sherry told me: “The underlying infrastructure that makes things work is constantly adapting to failures, and it’s working pretty well.
Her first point is mainly about the popularity of cloud computing. This technology, partially popularized by Amazon, essentially allows any website or app to pay someone else to handle all or parts of their digital activity instead of doing it themselves.
There are downsides to this approach. When a widely used cloud company goes down – and it happens quite often – it can crash banks’ websites, cripple supermarket checkouts, disable email. and prevent people from accessing online news sites, including The New York Times.
The root cause of this fragility of our internet plumbing is also a strength. Because so many of the world’s digital services are handled by giant computer systems like Amazon and Google, many digital services can be more flexible in responding to spikes in demand and have can easily solve problems.
Dr. Sherry also talked to me about a number of other internet design technologies that are essential to handling the massive surge in web traffic.
She told me about a technology pioneer, Van Jacobson, who invented software that automatically slowed down internet data when the online network was down. She compares it to a highway metering system that limits the number of cars entering ramps during rush hour so the roads don’t become completely congested.
Dr Sherry says his invention was a response to the internet outage of the mid-1980s, when the networks mainly used by universities repeatedly crashed as too many people went online. simultaneous. Congestion control algorithms are now widely used. And web video companies have designed software on a similar basis to automatically downgrade internet video quality if the internet goes down.
Those techniques are adaptations based on the principle that the Internet will never be perfect and that anything we access online must be able to work under less-than-ideal conditions, says Dr. Sherry. “The common theme of all of this is agility and adaptability,” she said.
Yes, online services in many countries were bogged down when the pandemic hit last year, and internet service providers and website operators scrambled to add more computers and storage. volume for networks. Our home network and the individual internet connections running into our homes tend to be the most common points of trouble. But again, the architecture of the widespread internet is pretty sane.
I asked Dr. Sherry if we should pay more attention to what works on the internet. Should we thank Van Jacobson as Netflix streams pretty well while we’re driving on the move?
She says that inattention is a sign of a system working as intended. “I don’t know much about how my car works,” Dr. Sherry said. “I believe in it.”
Before we go…
Computers have the same flaws as humans: Humans train machines and thus our biases can creep into artificial intelligence systems. My colleague Cade Metz writes about people and organizations trying to identify and remove bias from artificial intelligence software before it is widely used for high-stakes decisions like who will get housing, health care and credit.
More proof of the Internet’s age verification problem: US law requires websites and apps to get parental permission before children under 13 can use online services, but the rules are difficult to enforce. One example: TikTok said it deleted more than seven million accounts in the first months of 2021 because the company believed they belonged to children under the age of 13, Axios reported. My colleagues wrote last year about the large percentage of TikTok users who are most likely underage.
A phone company doing something smart?!?! T-Mobile is allowing people to test its mobile phone service without a subscription, The Verge reports. Those with a newer iPhone can download the app and try the T-Mobile network side-by-side with their existing phone carrier for 30 days.
This is the clapping of the walrus Sivuqaq, loud enough to be heard on the other side of the 4-inch thick glass wall of his tank. My colleague Sabrina Imbler explained how and why Sivuqaq clapped.
We want to hear from you. Let us know what you think about this newsletter and what you’d like us to explore. You can contact us at [email protected]
If you have not received this newsletter in your inbox, Please register here. You can also read columns On previous technology.