Radia Perlman: Don't Call Me the Mother of the Internet

But what changed my life professionally was again a happy accident. I wrote the book Interconnections, all about layers 2 and 3 of computer networks. The field was really murky, full of jargon and hype. My book created order. It was easy to understand while being conceptually thought-provoking, and a large part of the technology described was stuff I’d invented. That changed people’s perception of me. I didn’t have to act condescending and scary when people learned the field from my book.

In terms of “What do you wish you had known”…I actually was the graduation speaker at the Rochester Institute of Technology once. The theme of my speech was “10 things I wish I’d known when I was your age.” I don’t remember them all, but here are a few that stick with me today:

  • Life is unfair: it drives me crazy, because I want it to be fair, but obnoxious backstabbing people do well for themselves while really nice deserving people don’t do as well as they should, but this will never change, and you have to not let it bother you too much. The best thing you can do is try to help other people by mentioning their contributions whenever you get a chance.
  • Everyone is insecure—especially pompous people. Really smart people are actually sweet and generous.
  • It’s OK to ask for help. When doing a final exam, all the work must be yours, but in engineering, the point is to get the job done, and people are happy to help. Corollaries: You should be generous with credit, and you should be happy to help others

You've been called the Mother of the Internet, and you've also said that you do not like that title. What bothers you about it?

The Internet was not invented by any individual. There are lots of people who like to take credit for it, and it drives them crazy when anyone other than them seems to want credit, so it seems best to just stay out of their way. I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed. And sometimes, things get invented multiple times until the time just happens to be right. The thing that happened to be there at the right time isn’t necessarily better than the other ones.

But the Internet’s success isn’t due to the specific technologies, but rather the surprising ways in which it has come to be used. For instance, Internet search. It’s astonishing that Internet search is possible at all, but it works amazingly well, and is probably one of the most important reasons that the Internet is ubiquitous. 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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