Thinkers you should know – David Reed

(cross posted at Future Tense)

One of the most profoundly important (and disturbing) things about the Internet is that fundamentally no one is in charge. One of the individuals responsible for that design is David Reed, a computer scientist from MIT.

As far back as Jethro and Moses in Exodus, we’ve applied hierarchy to bring complexity under control. Many have characterized Jethro as the world’s first management consultant. One of the reasons that hierarchy works so well in organizational settings is that is addresses the problem of information overload on managers, where middle managers serve to consolidate and route information through the hierarchy.

However, computers are not people and hierarchy is not the only, or necessarily the best, solution to information management problems. Reed, along with J.H.Salzer and D.D. Clark, wrote a seminal paper in the early days of the design of ARPANET and TCP/IP called “End-to-End Arguments in System Design” that laid out the reasons that hierarchical solutions were a bad idea in designing a network of the scale and complexity envisioned for the ARPANET. Those design insights were baked into the basic architecture of TCP/IP and are one of the core reasons that the Internet has grown as widely and rapidly as it has. If you hope to understand how the net and network thinking in general will continue to impact the future of work, this had better be one of your starting points. “End-to-End Arguments” is a pretty technical paper, although it is manageable; you might find The end of End-to-End?,” also by Reed, a better starting point.

More recently, David has been exploring other notions about how markets and technology interact in ways that don’t necessarily mesh with our default assumptions. In particular he’s done interesting work on why eBay and other internet companies have thrived but handing significant power over to their customers with the notion of Group Forming Networks.

Currently, David is back at MIT at the Media Lab leading a research program on Communications Futures. A good starting
point for this work is the program on Viral Communications (pdf) David is doing with Andy Lippman of the Media Lab.

Like other thinkers, the value of looking at what David is up to is twofold. First, the ideas themselves are powerful. Second, watching how someone smart tackles problems can give you insights into how you might tackle other problems