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The Sustainable Network by Sarah Sorensen

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Chapter 1. I Am a Node

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We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.

Herman Melville

Iam one of the more than 1.6 billion people in this world who is connected to the Internet, which is the world’s largest public network. And like many of those billion or so, I spend a lot of time online, yet, for some reason, I had never really taken a step back to acknowledge the far-reaching implications of my ever-growing dependence on this connective technology. When I did, it hit me—the network really is changing the world. It’s shepherding in the Digital Information Age that’s shifting how we perceive, interact, and live in this world. And it’s just the beginning. We are at a historic inflection point—one that our children’s children will look back upon and study, like the Renaissance or Industrial Revolution.

You might be saying to yourself, “But the Internet has been mainstream for some time now; what’s she talking about?” My point is that it’s only within the last few years that it’s become indispensable. It’s only recently that we have come to accept it as an everpresent technology and use it to facilitate more and more of our daily lives. It was only a short time ago that it was my network, connecting my circle of friends and interests, and most other people simply used it the same way as me. Now, in a split second, it’s different; now, it’s a global network and I am one of billions of nodes (connection points) on it. We all are.

This is important. The network is any and all connections between computing devices. If you think of human anatomy, the network is like the intricate nervous system that takes messages from the brain to the rest of the body and takes feedback from the body back to the brain. It’s responsible for processing critical information about the body and its surroundings to allow individuals to react to and regulate its behavior. The same is true of the network; it’s a complex system optimized to transport and process all communications within its boundaries. The difference is really in the scale and scope on which the network can operate, which has no bounds.

Many people think of the network as the Internet. While the Internet is a network and certainly fits in the overall definition, the sustainable network discussed in this book is so much more. Just as there are the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system in the body, you could say there is the public Internet and then all of the other networks in the world, which range from simple, connecting only one or two devices (say, your home network), to extremely complicated, connecting hundreds of thousands of devices and resources (say, a government, Fortune 500 company, or research network).

In a nutshell, the network is the foundation for the world’s global communications infrastructure, which includes the Internet, as well as all the private domains of individuals, companies, governments, and institutions. The network supports all types of connections from all different types of computing devices (desktops, phones, and even building management controls). It facilitates conversations between people as well as inanimate objects (ever program your TV to record a show by using your phone?). It’s a world filled with enough acronyms and unique terminology to make your head spin.

Wondering what I mean? Ever heard of LTE, IPTV, MPLS, or a PIM_SM bootstrap router? And this seeming complexity is one reason I would venture to guess that most of us would not be able to describe how the network works or what it really is.

The applications tend to get all the glory because they deliver the tangible “value” to you (ranging from email to a customer relationship management web tool to the massive role-playing game World of Warcraft), but it’s the network that does the behind-thescenes work. It’s playing the connector role, fostering the relationships that are essential for these applications to maximize their value. And yet, this network, which is a part of every day of our lives, remains a mystery to most of us.

I thought of Thomas L. Friedman’s book, The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and how he eloquently wrote about the new era of the individual, where everyone has the ability to participate, collaborate, and compete on a global scale. While there are a lot of forces at work impacting and shaping this “flattening,” I couldn’t help but think the deep dark secret in all this is the network. It’s at the heart of it all. It’s the enabling technology. It’s fueling this era of rapid globalization and individual empowerment. It’s changing the way we interact with our friends and family, conduct politics, and do business. It even impacts our planet.

You might ask, “So, why do I need to care about the network, when all I’m really interested in are the applications?”

Well, not only are we all nodes on the network, but the real worry is that if we don’t care, we could miss a vital opportunity. The network represents a great platform for change because it establishes relationships between people, things, governments, and economies by creating, enabling, and supporting all the connections that have come to tie us together in one way or another. As such, it’s one of our best tools for sustainable progress, change, and action.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. The network offers us a sustainable platform for change, but we must in turn sustain it. The network’s capacity to build, develop, and leverage these relationships enables it to take on a life of its own and perpetuate its growth—there are always new needs, interests, and connections to be made. Similarly, the more we are exposed to it (such as with the expanded a vailability of broadband), the more uses we find for it and the more we want and need it. But we must protect it and use it to its best advantage so that it can help as we tackle some of the hardest environmental, economic, social, and political challenges facing us.

Remember, we are all nodes on this network. It’s the one thing that unites us all, no matter who you are or where you live. As such, it’s a tool for enacting change. And it’s one that already exists. We don’t need to wait for its time to come—it’s here. It has already set in motion changes that are infiltrating every aspect of our lives. Today, individuals, businesses, and countries can connect and influence people, ideas, and events in ways never before possible. By understanding the role the sustainable network plays in our lives, we can identify new extensions for this foundational technology and potentially derive more benefits and increase its influence.

But it’s not all rosy. There are risks to the network that threaten its ongoing capability to provide a sustainable platform for change. And we need to understand those risks so we can mitigate and prevent them. To grow its reach and applicability, the network depends on investment. When money gets tight, it requires an ongoing commitment to invest in network buildouts that often have no immediate short-term payoff but are essential to long-term viability. And there’s a dark side, too. In the wrong hands, these connections can be exploited and used to steal identities, blackmail, lure victims, infringe on an individual’s rights, and, in the direst of circumstances, disable governments and endanger lives—the stuff of good crime shows and novels, only real.

Still, when I think about the network and all the implications of our ever-growing dependence on this connective technology, I am not afraid, but rather inspired, by the potential opportunities the network represents. I am electrified by the thought that if people really knew what the network was and what it can do, we might be able to save time, energy, and effort on a scale that would actually make a dent in the world today.

It’s in this vein that I set out to shed light on the role the network plays as a sustainability agent to support energy conservation and economic, social, and political innovation. And to understand that, it’s important to understand what the network is and what it isn’t, its good qualities and the potential dangers associated with it. With a better understanding comes the opportunity to create better solutions, so this book sets out to demystify the network and provide examples of what it’s already addressing and where it could be improved to enable greater change with greater impact.

The aim is to challenge every government, business, and individual to find their place in the global network. With this awareness, we can adapt to the speed at which things are changing, understand how everything is becoming interconnected, and recognize the new opportunities and challenges that come with living and working in this increasingly connected world. And then together we can develop more sustainable environmental, economic, social, and political models in this Digital Information Age.

The issues are complex, with many interdependencies. Real solutions will be developed from lots of small changes, new ideas, and many pieces working in concert—every node needs to play a role. There are also peripheral discussions and market and political influences that will shape the end state. But at its core, it’s undeniable: the network plays the connector role, facilitating the relationships that will be instrumental to all our efforts to make this world a more sustainable one.

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