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We have more than a year on Zoom work calls, Netflix marathons, and most of us are more online everything And the internet has not melted into goo, as some experts feared at the start of the pandemic.

Individual families, organizations, and websites have had connectivity issues, but basic internet plumbing has largely been kept together. This shows that technologists learned from the mistakes of the past when the internet He did broke down and built a more adaptable system over the decades.

As the United States began to open up, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate what has gone well and appreciate the people and technologies that 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 failures despite wild rivets in internet traffic during the pandemic. Last year, even Mark Zuckerberg was worried that his company might not be able to keep up with all the people jumping on Facebook apps.

Dr. Sherry gave me two explanations. First, she said, the internet’s biggest vulnerability – its interconnectedness – is also its biggest strength. And secondly, digital services are cleverly designed for strange and imperfect conditions.

“The basic infrastructure that makes everything work is constantly adapting to failures, and is doing a pretty good job,” Dr. told me. Sherry.

Its first point is mainly about the spread of cloud computing. The technology, popularized in part by Amazon, basically allows any website or app to pay for someone else to handle all or part of its digital operations instead of doing it themselves.

There are downsides to this approach. When a company widely used for cloud computing has a problem – and it happens quite regularly – it can crash bank websites, damage supermarket purchases, deactivate email, and prevent people from accessing the media, including the New York Times.

The main cause of this fragility of our internet water supply is also a force. Because many of the digital services in the world are handled by large computer systems like Amazon and Google, many digital services can be more flexible to respond to peak demand and can handle problems more easily.

Dr. Sherry also spoke to me through some other web design technologies that have been essential to tackle huge increases in web traffic.

She told me about a technology pioneer, Van Jacobson, who invented software to automatically slow down Internet data when Internet networks are blocked. She compared it to highway metering systems that limit the number of cars entering ramps during peak hours so that roads are not completely blocked.

Dr. Sherry said his invention was a response to unusable internet in the mid-1980s, when networks used primarily by universities broke down when many people were online at the same time. Compression control algorithms are now widely used. And Internet video companies have designed software on a similar premise to automatically reduce the quality of Internet video if Internet networks are blocked.

These techniques, said Dr. Sherry, are adaptations based on the principle that the internet will never be perfect, and everything we have internet access should be able to function in less than ideal conditions. “The broad theme of all this is versatility and adaptability,” she said.

Yes, Internet services in many countries were weakened when the pandemic hit last year, and Internet service providers and webmasters tried to add more computers and capacity to remove networks. Our home networks and the individual internet connections that enter our homes tend to be the most common points of failure. But again, the architecture of the extensive internet system is quite robust.

I asked Dr. Sherry if we need to notice more about what works over the internet. Should we thank Van Jacobson when Netflix broadcasts quite well while we are riding in a moving car?

She said not noting is a sign of a system that works as intended. “I do not know much about how my car works,” said Dr. Sherry. “I believe him.”



  • Computers have the same defects as humans: Humans train machines and therefore our prejudices can be introduced into artificial intelligence systems. My colleague Cade Metz writes about people and organizations trying to identify and remove prejudice from artificial intelligence software before it is widely used for high-stakes decisions like who should get housing, health care, and credit.

  • More evidence of online age verification problem: U.S. law effectively requires websites and applications to obtain parental permission before children under 13 use the services online, but it is difficult to enforce the rules. An example: TikTok said it removed more than seven million accounts in the first months of 2021 because the company believed they belonged to children under 13, Axios reports. My colleagues last year wrote about the large percentage of TikTok users who are most likely to be underage.

  • A phone company doing something smart?!?! T-Mobile is allowing people to test its mobile phone service without registering, The Verge reported. People with newer iPhones can download an app and try out the T-Mobile network side by side with their existing phone carrier for 30 days.

Here is Sivuqaq beating the cow’s hands, so loudly that it can be heard on the other side of the glass walls of his four-inch-thick tank. My colleague Sabrina Imbler explained how and why Sivuqaq applauded.


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