This is a column to brag about Paul Baran, because Lord knows he's not going to do it himself. The guy is a brilliant innovator and a successful...
This is a column to brag about Paul Baran, because Lord knows he’s not going to do it himself.
The guy is a brilliant innovator and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He was honored last month at the White House for giving us some of the key building blocks of the Internet.
And what does Baran think about it all? What did he think it would be like to have the president of the United States present him with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation?
“Beats the hell out of me,” Baran said.
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None of this is to say that Baran is too big to be bothered. It’s more that he wishes others wouldn’t bother with the fuss. Technology is a team sport, he says, with each innovator building on what others accomplished before him or her.
“Each of us does a little piece,” Baran, 82, says. “I’ve done one thing. So then you get credit for doing the whole damn thing and that’s not so.”
That’s what makes Baran special. Talking to him in the kitchen of his Atherton, Calif., ranch house, listening to his self-deprecating asides and seeing his eyes sparkle as he talks about the wonder of stumbling upon something new, it’s clear he embodies the best of the spirit of Silicon Valley.
Forget the awards. Baran is a man with an abiding optimism who’d rather talk about how the Internet still has tremendous potential to change the world for the better.
“He’s very much of the old school,” says Paul Saffo, a Valley essayist, futurist and friend of Baran’s. “You serve. You innovate. And you don’t flash your toys to your friends. Frankly, the current generation of entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from the culture of his generation.”
Modesty is not the way of the Valley. This is a place where bragging is a sport, where it’s all about the buzz. A place where an entrepreneur or two has been known to take credit where none was due.
For the record, President Bush honored Baran recently for developing packet switching, the process of chopping digital information into small packages that can be sent across the Internet and reassembled when they reach their destination. (Think e-mail, Web pages, etc.)
“Put it this way,” Saffo says. “No packet switching, no Internet.”
Baran had his epiphany in the 1960s while trying to develop a national communication system that could withstand a Soviet attack.
His thinking? Forget about the analog phone system, with its point-to-point communication and vulnerable central switching centers.
Instead, create a digital network that looks like a fishing net and allow packets of information to move in any direction and around any damaged parts of the network.
Amazing, really. So I ask Baran, who went on to launch a series of Valley companies, if he ever sits back and thinks of the wonder of the Internet and his role in it. And he is compelled to point out that others eventually came up with similar ideas on their own.
“If I didn’t do it,” he says, “somebody else would have done it.”
But he does ponder the Internet — mostly to consider its continuing promise. The open access to knowledge, he says, is a step toward closing the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots worldwide.
It’s the sort of optimism that is at the heart of the best innovations.
And for that we should all honor Baran — whether he likes it or not.
Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist with the
San Jose Mercury News.