If It Wasn't for Me, Would Bob Metcalfe Have Found Ethernet?

Me and Bob: On the one hand, you could say that the conflict I’m about to describe proves that everything goes back to high school. On the other, you could look at it from the perspective of the centuries-old debate in Western culture between scientism and humanism—or rationality vs. anarchy.

But I like to describe the conflict as one between Metcalfe’s Law and Ron’s Outlaws.

Do you know about Metcalfe’s Law? It was named after my high-school friend and rival, Bob Metcalfe, now probably a billionaire from his invention of Ethernet, the device that effects connectivity between computers in a network. He subsequently founded the 3Com Corporation and established himself as an Internet-boom progenitor and guru. Some give him—and Metcalfe’s Law—the credit (or blame) for the late-90’s dot-com bubble and the credit (or blame) for the Web 2.0 expansion that, according to some, is fast approaching a Bubble 2.0 bursting point.

In fact, a hot debate has broken out in the blogosphere (I first noticed it on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine blog, http://www.buzzmachine.com) over whether, as the title of a recent scientific-journal article bluntly put it, “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong.” And not just wrong, but “dangerous.”

The principle of Metcalfe’s Law, for those coming late to this crucial argument about the nature and economics of the Web, was first outlined circa 1980 by Mr. Metcalfe and given the name Metcalfe’s Law in 1993 by First Bubble philosopher George Gilder. Paraphrased, the law states that “the value of a communications network is proportional to the square of the number of its users.” Or, in mathematical notation, V~n2.

Why should you care about whether this formula is right or wrong? Well, only if you care about the economic future of the nation, if you believe the authors of “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong,” which appeared in the electrical-engineering journal IEEE Spectrum (spectrum.ieee.org/jul06/4109). They argue that Metcalfe’s Law became the theoretical basis for the late-90’s dot-com expansion and collapse. Why? Because it was used to lead (or mislead) investors into overvaluing the growth potential of dot-com companies specializing in connectivity services, from Cisco to 3Com.

Or, as the authors of “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong,” Bob Briscoe, Andrew Odlyzko and Benjamin Tilly, put it: “It seemed to offer a quantitative explanation for the boom’s various now-quaint mantras, like ‘network effects,’ ‘first-mover advantage,’ ‘Internet time,’ and, most poignant of all, ‘build it and they will come.’”

What it did, in practical terms, was to convince a sufficient number of venture-capital investors that the potential profitability of net-related start-up companies would increase in value to the second power while their costs to reach such profit levels would increase only in a lesser, linear fashion. Which justified pouring exponentially greater investment capital into ventures that, as it turned out, did not produce that level of growth, but rather enormous losses when the bubble burst.

Whether this was because “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong” or whether other factors caused the bubble to burst is a matter of dispute. And Mr. Metcalfe himself disputes the critique in a forcefully reasoned argument that you can find at a Web site called VCMike’s Blog (vcmike.wordpress.com/2006/08/18/metcalfe-social-networks/#more-99), in which he not only declares that he regrets nothing, but he ingeniously positions his Law as a precursor of the newly fashionable “Long Tail” theory of net economics. (It’s a long tale.)

But according to the authors of “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong,” this is not just a matter of past history. The persistence in the wrongheaded belief in Metcalfe’s Law, they argue, is “dangerous” because it adds “a touch of scientific respectability to a new wave of investment” that is inflating what they ominously call “Bubble 2.0.”

They proceed to propose their alternative to Metcalfe’s Law, an alternative formula they render as V~n log(n), which predicts growth from network connectivity greater than linear but far less than the n2 growth that Metcalfe’s Law predicts.

I’ll return to the question of these competing laws, but first, a brief return to high school, where I believe the philosophical differences that lie behind the clash I’ve called Metcalfe’s Law vs. Ron’s Outlaws had their origins.

Yes, I think I could make a case that it all goes back to Bay Shore High School, where Bob and I were friendly rivals. I should emphasize friendly: He was (and is, as far as I can tell—although we’ve had only sporadic contact since high school) a genuinely good-natured guy, with a good sense of humor to leaven his intellectual seriousness.

There was, however, one key philosophical difference and one, let’s say, difficulty in our friendship. The philosophical difference was that even back then, he tended to see the world through the lens of hard science. I recall watching in awe as he soldered together his first primitive analog computer from a kit he ordered from Popular Science. I knew then we were on different paths. My lens was literature: Novels like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Heller’s Catch-22, with their emphasis on romanticized band-of-outlaws anarchism, led me to a more irrationalist, or at least anti-technocratic, literary-Luddite view of the world.

The difficulty involved our rivalry for the position of No. 1 in our class. I edged him out and, as I recall, there was a bit of not entirely good-natured bitterness about this on his part (I was, needless to say, completely gracious about it all).

Of course, he went on to be a billionaire, more or less—and I’ve entertained the notion that his galling high-school loss to me spurred him on to achieve his fabulous success, which he therefore owes to me. And I went on to … considerably less lucrative, more literary pursuits. (Still, Cynthia Ozick’s quote about my new book The Shakespeare Wars—“Electrifying. A spectacular book”—feels better than any sum of money could).

Nonetheless, I’d always been a little suspicious of Metcalfe’s Law, precisely because it seemed too confident that it could quantify and digitize human relationships, turn them all in their infinite variety into an all-too-simple mathematical formula—a formula that seems a bit too much like a thinly disguised promotional device for Ethernet. He’s selling connectivity devices and he’s proclaiming a “law” that values the growth they promote at n2 levels. Not bad for business, although that alone does not disprove its truth.

In fact, I also have a problem with the recent IEEE takedown of Metcalfe’s Law for the same reason. It, too, attempts the quantification of human relationships—long a dream, often a dreadful mistake. But at least the authors exhibit a tentativeness, an awareness of the arbitrariness of assigning a number value to human connections, or of identifying techno-connections with human connections.

In any case, the discussion of this question sparked by “Metcalfe’s Law Is Wrong” on Jeff Jarvis’ blog reawakened high-school memories and made me think of my “blue box” story and what I like to think of as “Ron’s Outlaws,” the original hackers.

There’s been, lately, a curious spike in interest in the story, which I wrote for Harold Hayes’ Esquire (on the basis of a tip from my colleague there, Craig S. Karpel).

The story, first published in October 1971 (and reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune, and also available on the Web at www. webcrunchers.com/crunch/esq-art.html) concerned my odyssey into the techno-nerd outlaw world of blue-boxers, many of them blind teenage electronics geniuses who created their own illicit net in the web of then-monopoly AT&T’s long-distance line circuits using devices dubbed “blue boxes.” These “phone phreaks” included one who, on the basis of my story, became a legendary original superhero of hacker culture, “Captain Crunch.”

In retrospect, my technology-vs.-anarchy debates in Long Island diners with Bob Metcalfe may have shaped my vision of these anti-technocracy tech geniuses. I envisioned them in my story as analogues of the black-clad secret society, the “Tristero” in The Crying of Lot 49. One of the distinguishing achievements of the Tristero was that they traced their ancestry to a group that sought to subvert the official postal system of Europe with their own private communication network.

If Bob Metcalfe was the guru of connectivity, my story at least had helped give birth to both the dark side of cyber culture and other more profitable sides as well.

When I say there’s been a spike of interest, there was a call from a TV documentary producer working on a project about the history of the telephone. They were asking permission to reproduce an image of my Esquire story, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” in conjunction with their interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, an interview on the history of the telephone. The reason: Mr. Wozniak and his friend Steve Jobs both read my “blue box” story in high school and, as they both have publicly reported, were inspired by the story to try to manufacture the illicit “blue box” devices in one of their parents’ garages, a project that led ultimately to their Apple partnership. It also led to their contact with and (I’d say) spiritual kinship with the hacker legend I’d portrayed in the story, Captain Crunch, who, after getting into trouble with the law, left the dark side and became a “white hat” hacker and an important innovator in the PC revolution.

My account of Crunch’s exploits gave widespread recognition—helped the wildfire spread—of incipient hacker culture. For better or worse, I felt I had made enough of a contribution to the origin and spread of this subculture to justify thinking of them as the antipodes of Metcalfe’s Law: Ron’s Outlaws. After all, the former is about enhancing connectivity, the latter about subverting it.

Or is it? In a way, its origins in the secret blind-boy blue-box networks suggest that hacker culture is about enhancing connectivity, or about offering an alternative connectivity. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that there was a kind of interdependence between Metcalfe’s Law and Ron’s Outlaws: that “my” hacker outlaws did more to enhance connectivity by demonstrating the holes and flaws in cyber-based networks, testing the system and spurring it to greater heights of efficiency and security.

And Bob’s known in his world as a bit of a rebel, taking on Bill Gates early, offering heretical apocalyptic visions of the Internet future.

Perhaps Ron’s Outlaws are not necessarily opposed to Bob and his Laws. Too bad there was room for only one No. 1 in high school, which, as we know, is all that counts.

Ron Rosenbaum’s new book, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, is just out from Random House.