Related: Vint Cerf — Father of the Internet
ABILITY Magazine reached across the internet, via Zoom, to talk with Vint Cerf after hearing he had COVID-19. Cerf, often called the father of the internet, shared his COVID experience and other insights with Chet Cooper, as they both pondered how different life would be without the internet in the days of this coronavirus. And what about Al Gore? What role did he have in the internet? (Something Vint Cerf as asked all too often.)
Chet Cooper: How are you?
Vint Cerf: I’ve recovered. It took about two and a half weeks to get back to some semblance of normal. Although “normal” right now is surely the “new normal” because we’re still observing isolation protocols and wearing masks in public and being cautious about shopping and so on.
Cooper: When were you diagnosed?
Cerf: Symptoms arrived on March 17th. This was after having spent 10 days in London, and we are fairly confident that we contracted this thing while we were in London. There were many events that we attended that had a couple of hundred people. They were in fairly close proximity to each other, whether it was a cocktail party or an official dinner or something like that, even just a lecture.
I showed symptoms on the 17th. My wife never showed symptoms. But about a week later, after a great deal of effort, we were able to get tested. That is a story all by itself. We both tested positive. And so for the weeks after, until now, we stayed in isolation. By good fortune, our younger son flew in from Los Angeles for nearly three weeks–he’s just flying back today–to take care of shopping and cooking. So, we had more than many other people have in the way of help and assistance to get through the recovery process.
Cooper: Was that Bennett?
Cerf: That’s right, it was Bennett.
Cooper: Wasn’t he concerned about contracting it as well?
Cerf: Absolutely, so he exercised enormous care. He was in the upstairs bedrooms, and we never went up there. He disinfected himself and his hands and the kitchen counter and all the other stuff repeatedly. He would wash off anything that came in from the store. We designated certain areas as “germ-free” areas and were careful not to put anything on there that hadn’t already been cleaned. He was very, very conscientious about exercising all of the normal precautions that are recommended in order to stay isolated. And as far as we can tell, over that three-week period, he did not show any signs—any symptoms, anyway—of this disease, and when he gets back to Los Angeles today, he said that he will self-isolate for another 14 days.
Cooper: Was he able to get tested before he left?
Cerf: No. We were not able to get tests for him. But frankly, given the gestation period, we are pretty confident that if he was going to show any symptoms at all, they would have appeared during the period that he was here.
Cooper: OK, good. I’m glad everyone’s well and that he seems to have weathered that as well.
Cerf: Yeah, same here.
Cooper: Wow. And I think the other reason it took a toll on me when I saw the report was, I was still dealing with having email messages and things on my phone from John Williams.
Cerf: Oh, yeah.
Cooper: So that was still in my mind, and then when I saw you, I thought, “No!”
Cerf: Thank you for that. As I say, many, many people were kind enough to send notes. I had not intended to say anything, and I was encouraged to be public about this for a couple of reasons. One of them was that maybe people would listen, given my modest notoriety. So, I tried to use social media very sparingly to reinforce good practices with regard to social isolation–which, by the way, I think is a peculiar term. Physical isolation is what we’re after, not social isolation.
What you and I are doing right now is a form of social contact that is safe, relative to the virus. So, we’re not isolated from each other. In fact, we’re using a medium which is safe for biological viruses, although not so safe for technical viruses which we still have to deal with.
Cooper: And I am wearing a face mask, just in case.
Cerf: (laughs) Good for you! At the moment, I don’t feel the need to do so because I’m down here sequestered in my basement office. Nobody else comes in here.
Cooper: Another that I’ve found—it has to be somewhat surreal for you, or maybe you’re so deep in the forest you can’t see the trees—but all of what is happening in the world is becoming more and more interconnected, just as we’re doing right now because of the Internet. And if it weren’t partly your history, being your history, I don’t know where we’d be right now if you hadn’t done what you did with helping build it, create it, as we know it today.
Cerf: It’s a very interesting question. How would we communicate? We have other mass media available, television, cable TV, the telephone, radio—by the way, there’s a lot of telephone usage right now. It’s gone up even faster than some of the social media and things like these calls.—That’s important to know. Of course, having mobiles readily available has assisted in the use of the telephone system. So, there would have been other ways to keep people informed. What would not have worked, however, is the ability to work from home or at least a significant fraction of the workforce. Internet has certainly enabled that, to say nothing of schools going online, as imperfect as that might be.
So, I agree with you that some of our response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic has been enabled by Internet. And if we had not had this capability, I think we would have been less able to respond to the situation—admitting that many of the Internet-based responses are still not adequate—But they are surely a step in the right direction. Which leads many of us to speculate that post-COVID-19, our normal lives will have shifted in some way. For example, companies may be more willing to allow people to work from home when that’s convenient. And that might actually be a very beneficial thing for at least some portion of the workforce, giving them flexibility that they might not otherwise have. It might also induce ways of using online capability for education that would enhance or expand the business models of schools and universities. I think the post-pandemic period will be interesting and absolutely worthy of our scrutiny.
But that gets to one other thing, which is most relevant to why you and I are talking, and that is to be more conscious of the importance of accessibility in all dimensions for these online systems. We have still not done well in achieving what I consider to be a very important objective, which is making online capacity usable for everyone, including those who have to overcome various and sundry kinds of disabilities. That challenge lies before us and is just as much a challenge now as it has been in the past.
Cooper: Thank you for mentioning that while we’re talking. As you know, we’ve been dealing with that issue for—this is our third decade in dealing with not only awareness-building about disabilities and accessibility but being ourselves online and creating platforms that are accessible. Speaking about this thing called—what do we call it again? The Internet?
Cooper: You gave me a wonderful response when people sarcastically comment, “I thought Al Gore invented the Internet,” can you share that again?
Cerf: I’d be happy to. First of all, when that comes up in sessions where I’m publicly speaking, my first reaction is, “Well, there’s always some blooming fool who brings that up, and that would be you.” The second point is that first of all, Al Gore deserves real credit for his association with the Internet. First of all, as a senator, he held a hearing in September or fall of 1986, and my colleague Bob Kahn, with whom the Internet design was initially done, spoke at that hearing. He brought up an interesting term, “national information infrastructure.” And at the end of the hearing, Senator Gore said, “Would it make sense to build a fiberoptic network to interconnect the National Science Foundation’s supercomputers—” that were current under construction— “so as to make them available to the 3,000 research universities in the U.S.?”
So, a bunch of us went off to San Diego the following February because San Diego is a better place to be than Washington at that time of year—
Cerf: —and came back with the National Research and Education Network, that proposal, which vice president Gore was an enthusiastic sponsor of.
The second thing that vice president Gore deserves credit for is that during the early phases of Internet deployment, particularly while it was being supported by our research institutions—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA, and DARPA— they had rules that said that no commercial traffic or commercial enterprises were allowed to consume the government-sponsored resources. And what then Vice President Gore helped to pass was legislation that allowed commercial traffic to flow over the government-sponsored backbone. The reason that was very important is that it opened up the opportunity for the private sector to discover the utility of the Internet without necessarily having to build a backbone system, to invest what it would take to do that.
So during the early 1990s, not only did we see commercialization of the network, but we also saw the evolution of companies building applications on the net, beginning with Netscape Communications, for example, browser companies and router companies and Internet service providers. Eventually, as the information propagated significantly on the network in the form of the World Wide Web, we needed search engines like Yahoo! and Google and Bing and others. So the real answer to the question, “What about Al Gore?” is that he absolutely deserves credit for the supporting the Internet’s evolution and its eventual use in the private sector.
Cooper: You were nicer this time because I could have sworn you said, “When stupid people say that to me.” (laughs)
Cooper: You tempered yourself, or maybe you were being more open when you were talking to me in person. I love that story. I love the fact that you can say that, being factual. And the fact that Al Gore was ridiculed for his climate change awareness.
Cerf: Vice president Gore certainly did get some recognition as part of the International Panel on Climate Change and the Nobel Prize, which was given to him and the panel. As you know, he continues to be vocal and energized on the whole problem of warming and our response to it.
Cooper: I’m talking about the deniers of climate change.
Cerf: The situation as it stands today is that people who were climate change deniers may have come round to, “Yes, the climate is changing, but we’re not convinced that it is the consequence of human intervention.” That continues to be a source of debate. Although from my point of view, I think the scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming that we’re doing this to ourselves, and we should start thinking about how to respond, how to mitigate the side effects.
Cooper: Speaking about air pollution, have you seen those images of India that are showing up where because of the lockdown, how clean the air has become?
Cerf: Yes. It’s quite remarkable. I had a personal experience in Pasadena. I grew up in California—not in Pasadena, but in other parts of LA—but back in the days when I was there, in the ’50s and ’60s, Pasadena was notorious for the smog that filled the valley there. In more recent years, California, Los Angeles, and particularly Pasadena have managed to reduce the amount of pollution so that there are often just absolutely fantastic and beautiful days, where the mountains are outlined against the blue sky.
It is possible to demonstrate in a very, I would say, convincing way that reduced use of carbon-emitting automobiles and other vehicles can make a big difference. We’re still producing electricity, and some of it is still produced by coal-fired or natural gas plants. And they contribute to global warming. But it’s pretty clear that the automobile makes a very significant contribution to pollution. This is a pretty dramatic test. It’s a very expensive test, a very painful test, one that I don’t think we would have chosen to undertake. But it is a pretty important demonstration that reduced use of carbon fuels would make a very significant difference.
Cooper: Quick story. I came from New Jersey and went to Cal Poly, living for many months in the foothills of Mount Baldy off of Baseline, if you remember where Baseline is, that street?
Cerf: Yes, indeed!
Cooper: I’m in my house. It’s now wintertime. I go out in the backyard. And I look up and see mountains. I didn’t know there were mountains?!
Cerf: (laughs) Yes!
Cooper: The whole time!
Cerf: “We’re in a valley? I didn’t know that!” Yes!
Cooper: It was one of the most shocking moments, seeing these beautiful mountains. It must have rained and winter was a little bit clearer days back in the day.
Cerf: That is really funny. “Where the hell did these mountains come from? They weren’t here the last time I was here!”
Cooper: (laughs) “Who moved these things?”—I know you’re working at Google, what expertise do you lend—what does your brain do there?
Cerf: (laughs) It’s sort of like, “What have you done for me lately?”
Cerf: I wear a number of hats at Google, thanks to their generous willingness to let me use my time in various ways. I had gone from the research department for some 12 years or so then to policy. And now, most recently, I’m part of the cloud team. In all cases, however, I’ve had a finger in the policy space, specifically policy relating to Internet, how it’s used, how it’s abused, what to do about that. That’s one part.
I am a sponsor of our accessibility efforts at Google and also a sponsor of some of the internal employee groups, interest groups, for example the Disability Alliance, which is a group of employees who either are disabled or who have children or parents who are disabled or who have disabling conditions. Part of the purpose behind that activity is to draw attention to the accommodations that are needed, whether that has to do with accessibility of online systems or making sure, for the blind employees, that there are paths that are clear, that we don’t leave things around for people to trip on. There’s a wide range of responses that the company wants to introduce, but it can only do that if it is made more clear what issues arise and how they can be dealt with.
On the accessibility front, specifically with regard to online things, I am a huge fan of improving the way in which we and others deal with making our online applications usable, particularly for people who have to overcome various and sundry kinds of disabilities, whether they are physical disabilities or cognitive disabilities. It turns out that’s really hard. Figuring out how to do a good design that’s intuitive and that accounts for the needs of people with disabilities is quite a challenge. I think it’s an art. I don’t think that there are textbook solutions to these things, although there are a number of textbooks that speak to design that’s usable and intuitive. I’m a bit proponent there.
I also spend time outside of the role doing things related to Internet policy, for example, the annual Internet governance form or some of the UN and ITU activity. I have been allowed to run a number of nonprofits. One is called The People-Centered Internet, which is focused on how to make the Internet useful for everybody, including people with disabilities. I stepped down from the chairmanship of that organization just at the end of last year.
I’m chairman of the Marconi Society, which has a new initiative on digital inclusion, which gets to the question of how to make sure everyone can make use of online environments. There’s been a special focus of attention in the last couple of years in helping Native Americans get up on the Internet because the tribal lands are so isolated, generally speaking. So, there’s that activity.
I sit on the NASA advisory committee, which provides feedback to the Science Mission Directorate. I sit on the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the group that advises the director of NIST. I used to chair that group a few years ago, and I’m taking a second term on that group. I sit on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is very much engaged in bringing Shakespeare to the online world, bringing computing capability to help us understand and appreciate Shakespeare. I’ll stop there. I could go on and on. But you get the sense of diversity, a great deal of diverse opportunity to engage. And of course, I’m extremely grateful to Google for permitting that much flexibility.
Cooper: Since you’re not busy, I was going to ask you— (laughs)
Cooper: We have a small nonprofit that does big things, and I was thinking of asking—I’m worried to ask you now because of what you just shared—but two new things that we do are internet based. I think I had mentioned to you the ABILITY Job Fair, which Google has been involved—
Cooper: Also we’re building out as we speak, the first pipeline for actors with disabilities for the entertainment industry. The standard response from casting is, “We’d cast more people with disabilities, but we don’t know where to find them.” So, we’re creating that pipeline. If we got more people showing up in television and movies who portray the population of what is out there, then you have a create an attitudinal shift, especially when it comes to employment and socialization. It’s called abilityE.com. It would be wonderful if you would be able to be part of the non-profit in some way.
Cerf: I’m happy to serve as a kind of informal advisor. I’m not prepared to sit formally on a board at this point, just because I have so many other board activities.
Cooper: You don’t have to be formal; you could just be in a regular open shirt.
Cerf: (laughs) I’m happy to do that.
I’d like to draw attention in the last few minutes here to a program called “Grow with Google,” which is all about teaching people how to make use of online environments in order to find remunerative work. For many people with disabilities, the online environment is an opportunity for working, working from home, for example, but only if that online environment is properly configured to provide the right accommodation to make the online environment useful for someone who’s trying to do productive work. That’s another area.
There’s another organization you probably know about called Lime Connect. We have some activities with them as well. And many others where employment is important. For example, there are groups that are focused on getting people with autism work in the computing industry because they often show considerable talent for work in that space. There are all kinds of opportunities, and ABILITY is another one of those places where we can highlight both the opportunity and the utility that people with disabilities can bring.
Please keep me in the loop. I appreciate your good wishes and hope that you avoid this entirely because it’s definitely not something that you want to catch. Just wait for the vaccine as an easier way with dealing with immunity. Take care! Bye for now!