The Enernet

author: Robert Metcalfe, Polaris Venture Partners
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: March 2008,   views: 2618

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One of telecom’s living legends, Robert Metcalfe, has signed on to MIT’s Energy Initiative, and gone about mining the history of the Internet for lessons on how to solve the energy crisis. He promises to disappoint those expecting “consensus science,” and indeed shares his strong opinions on MIT’s campus-wide work on energy solutions.

Metcalfe reminds his audience of the importance of reviewing the past, both to avoid mistakes and to consolidate knowledge that might prove useful in the future. Metcalfe notes how industry’s early push to make bigger computers led to a dead end, and the triumph of Silicon Valley over Route 128. Metcalfe sees analogies in the current enthusiasm for energy solutions that don’t seem promising to him. Some enterprises pursue “clean” technology, says Metcalfe, but they omit “cheap,” and “you can’t get away with that.” So-called green technology comes with “a lot of baggage” -- the feel of “Luddism, anti-globalism, anti-corporate everything,” says Metcalfe.

Metcalfe believes genuine efforts at innovation run up against the status quo, as he experienced when demonstrating packet switching to mocking AT&T executives in the 1970s. He warns bold energy innovators that there are “pretty nasty people out there who won’t welcome your technological developments.”

Metcalfe candidly shares his disagreements with MIT’s Energy Initiative for its focus on tackling climate change and CO2 emissions, its emphasis on conservation, discouragement of nuclear power and enthusiasm for building public awareness and big policy changes.

Metcalfe states boldly, “The climate change problem is going to get solved really quickly.” But once we’re done, we are still left with an energy problem. He scoffs at policy people who rush to Washington, and points at corn ethanol as a typical massive policy failure. Metcalfe faults MIT for pushing only scale technologies, noting that this approach risks setting too high a hurdle or even aborting small-scale innovations that might prove themselves. And he remarks that the evolution of the Internet features many surprises, even astonishing developments, including optic fibers and his own Ethernet. Those in search of clean, cheap energy should expect and welcome the unexpected. “I told the Energy Initiative, spend less time telling us there are no silver bullets, and more time finding the damn silver bullets.”

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