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Here's a 911 call that's better left unanswered

From The Boston Globe
October 27, 2002

By D.C. Denison, Globe Staff

Pro-failure advocates are not easy to find. There's no status in advocating for tossing in the towel, raising the white flag, giving up. We'd much rather hear steely Ed Harris/Mission Control types declare ''failure is not an option.''

Yet early last week, no less than 44 Internet analysts and business executives signed a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, urging him not only to let the current telecommunications industry fail, but to let it ''fail fast.''

Specifically, the letter referred to recent FCC hearings in Washington on the telecom crisis in which several speakers suggested various mechanisms that should be deployed to help the telecommunications industry ''recover.''

''That's what got me,'' said the author of the letter, David Isenberg, a telecommunications consultant and former member of the technical staff at AT&T's Bell Labs. ''The current situation is not about `industry recovery,' it's about `industry transformation,' and the sooner we realize that the better.''

In Isenberg's view, the end-to-end networking that the Internet provides is far superior to the ''circuit-based telephony'' that lies at the heart of today's troubled telephone industry. That's debatable, of course, but Isenberg's response was novel. Instead of another white paper, he drafted a letter to the FCC with a simple message: Do not resuscitate.

Reading the letter, I sensed the ghostly presence of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist who died more than 50 years ago. Isenberg confirmed his influence.

''I think all of us are fans of `creative destruction,''' he said, referring to Schumpeter's most famous theory, which describes a process in which innovations sweep away obsolete products and production methods. Those innovations and the companies built on them, in turn, are eventually destroyed by newer and more efficient advances. According to Schumpeter, this process is intrinsic - even desirable - to capitalism.

Isenberg, a telecom veteran, has obviously seen plenty of cases where the battle went the other way and the status quo triumphed over innovation.

''I've seen the telecommunications industry make some of the same mistakes for 50 years,'' he said. ''How about picture phones? They were introduced at the 1964 World's Fair, and they are still trying to roll them out.''

The Internet's harsh culture is more to Isenberg's taste.

''The whole Internet is about launching hare-brained schemes and letting them fail,'' he said. ''Originally the Internet itself was designed to transfer files: FTP. That pretty much failed. E-mail and the Web only came along later.''

Although the tone of Isenberg's letter is over-the-top provocative, some of the signers are surprisingly articulate in defense of fast failure.

''There are usually benefits to failing slowly, because most of the time you don't know that you're going to fail,'' said Boston-area author David Weinberger. ''But in the case of the telecommunications industry, it seems as if the end is inevitable and something better is being held back. In that case, fast failure is the ideal.''

Futurist Paul Saffo, also a letter signer, has written an entire essay in praise of failure, in which he claims that ''the Silicon Valley of today is built less atop the spires of earlier triumphs than upon the rubble of earlier debacles.''

Asked whether he expected FCC chairman Powell to act on the letter's recommendation, however, Isenberg expressed few illusions.

''I think he'll do what is politically expedient,'' he said. ''But he won't write off what we did.''

Isenberg's instincts are probably correct. Compared to the persuasive power that can be marshalled by the likes of AT&T, Verizon, WorldCom, and Sprint, a slightly over-the-top letter from a bunch of idealistic netheads probably won't carry much weight.

But it's nice to know that somewhere amid all that lobbying din, a few activists are advocating for the idea that failure is an option.

D.C. Denison can be reached at


Date last modified: 31 October 2002