Quasi-Indefatigable Xenolith

Assorted Essays

The Robustness Principle

"Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send" Postel J., (1989) Request for Comment (RFC) 1122, Requirements for Internet Hosts -- Communication Layers, 1.2.2 - Robustness Principle.

There are very few people who have been so wise and productive that I choose to revere them. One of these is the computer scientist Jon Postel, whose list of accomplishments is long. If you are reading this now, you have Jon and a handful of others to thank for the massive "network of networks" that each of us use everyday in our digital communications. Youtube, Netflix, Facebook, and everything else on the Internet owe a great debt of gratitude to Jon and his collegues who concieved, designed, and built the inter-network in the first place.

Most people consider computer science to be pretty esoteric, however I have found that in any field of endeavor, certain principles emerge that, not only explain reality, but guide us to better and wiser ways of being. One of these was identified by Jon Postel and is an underlying concept that makes the Internet work as well as it does - robustness. Used in our everday interactions with others, the principle of robustness would stamp out the forces of censorship and "cancel" culture and allow for more open and effective communication among all.

First off, the principle teaches to never reject a message, no matter how poorly constructed or transmitted. Always try to find some way to derive meaning from all attempts at communication and give a useful response. In computer science, even if a digital packet is mal-formed and doesn't follow standard protocol, the robust listener will attempt to process and act upon it regardless, even if the response can only be an error message. In wider communication, if someone shouts at you in a language and using terms that are not recognized, robust people don't just walk away from the attempt- you somehow signal to them that you don't understand at the very least. Much of effective communication has to do with negotiation upon what terms and methods each party can accept messages. As an example, the best "error messages" are those that attempt to see a sender's intent and offer a suggestion toward better communication - perhaps "I'm confused. Do you mean this?" This is at the heart of the axiom "Be liberal in what you accept..."

When responses are given, it is most useful to be "conservative", which is another way to say to fall back upon established communication standards and protocols. Computer science is loaded with standards (Jon Postel was a heavy promulgator and editor of the RFCs, or the library of internet standards, among so much else) and the most effective and useful communication between computers and devices over networks happens when standard protocols for message transfer are used. A successful "citizen" of the "community" is one who knows and uses the established "language" in standard ways that other citizens readily understand. When a person sends a well-formed message (we call that "conservative" in computer terms), that message is received, understood as widely as possible, and able to be acted up on as the sender intended. A "conservative" response allows communication to flow more freely, efficiently, effectively, and widely - the hallmarks of good interchange.

In the end, the winners are those who are the best communicators, whether that is in technology or more generally in life. We are living in an aberrent moment in time where screaming nonsense with fingers plugging ears seems to be making waves and getting attention. This cannot and will not last long as it is not robust and will not stand up to the tests of time. Those who see some success from disrupting interchange today will find themselves side-lined and practically ignored tomorrow as they lack the understanding of protocols and standards that make effective communication and bring results. What is true of digital network attacks is just as true of constantly shouted slurs - it may make its way into every corner of the globe, but there will be no real change made and you will see the dumping of such messages into what computer scientists call "the bit bucket", or something like the social version of a rubbish bin. Potential listeners will learn to filter or eliminate or ignore such noise and the creators of it as an established response and seek out others who work to establish communication.

Do you want to survive and thrive in any society, technological or social? Take a lesson from Jon Postel and learn how to be robust!