Offline A pause in navigation


Sailing in the fog

March 2001

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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This isn’t about “navigating” the web. It’s about the sort of navigation – planning, charting, sailing, steering, reaching, tacking – that a company needs to trace its course in the internet. When I think about this problem as we face it today, it reminds me of an experience I had twenty years ago. I was the skipper of a small sailboat (the one in the picture on this page). At dawn, as we sailed out of a bay in Sardinia, we were in thick fog. For a few hours navigation was difficult.

We had no radar on that little boat. We had a depth-sounder, but it could only tell what was under the boat – not ahead. And after a while charting points were lost; it wasn’t easy to understand exactly where we were, where we may hit a rock in shallow waters, or when we could bump into something floating. We moved slowly and carefully and we got trough safely. But from that experience (and a few others of the same sort) I know that sailing in the fog isn’t easy.

Close to coast the depth is tricky. Out at sea it’s deeper and more predictable – but there are other risks. A large ship may not see us on its radar; and even if they see us they can’t steer fast enough to avoid us if we don’t get out of their way. Or there can be something like that submarine that sunk a Japanese boat off Hawaii.

In the internet it’s quite hazy. Often it’s thick fog. There are no reliable charts or pilot books. The environment is alive and changing – like coral reefs in tropical seas. When we are in open waters there is unpredictable traffic and no shared “right of way” concepts to avoid a collision.

The temptation, in this sort of circumstances, is to stay in port an wait for the fog to lift. But this fog won’t go away with a rising sun or a wisp of wind. It can last for years. If and when it clears, it will be too late.

Another temptation (it’s being done) is to send out crafts and crews that one can afford to waste. Some will hit a rock, or sink, or get lost. But if one finds the Eldorado... That’s the (old) concept of the so-called “new economy”. The results are painfully visible.

A third (and even worse) solution is to landfill. To build “highways” to be used by cars or other land vehicles. But the sea of the net is wide and turbulent. The decaying ruins of those failed attempts are cluttering the shallows and adding to the risks of uncharted waters.

There is only one effective solution. We must learn to sail in the fog. Finding our way, step by step, carefully and patiently. With effective, practical tools and sensitive instruments. Above all, with sound crafts, good crews and sober, clear-minded, alert skippers. It can be done. But it’s very different from the way things have been done so far by hasty, greedy and careless captains, with incompetent crews and absent-minded navigators, bumping into one another and crashing into visible rocks in full, clear daylight.

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