When Vint Cerf was 15 years old, he abandoned his cello and bow for a keyboard and computer. That was in the late 1950s. By 1997, when President Bill Clinton awarded him the U.S. National Medal of Technology, Cerf was being called the “Father of the Internet.” Along with Robert E. Kahn, he is responsible for designing the Internet’s basic architecture, which allows us to move and secure data around the world.
Now 71 and nowhere near retiring, Cerf is working on what he calls the Interplanetary Internet: a computer network for space. He also is vice president and “Chief Internet Evangelist” for Google. He received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush in 2005 and was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. He recently took a phone call — through his computer, of course — to talk with The Post about the Internet, his life and aging.
Your job title is Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist. What’s that mean?
When I joined Google, they asked me what title I wanted. I said, “What about archduke?” They said, “Well, that didn’t meet our nomenclature. Why don’t you be our Chief Internet Evangelist?” This was in 2005.
For 30 years I have been doing everything I could to get more Internet around the world. It wasn’t a bad title. It translates into a substantial amount of travel and lots of policy matters.
Internet and government is Topic A in every nation, all around the world. There is the question of getting the Internet built. That involves persuading government to have regulatory policies. It involves new technology to bring the Internet to rural places.
Does the Internet ever confound you?
I am not necessarily a user of every widget that comes along. But I am an avid mobile phone user. I have Google Glasses, although that’s still in its infancy in terms of application. I don’t find myself overwhelmed with things like Facebook. I have a Twitter account, a Facebook account and a Google+ account. I tend to use the Google+ account more, not because I am an employee but because it provides collaborative tools I find useful.
I am a little mystified with people who get carried away with some of the social networking activity. But since I was in at the beginning at the design of the Internet, I am not confounded by it.
I am finding it harder and harder to find ways to help people figure out what to do about the abuses that show up on the network. There is bullying and all kinds of surprising things because of what people share.
Sorting through what social conventions we ought to adopt for the Internet is a pretty tricky and complicated topic. I think we are just going to live through a lot of these issues until we discover what social norms make sense.
How much time do you spend each day on the Internet?
Most of my news I get off the Internet. I subscribe to the online editions of the New York Times and Washington Post and so on. I do spend many, many hours a day online because the context is helpful. If I am writing a document, being able to Google a fact is second nature now. Even on a call like this, if I am asked a question, I might need context so I might go on the net. I am online a lot of the time.
In terms of entertainment, I am pretty much an on-demand guy. We make heavy use of Netflix, the streaming and DVDs. I am a big fan of “Downton Abbey,” so we make use of the net to watch that from England.
Music, not so much. I buy music on iTunes. I am not an iPod user. I haven’t felt the need [to use Spotify or Pandora]. I am a classicist, it turns out. The music after the 1850s, I have no interest. Most of that is readily available.
That’s interesting. You are such a modern man, except when it comes to music.
I also wear a three-piece suit, which went out of style in 1921, although it’s coming back in fashion, believe it or not.
Why do you wear a three-piece suit?
When I was at Stanford University running the Internet research program for the Defense Department, I was invited to come to Washington, D.C., to run the program from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. My wife said in 1976, “If you are going to Washington, you have to have a three-piece suit.” She went off to buy three-piece suits at Saks Fifth Avenue.
So I showed up in the middle of August with my suits. One was a seersucker suit because it was hot and muggy there. A few weeks later, I was called into the director’s office at Harvard to talk about my testimony and thought, “Oh, God, did I say something wrong?”
He said, “I got a nice response from the committee. They appreciated your testimony. And they said you were the best-dressed engineer from America they’ve seen.”
How useful is the Internet for older people?
I’m 71, so I count as older people. In a session I did with AARP, I began with a slide that said, “If you think older people don’t know how to use the Internet, we invented it.”
Some of the applications are hard to use because some of the people didn’t grow up with the stuff. They don’t have good simple, cartoonlike models of how it should work, what to do when something doesn’t work or where to go for help. We owe it to people who are not familiar with the technology to make it as easy as possible to use.
I think there is enormous potential. The ability to connect to friends, who are contemporary and remember the same movies and news and music and so on, is really important, especially as people get older. They end up in retirement homes and they aren’t always close to their friends. Allowing the network to help you connect with friends and family is a really powerful thing.
Have your family members aged well with the Internet?
My wife is an avid user of the Internet, although it took me years to get her to use e-mail. She was born with normal hearing, but lost it when she was 3. She was profoundly deaf for many years, until age 53, when she got ear implants. They work really well. That is a big change for her. But before then, her friends couldn’t call her on the phone, so they insisted she use e-mail to communicate with them.
Our two sons are in the film production business. We stay in touch with them, more or less, by exchanging e-mails and photographs when we’re not able to have a videoconference or visit face to face.
I stay in touch with a very large group of friends around the world by means of e-mail. For me, it is an incredibly powerful tool. I was able to get my mother online; she’s now 98, but for a while she was a moderate user in her 70s and early 80s.
Is there an “age gap” with the Internet?
The younger people don’t even think of this as technology. It’s just there, and they use it.
There’s been a very interesting change in communications styles between older people and young people. A woman named Sherry Turkle at MIT wrote about this phenomenon. There are some kids who are now in their teens and are tending not to make phone calls. And they think of e-mail as old-fashioned and slow.
What’s interesting is they don’t like phone calls and the reason seems to be they don’t know what to say. There’s this moment in the conversation when there’s a pause. You don’t know what to say, and there’s this silence. For these young people, silence is embarrassing and awkward. On the other hand, texting is considered proper, and it’s okay if you don’t answer. You might have been distracted. It’s not considered rude. But it is considered odd if you’re in this kind of voice conversation and simply stop talking.
Are you surprised by what’s on the Internet now?
A little bit. There’s a certain degree of ego — that’s the wrong word here — there’s a desire to be visible, to be known and liked [among those who are online]. Facebook and Twitter and so on give a means for becoming visible. I didn’t want to use the word “expose” because that has all kinds of connotations. [But] to become visible in a community is a kind of positive feedback. A YouTube video that goes viral, for example, is often a positive feedback experience.
It can also be a very negative feedback experience. Bullying is a good example of that. This is a natural social instinct to want to be gregarious, to be known and liked in a community. But it has a downside.
Has the Internet developed in ways you didn’t imagine?
The honest answer? We could not have imagined everything that happened.
Looking back, do you feel as creative now as when you were younger?
I don’t know, I probably feel less creative than I was in the past, partially because I am less able to implement with my own hands. I don’t write code much anymore. That makes me feel less capable and creative. I am just as enthusiastic about other people doing it. I get a vicarious charge out of encouraging someone to do something they are capable of.
Why aren’t you writing code anymore? Is that something people age out of?
I spend a great deal of time doing what is called design. I do a lot of architecture. I explain how things can work and how things could be put together. But I have to rely on other people to do implementation that reflect those designs.
My hands are fine. I type a lot. That’s not the problem. It’s just having the time to write code. Writing software is a very intense, very personal thing. You have to have time to work your way through it, to understand it. Then debug it. I just don’t have the time, given the array of responsibilities to write code.
Looking back, what do you regret?
Inside every 71-year-old is a 17-year-old wondering what happened.
One [regret] is stopping cello lessons when I got completely mesmerized by computers. I really regret that now. It’s such a magnificent instrument.
When I was 15, and I had been studying cello for a few years, five or six, I was taken to a master’s class with Pablo Casals at UC-Berkeley. I still have his autograph. It was that same year that my father took me to see a system called SAGE, which stood for semi-automated ground environment, a tube-based computer that was used for radar tracking to detect Russian bombers coming from the North Pole.
I was completely fascinated that you could make computers do things like this. I diverted off into computers. By 1960, I pretty much abandoned the cello in favor of a computer keyboard.
I envy the ones who didn’t give it up. The ability to produce music has got to be more satisfying than producing good code. When you play in a group, there is something really intense, special and intimate about producing music.
Hambleton writes frequently on health and aging for The Post. This interview has been edited down for length.