Internet – History

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Discussion: Who Built the Internet

“Adam Fish helpfully summarizes libertechian, technoprogressive, Great Man, and peer-to-peer narratives of the creation of the internet.” [1]

Adam Fish:

“This battle over who made the internet—the US Pentagon at ARPA; Xerox and Apple; the volunteer bevy of open source coders; “founder father” network engineers Barran at Rand visualizing packet-switching, Cerf at ARPA engineering TCP/IP, Berners-Lee at CERN developing HTML, or Andreessen at the U of Illinois and Mosaic—spread across four camps each with their own classically liberal belief system regarding internet freedom, the role of the state, the legitimacy of business, the collective vibrancy of organizing without organizations, the sheer wit of gifted individuals, or the ideal confluence of state/business/citizenry/scientists.

Soon after the ruthless edits hit internet video sites, four arguments emerged about who really made the internet. L. Gordon Crovitz at the Wall Street Journal started the polemic by going against the accepted wisdom and saying that President Obama was wrong, it was Xerox PARC, and therefore corporations which made the internet. Farhad Manjoo of Slate rebutted that the President was correct, Crovitz’s facts were not facts at all, and the state did fund and support what became the internet. Harry McCracken of Time added to the debate by bringing back an old idea that never gets old in technology journalism, that it wasn’t the state nor corporations, but brilliant individuals who should be thanked for the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson writing in the New York Times said it wasn’t states, corporations, nor smart individuals but Us, namely a public of open source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the internet.

Each make impressive claims but my point is to consider these statements as ideologies that reveal as they attempt to conceal political persuasions in historical revisions. These four internet historiographical ideologies can be traced back to classical Western liberalism and its emphasis on freedom of the corporation (technolibertarianism), the state in securing and defending freedom and citizen responsibility (technoprogressivism),the rugged individual unencumbered by tradition (technoindividualism), and the collaborative citizen public (technoidealism). This overview of internet historiographical revisionism illustrates how technology gets enculturated—technologies are already always enculturated—but an extra-palimpsest of ideology is spread across the internet history by these four positions.

The Corporations

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncraticallydeclared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet.

However, Ethernet connects computers to computers, not computer networks to computer networks like APRAnet. Ethernet was invented at a corporation, Xerox PARC, where Robert Taylor was working after developing APRAnet for the US federal government. Thus, it was not the US federals but private business, namely Xerox PARC with a later incarnation of Taylor, that came up with what became the internet. The government? “Bureaucrats,” according to Crovitz, harassed Xerox PARC’s engineers.

Crovitz positions media corporations as responsible for and the rightful heirs of the internet. This is technolibertarianism, the belief that private individuals with unfettered access to technologies working out their negative liberties and economic self-interest is not only legal and just brings about economic prosperity for the most. Technolibertarianism is most vigorously defended and self-labelled by the Technology Liberation Front (TFL), a blogging think tank with connections to the best funded conservative think tanks: Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Reason Foundation, TechFreedom, Mercatus Center and other bastions of neoliberal information policy construction, debate, and propagation. Adam Thierer who at FTL is the primary chronicler of technolibertarian self-referentiality calls Crovitz his “favorite technology policy columnist,” couldn’t come to his mentor’s defence on this experimental revamping of internet history around a privately employed Taylor, Ethernet, and PARC but he has much to say about technolibertarianism.

“Cyber-libertarians believe true “Internet freedom” is freedom from state action; not freedom for the State to reorder our affairs to supposedly make certain people or groups better off or to improve some amorphous “public interest”—an all-to convenient facade behind which unaccountable elites can impose their will on the rest of us.” Adam Thierer Crovitz is attempting to reengineer the history of the internet in order to have an origin story more in line with the technolibertarianism advanced by Thierer. If the internet is not made by the state then the state has no right to manage it. If it is made by corporations then corporations are the rightful heirs to the internet. In the following posts I will introduce how another depiction of the origin of the internet carries its own ideology despite its historical accuracy.

The State

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal—advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front.

The most compelling argument made by Manjoo is a reminder that it was Barran’s packet-switching technologies, the capacity to split-up data, attaching routing directions, send the data, and reconstitute it elsewhere, which is the basis of the internet today and was first put into practice in the US federal government’s ARPAnet. Manjoo explained, “In tech, no one does anything on his own. … in the tech industry, it takes a village.”

Manjoo critiqued Crovitz’s conflation of the internet and the world wide web, his ignorance that Vint Cerf was a federal employee as was his co-creator of TCP/IP Robert Kahn an employee of the Defense Department, his misunderstanding that the Ethernet connects computers to a single not a multiple internetwork, and his mistake in not recognizing that packet-switching technology was developed at RAND, a government funded think tank.

He goes onto defend the role of government in technology saying that it wasn’t bureaucrats who stymied the roll-out of the internet but rather AT&T who rejected Paul Barran’s idea of packet-switching technologies running on their phone lines. Manjoo states, “And that’s why the task fell to the federal government—the Defense Department had to create the Internet because private enterprise refused to.” He concludes: “The Internet, the Web, the microprocessor, GPS, batteries, the electric grid—if you’ve built a thriving company that depends on any of these things, you didn’t get there on your own. Or, as the president once said ‘You didn’t build that.’” Manjoo’s discourse on the origins of the internet can be conceptualized as technoprogressive, aligned as it is with the historical and present US progressive movement, social liberalism, and social Democrats. This view acknowledges the role of the state in funding technology and science while addressing the shared costs and responsibilities of a state-supported networked society. Technoprogress has been theorized by Douglas Rushkoff, Donna Haraway, Mark Dery, James Hughes in the form of “democratic transhumanism,” and Dale Carrico. Hughes and Carrico, for instance, have been affiliated with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, which forms the technoprogressive answer to the Technology Liberation Front’s technolibertarianism. Carrico says that technoprogressivism “assumes that technoscientific developments can be empowering and emancipatory so long as they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities.” Manjoo, and President Obama before him, embodied technoprogressivism by claiming that it was the democratic and regulatory mechanisms, not to mention the US federal funding, that made the internet possible.

Rugged Individuals

Thus far Crovitz’s and Manjoo’s positions are located within modernist historiographical and liberal conceptions over the battles of freedom, with network technology as a proxy battlefield, and the role of states and corporations as extenders or inhibitors of those freedoms. The third leg of this modernist battle has to be initiated by the sole genius and his impact on the development of the internet. Harry McCracken, Time Magazine’s tech writer, further developed Manjoo’s takedown of Crovitz of a day earlier. McCracken added that the element that both Manjoo and Crovitz missed was the role of “gifted individuals” in the development of the internet, the web, and web browsers. To get a taste of his approach he begins by calling ARPA director Bob Taylor a “visionary.” He then goes onto populate his text with the great men of internet history: Vint Cerf as inventor of TCP/IP (and also a federal employee at ARPA), Douglas Englebart, the inventor of the mouse and hypertext, Ted Nelson the correct father of the term “hyperlink” not Tim Berners-Lee as Crovitz claimed, and Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, the inventors of Mosaic, the first graphical browser, and students at the state-run University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. McCracken concludes by saying “in the end, everything is invented by individuals.” These “visionary” and “gifted” individuals who invent “everything” are within both state and private financed institutions and are the real inventors of the internet. McCracken’s “great white man theory of history” was first popularized by 19th century Scottish author Thomas Carlyle and debunked by anthropologists and their precursors, including Herbert Spencer surprisingly, but its persistence in these instances of internet historiographical revisionism illustrates how liberal discourses of the potency of male individualism continue to articulate with origins stories of the erection of networked technology.

What McCracken expresses is what I’ll call technoindividualism, a negative liberal theory of individual self-empowerment galvanized by networked technology, eventually triumphant despite the stifling oppressions of state regulation, consumers with temporary bad taste, and the ignorance of little-minded CEOs. Technoindividualism meshes with the technolibertarianism expressed by Crovitz and the Technology Liberation Front in that each concept emerges from a belief in technological entrepreneurial exceptionalism. The theory goes: some people just have the preternatural gift of understanding the supernatural internet and all of the rest of us consumers get the honour of relishing their work.

Technoindividualism is often perpetuated by lazy technology journalists, ambitious venture capitalists, and corporate boards with the hopes of creating hype and investment bubbles around their metaphysically genius producers and sublime products. Personality traits of Mosaic/Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, Steve Jobs, and the recent drug and murder escapades of anti-computer virus entrepreneur John McAfee have all been highlighted for their technoindividualism in braving the Wild West to manifest their dreams of intuitive technology.

Who Built the Internet? We Did!

In 2006, according to Time Magazine, the theory of technoindividualism “took a serious beating.” In electing You to the position of the Person of the Year, Time prophesized the fourth discourse of internet historiographical revisionism following President Obama’s statement. It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson claimed in the New York Times, but Us who built the internet.

In the article, “The Internet? We Built That,” Johnson says Crovitz, Manjoo, and McCracken are wrong, asking and answering the simplistic question: “So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital?” According to Johnson, “The answer is: Neither.” The internet was the creation of “networks of peers…decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world.” It was the much celebrated free and open source volunteers who built the internet, which I guess, is like Us only with a lot more coding competency and free time than most of Us. To support this claim, Johnson has to veer away from the specific technologies of the internet (packet switching, TCP/IP, HTML) to discuss the open source origins of the Linux operating system, UNIX kernel, and Apache software—systems, platforms, and software on which most government and corporate internet-based work now depends. Johnson’s argument is more about the appliances and applications we use to access the internet and therefore has an easier job making his point. But my point is not to choose who is correct but to map the discursive and classically liberal space of internet historiographical revisionism.

Johnson argues against McCracken’s great men of internet history thesis saying, “we have an endless supply of folklore about heroic entrepreneurs.” Instead he addresses the tropes of the previous accounts by stating that each internet revisionist draws from a known genre of storytelling. What “we lack” are “master narratives of creative collaboration.” In a brief attempt to write a draft towards that end, Johnson invites us to access the open source “success stories that prove convincingly that you don’t need bureaucracies to facilitate public collaboration, and you don’t need the private sector to innovate.” In Johnson’s argument, decentralized peer-to-peer networks have qualities particularly conditioned for the fast-paced and disruptive evolution of consumer networked technology. “Peer networks” he says “don’t suffer from the sclerosis of government bureaucracies.” In this, following Yochai Benkler, Johnson claims that a new form of social organizing has emerged of which peer-production is the leading edge.

This final genre of internet historiographical revisionism is technoidealism that claims that the internet is an exceptional novel technology that is revealing the emergence of both post-state and post-corporate social formations. Scholars like Benkler, Sara Schoonmaker, and Christopher Kelty share some of this hopefulness about a “reorientation of knowledge and power” brought about or exhibited by the network of networks.

Like each of these discourses, technoidealism exists on a spectrum. On one end of the technoidealist spectrum is technoutopianism, an extreme form of internet-exceptionalism and technodeterminism highlighted by Kevin Kelly, linked to the life-extension fantasies of transhumanism and Ray Kurzweil, and other claims that the internet is an early example of the singularity, a metaphor for teleological progress to a point of bio-information synthesis. On the other end of the technoidealism spectrum are much more tamed versions of technopragmatism emerging from grounded research with peer-producers, free software activists, and open source coders. The scholars investigating these cultural iterations tend to articulate the emic perspective of their informants, that the internet is exceptional and capable of provoking post-state and post-capital transformations.

So Who Really Did Build the Assemblage which is the Internet?

The internet is translative boundary object for political thought, situated between four liberal ideologies about freedom and the state, corporation, individual, and the public. The internet is thus a parallax object, looking different from what ideological perspective one looks at it.

Its clear that Crovitz twisted his story to fit his technolibertarian agenda. Manjoo aligned his more accurate history of the internet in a technoprogressive defense of the president’s wickedly edited non-gaffe. McCracken used a most overused and unconvincing technoindividualistic argument to champion the great white men of internet history. Finally, Johnson put forth the most novel of the historiographical theories, introducing the idea that peer-production is behind the internet, or at least the operating systems that run the computers and apps that access the internet.

Not being a trained internet historian but rather an anthropologist of network culture it seems to me that Johnson is closest to the answer. On the temporal scale of the longue duree, Johnson is most correct.

Innovation and increasing social complexity—including states and corporations—is the result of peers acting together through time. On a less grand and more internet-focused scale, Johnson’s concept of peer-production could be the leitmotif for a more accurate depiction of internet history. All that the technoidealistic theory of peer-production needs is a more expansive conception of peers to include not only individuals but states, corporations, and peer networks sharing code and ideals within a matrix of politics, cultural practices, and economics. This is to say that all of the four perspectives are right enough. It was the successful relationships—the networks—between the four actors that should interest us, how institutions and publics collaborate to produce technologies that impact, more or less positively so far, democracy, innovation, and other collaborative acts.

And so at this point we are talking in less journalistic, political, or techno-fundamentalistic terms and more in terms of social anthropology. These historically shifting, technologically enabled, and culturally inflected constellations of theory, politics, technology, and people begin to look less like journalism or political posturing and more like global assemblages. This concept is difficult to explain and more difficult to position in politically rhetorical terms, and so such complexity is missed in these 500 word journalism essays. But describing this complexity and relationality is left to the anthropologists and historians of network culture to articulate.” (