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Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers or: How the Internet Came to Be

The history of Internet is sort of complex, to say the least. With various origins, conflicting historical aims, different accounts about its main contributors, and an eventual emergence that spans distinct, and sometimes opposing, social, cultural, and political contexts, one gets the sense that any discussion of the rise of the Internet as we know it today can only be considered broadly as a product of the proceeding decades. Even so, Rosenzweig (1998) manages to carefully document the variegated accounts of the creation of the Internet from multiple perspectives. One might expect nothing less, given that the Internet, as its name might suggest, grew from the integration of multiple computer networks, each of which had been developed to suit specific objectives its creators. In Rosenzweig’s meta-review, we first encounter ARPANET, which seems to be the primary forerunner of the modern-day Internet. He presents it as emerging during a time of conflict and contradictions. “The rise of the Net needs to be rooted in the 1960s,” writes Rosenzweig “in both the ‘closed world’ of the Cold War and the open and decentralized world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture.” (p. 1531).

These historical contradictions play out over multiple narratives. The accounts of writers such as Hafner and Lyons document of a simple computer problem, while authors Norberg and O’Neil reexamine the accomplishments and success of the enterprising individuals who supported the creation of the Internet by means of groundbreaking inventions. Hafner and Lyons document the origin of the Internet stemming from an initial contract between a computer consulting company and a government agency – the basis of which formed a marriage that resulted in 1966 to a solution to a relative simple problem. This particular problem involved connecting three computer terminals in order to share computer equipment. Further innovations in computing, such as “packet switching” and the use of distributed network, provided an efficient means of transmitting information, and led to greater interest and discoveries of more widespread applications of the technology for the purpose of communication and information sharing. According to Rosenzweig, this retelling of the origins of the Internet seemed peaceful and far removed from the later accounts of its rise. In contrast, Norberg and O’Neil unveil the crucial relationship between military objectives and operations and technological advancements in computer networks. While converging with Hafner and Lyons with respect the early origins of ARPANET, Norberg and O’Neil go further by describing how military operations sustained an interest and a need to develop a consolidated network system, the name from which our modern “Internet” eventually arouse. Whereas the authors of the first account document the universal and pragmatic interest that led to the creation of the first computer network system, the later authors document a parallel world, noting the secrecy and decontextualized nature of covert military objectives and operations that led the financial support of early research in computer networks.

Another account, by that of Edwards, contrasts in other ways from the two previous retellings. A student of Haraway, Edwards, as described by Rosenzweig, seems most conscious of the impact of rise of the Internet on society, and vice verse, and comments that computers led to a “technological construction of social worlds.” According to Edwards, computer systems were developed specifically to suit the political and military objectives of the Cold War, but in turn, also opened up discussion and discourse surrounding the era.

In further contrast to these views, Rosenzweig documents Hauben and Hauben’s populist account of the rise of computer systems. According to Hauben and Hauben, Usenet emerged as an alternative to ARPANET and had a distinct a purpose of disseminating communication amongst anyone competent enough to learn how to navigate the network. Within just a few years since its creation, the use of Usenet seemed to grow almost exponentially. Even before Usenet became widely accessible to many, efforts such as the Community Memory project attempted to decentralize the use of computers systems. These efforts represented the early countercultural movement to shift control of the Internet such that it, and the information that it bore, could become part of a democratic enterprise.

As innovations in computer systems developed at an increasingly fast rate, institutions of research and higher education also changed. Rosenzweig notes the rapid increases in the number of universities with computer science departments, many of which did not initially have access to ARPANET. To meet this increased demand, other networks such as CSNET were formed, to provide connections specifically for the sharing of scholarly resources. In later decades, particularly in the 1980s, Rosenzweig comments on the move towards privatization of the Internet, noting that “the liberationism of the many early computer and network enthusiasts had been transformed into libertarianism. ‘Technolibertarianism’ became one of the central ideologies of the Internet.” (p. 1550). He concludes noting that much of it was privately owned at the time the paper was authored, yet many web users share this “cyber space” with major corporations, and like much these corporations, prominently display aspects of themselves on web pages. A nonphysical space where corporate advertising and personal communication intersect, our relationship to the Internet seems to be as multifaceted and complex as the historical events that shaped it.

 

Provocation

  1. Consider how computer networks were viewed during each successive decade, from the 1960s until the 1990s, the millennial decade, and today. What are the major social, cultural and political contexts that define each era and how have these contributed to and been shaped by the rise of the Internet?
  2. Consider history as told from multiple perspectives. Which accounts of the various authors listed made the greatest impression on you? What aspects of the various historical accounts espoused the most intrigue, skepticism, frustration, etc. for you and why? What conclusions may be drawn from a synthesis across these different perspectives?
  3. Consider the context in which Rosenzweig writes. In this article, which was published in 1998, he writes “While free marketeers today celebrate the Internet as the home of ‘people’s capitalism,’ it also seems headed down the road to oligopoly.” (p. 1551). Is this perspective consistent with modern times? How has the notion of “people’s capital” on the Internet changed? Are we currently living within or headed towards an age when control of the Internet is in the hands of the few?
  4. Consider email. Rosenzweig, quoting Ian Hardy, takes note of “… the medium’s ‘disdain for false formality, its distrust of traditional hierarchy, its time-selfishness, speed, and certainly its ironic juxtaposition of impersonality and emotional directness’ represented a ‘new culture of interaction’ that might not have been so readily possible without […] the ‘informalization’ of culture that the 1960s brought.’” (p. 1552). Given that email, and other forms of instant communication, have likely been an integral yet universally accepted feature of our generation, what is your reaction to this quote? What new forms of communication have emerged over the past decade? How might these new forms of communication technologies both defined and been defined by the era?
  5. Consider the capitalization of the word. It now seems widely acceptable to refer to the “internet” as something that is not a proper noun and therefore does not need to be spelled “Internet.” Discuss the potential implications behind this apparent shift in the conventions of written language.

Citation

Rosenzweig, R. (1998). Wizards, bureaucrats, warriors, and hackers: Writing the history of the Internet. American Historical Review, 1530-1552.