Who Built the Internet? Studly Genius Individuals! (Part 4)

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.

[This is a part of a six part blog on four debates about the origins of the internet. Please see all six posts here.]

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

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