Who Built the Internet? We Did! (Part 5)

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 with its claims that the internet is an exceptional and 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 who say that the internet is exceptional and capable of provoking post-state and post-capital transformations.

[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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