The Internet: Who Built That?! (Part 1)

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

Suddenly in the wake of President Barack Obama’s untimely but ultimately non-fatal but non-optimal grammar, the question of who made what when and how much the government had or had not to do with it was up for debate. Resisting the attacks on all things federal at the tail end of the 2012 US presidential election, President Obama said to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13, 2012:

“The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.”

Dishonestly editing this speech into smug accusations that every small business owner isn’t responsible for their creation, the television and internet video dimension of the pro-business Republican party seized on the moment to produce radio, television, and internet video clips exhibiting President Obama as a big-government braggart and apologist. Linked with his phrase that the private sector is “doing fine,” this statement appeared to show the US President as out of touch with the contributions made by private business to the United States.

The question of who built the internet–big government, big business, the “people,” or a lone genius–was quickly picked-up by the internet hagiographers turned political polemicists. The internet, that technology with a shady past of government, business, peer-to-peer production, and singular brilliance was further politicized as its ontogenesis was topically mined for points across the political spectrum. 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.

In the following five posts I will explore these contentions about the origin of the internet.

Adam Fish

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

One thought on “The Internet: Who Built That?! (Part 1)

  1. Looking forward to seeing what you do with this. Sounds to me like the blind me and the elephant, wither hoof the blind men convinced that he knows the whole truth.

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