Who Built the Internet? The State! (Part 3)

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.

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

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