So Who Really Did Build the Assemblage which is the Internet? (Part 6)

The internet is translative boundary object for political thought, situated between four liberal ideologies about freedom and the state, corporation, individual, and the public. The internet is thus a parallax object, looking different from what ideological perspective one looks at it.

Its clear that Crovitz twisted his story to fit his technolibertarian agenda. Manjoo aligned his more accurate history of the internet in a technoprogressive defense of the president’s wickedly edited non-gaffe. McCracken used a most overused and unconvincing technoindividualistic argument to champion the great white men of internet history. Finally, Johnson put forth the most novel of the historiographical theories, introducing the idea that peer-production is behind the internet, or at least the operating systems that run the computers and apps that access the internet.

Not being a trained internet historian but rather an anthropologist of network culture it seems to me that Johnson is closest to the answer. On the temporal scale of the longue duree, Johnson is most correct. Innovation and increasing social complexity–including states and corporations–is the result of peers acting together through time. On a less grand and more internet-focused scale, Johnson’s concept of peer-production could be the leitmotif for a more accurate depiction of internet history. All that the technoidealistic theory of peer-production needs is a more expansive conception of peers to include not only individuals but states, corporations, and peer networks sharing code and ideals within a matrix of politics, cultural practices, and economics. This is to say that all of the four perspectives are right enough. It was the successful relationships–the networks–between the four actors that should interest us, how institutions and publics collaborate to produce technologies that impact, more or less positively so far, democracy, innovation, and other collaborative acts.

And so at this point we are talking in less journalistic, political, or techno-fundamentalistic terms and more in terms of social anthropology. These historically shifting, technologically enabled, and culturally inflected constellations of theory, politics, technology, and people begin to look less like journalism or political posturing and more like global assemblages. This concept is difficult to explain and more difficult to position in politically rhetorical terms, and so such complexity is missed in these 500 word journalism essays. But describing this complexity and relationality is left to the anthropologists and historians of network culture to articulate.

[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

One thought on “So Who Really Did Build the Assemblage which is the Internet? (Part 6)

  1. First impression, anyone who writes “translative boundary object” needs a copy editor.
    Overall impression, a useful survey of four narratives about the invention of the Internet.
    Conclusion? Disappointing. It seems to me that the four narratives are like the tales told by the blind men who touched different parts of the elephant. Each of them got something right. None of them grasped the whole thing. To favor one account over the others is as partial and politically motivated as any of the four original narratives.

    Also, the notion that dominant symbols—and surely the Internet is a dominant symbol in our times—are polysemic, with a fan of often contradictory meanings that allow for interpretations that vary depending on the interpreter’s social position is not news to anyone who was brought up on Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity or V. Turner’s Forest of Symbols.

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