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Who built the internet? Rugged individuals or the collaborative citizen?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th January 2013


Dale Carrico alerted me to this important essay:

“Adam Fish helpfully summarizes libertechian, technoprogressive, Great Man, and peer-to-peer narratives of the creation of the internet.”

Adam Fish indeed discusses the issue and an ongoing debate in the U.S. about ‘who’ created the internet. The different theories reflect different political ideologies he concludes.

In this installment, we’ll feature the debate between ‘rugged individualism’, i.e. “I did it” (technoindividualism) vs. “we did it” (technoidealism).

Adam Fish:

* Rugged Individualism

“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.

* Who Built the Internet? We Did!

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 that claims that the internet is an exceptional 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, that the internet is exceptional and capable of provoking post-state and post-capital transformations.”

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