Four Internet Historiographical Ideologies

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 the two next installments, we’ll feature the debate between corporation and state, and between rugged individual and collaborative citizen.

Here are the introduction and conclusion of this important techno-political mapping.

Adam Fish:

Each (side) 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.

Excerpted from the Introduction by Adam Fish:

“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.”


‘So Who Really Did Build the Assemblage which is the Internet?

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.”

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