Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors & Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet
This article was originally published in American Historical Review 103, 5 (December 1998): 1530-52 and is reprinted here with permission.
Take a look at the standard textbooks on post-World War II America. You will search in vain through the index for references to the Internet or its predecessor, the ARPANET; even mentions of "computers" are few and far between. The gap is hardly a unique fault of these authors; after all, before 1988, the New York Times mentioned the Internet only once– in a brief aside. Still, it is a fair guess that the textbooks of the next century will devote considerable attention to the Internet and the larger changes in information and communications technology that have emerged so dramatically in recent years. Few will share Wired publisher Louis Rossetto's hyperbolic claim that the digital revolution presages "social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.1" But most historians will feel compelled to reckon with the Internet's emergence as a standard feature of everyday life.
How will that history be written? Four recent works offer some clues by addressing the history of the Internet from different perspectives (biographic, bureaucratic, ideological, and social) and considering different sources for the "creation" of the internet–from inventive engineers and solid government bureaucrats to the broader social context of the Cold War or the 1960s. Although the Internet may be heralded as an entirely novel development, its historians have generally followed some well-worn paths in the history of technology. These conventional approaches are often illuminating, but the full story will only be told when we get a history that brings together biographical and institutional studies with a fully contextualized social and cultural history. The rise of the Net needs to be rooted in the 1960s–in both the "closed world" of the Cold War and the open and decentralized world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture. Understanding this dual heritage enables us to better understand current controversies over whether the Internet will be "open" or "closed"– over whether the Net will foster democratic dialogue or centralized hierarchy, community or capitalism, or some mixture of both.
"Contextualist" approaches have long dominated academic studies of the history of technology, but narratives of "great men" of science and technology remain popular, deriving their power from widespread assumptions about new ideas emerging from particular men of genius as well as from the narrative appeal of biography.2 The title of Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's well-written and extensively researched work of popular history "Where the Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet," neatly inscribes the book's great man approach. So does the dust jacket, which promises "the fascinating story of a group of young computer whizzes . . . who . . . invented the most important communications medium since the telephone."3
Hafner and Lyon begin their tale of "origins
1Quoted in David Hudson, Rewired: A Brief and Opinionated Net History (Indianapolis, 1997), 7. I checked the indexes of following seven books for references to "ARPA," "ARPANET," "computer," "IBM," or "Internet," and only found references to computers (but not the Internet) in the Schaller volume: William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (New York, 1995); Otis L. Graham, Jr., A Limited Bounty: The United States Since World War II (New York, 1996); George Donelson Moss, Moving On: The American People Since 1945 (Englewood Cliffs, 1994); Frederick F. Siegel, Troubled Journey: From Pearl Harbor to Ronald Reagan (New York, 1984); Joseph Siracusa, The Changing of America: 1945 to Present (Arlington Heights, 1986); Michael Schaller, Virginia Scharff, Robert Schulzinger, Present Tense: The United States Since 1945 (Boston, 1992); Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (Indianapolis, 1973). For pre-1988 coverage, see David Burnham, "Reagan Seeks Drive to Raise Productivity of U.S. Agencies," New York Times February 20, 1985, A18. The Internet got its first real notice in the mainstream media in November 1988 when Robert Morris's "virus" temporarily shut it down: John Markoff, "Author of Computer 'Virus' Is Son Of N.S.A. Expert on Data Security," New York Times, November 5, 1988, A1. For a perceptive counter to the utopian language that often surrounds discussions of the Internet, see Phil Philip E. Agre, "Yesterday's Tomorrow," (1998), available at: http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/tls.html (a slightly different version was also published in the Times Literary Supplement).
2For reviews of the historiography, see, for example, John M. Staudenmaier, Technology's Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric (Cambridge, 1985), which argues that at least half the articles in Technology and Culture's first two decades of publication take a "contextual" approach, and Stephen H. Cutliffe and Robert C. Post, eds., In Context: History and the History of Technology: Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg (Bethlehem, 1989). For a perceptive overview of writing in computer history, see Michael S. Mahoney, "The History of Computing in the History of Technology," Annals of the History of Computing 10.2 (1988): 113-25.
3Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where the Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (New York, 1996).
4BBN did not, however, exercise any control over the actual book. I have used the abbreviation ARPA throughout this essay, but, in fact, it later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and in 1993, it became ARPA again. A key initial focus of ARPA was space, but that work was soon spun off into NASA.
5 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 12-13, 42.
6 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 44, 25, 74, 92, 102; Peter H. Salus, Casting the Net: From ARPANET to Internet and Beyond (Reading, 1995), 34.
7Bruce Sterling "A Brief History of the Internet," The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1993), but found on-line at http://www.forthnet.gr/forthnet/isoc/short.history.of.internet. This account is also conventionally given (albeit sometimes in garbled form) in the many technical manuals on the Internet. See, for example, The Internet Unleashed, 1996 (Indianapolis, 1995), 10, which begins its history of the Net with the heading: "From the Cold War–A Hot Network."
8 On Davies work, see Martin Campbell-Kelly, "Data Communications at the National Physical Laboratory (1965-1975)," Annals of the History of Computing, 9 (1988): 221-47.
9 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 56. On Rand and Herman Kahn, see Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York, 1983), 220-31.
10 Quoted in Arthur L. Norberg and Judy O'Neill with contributions by Kerry J. Freedman, Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962-1986 (Baltimore, 1996), 166. According to Taylor, he was initially unaware of Baran's work, but Janet Abbate points out that "Baran's ideas quickly entered networking discourse and practice" and that Baran "discussed his ideas with many computing and communications experts and his report was widely read by others." Janet Abbate, "From Arpanet to Internet: A History of Arpa-Sponsored Computer Networks, 1966-1988," Ph.D. Thesis, Univ. of Penn., 1994, 27.
11Hafner and Lyon, Where, 79-80.
12 Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray offer a very good, but brief, version of this analysis in Computer: A History of the Information Machine (New York, 1996), 283-94.
13 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 176.
14 Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, vii. In 1986 IPTO was restructured and became the Information Science and Technology Office.
15 Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 6, 14, 25, 66.
16 The office was, in fact, initially called the Command and Control division.
17 Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 12, 29. Still, there is difficult problem here of sorting out rhetoric from reality. Abbate maintains that "the agency's disavowal of basic research was more rhetorical than real" and that while "resulting technologies often became part of the military command and control system, the defense rationale may have come after the fact." "From Arpanet," 77.
18 Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 163, 193. They also trace back the networking experiment to Licklider's desire to foster "community" among the researchers funded by ARPA (154). This point is particularly stressed in Judy O'Neill, "The Role of ARPA in the Development of the ARPANET, 1961-1972," Annals in the History of Computing, 17 (1995): 76-81.
19 In 1969, for example, Congress passed a rider–the Mansfield Amendment–to the military reauthorization bill that mandated that "None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used to carry out any research project or study unless such project or study has a direct or apparent relationship to a specific military function or operations." Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 36.
20 For Robert Kahn's relationship to Herman, see "An Interview with Robert E. Kahn," conducted by Judy O'Neill, 24 April 1990, Reston, Virginia, Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Processing University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
21 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 223.
22Hafner and Lyon, Where, 251, 258.
23Salus, Casting the Net, 126.
24Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 20.
25Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, 1996), xv. John Staudenmaier notes the importance for historians of technology of a "master narrative" that offers a "whig reading of Western technological evolution as inevitable and autonomous." He also observes a generational divide in which younger scholars have "argued for a reading of the sometimes technically irrational dimensions of technological decision making as politically or culturally motivated and of the concept of progress in particular as a conceptual tool that helps technical elites to dominate their inferiors." Although Edwards's work is more influenced by Foucault and cultural studies than by the history of technology, his book clearly fits with those emphasizing the "dark side" of technology. "Recent Trends in the History of Technology," American Historical Review 95 (June 1990): 725. For an essay urging historians of technology to decenter or abandon "progress as a conceptual pivot for research," see Philip Scranton, "Determinism and Indeterminancy in the History of Technology," in Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds., Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism(Cambridge, 1994), 148.
26 A considerable portion of Edwards's book deals with developments in artificial intelligence and what he calls the "cyborg discourse," which I have not discussed here.
27 Edwards, Closed World, ix, 7, 34, 41. For the social constructivist approach, see, for example, Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, 1995). For a sharp critique, see Langdon Winner, "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology," Science, Technology and Human Values 18 (Summer 1993): 362-78. Abbate describes social constructionism and systems theory as the key influences on her work. "From ARPANET," 7.
28 For a general discussion of the centrality of military funding to post-war American science and technology, see Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York, 1993). See also such works as Everett Mendelsohn, Merritt Roe Smith, and Peter Weingart, Science, Technology, and the Military (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1988); David Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Automation (New York, 1984); Merritt Roe Smith, ed., Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience (Cambridge, 1985); Ann Markusen ,et al., The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York, 1991), and the issue of Osiris 7 (1992) on "Science after '40," edited by Arnold Thackray.
29 Quoted in Edwards, Closed World, 65.
30 Edwards, Closed World, 44. He did, however, read the unpublished 1992 report that was the basis of the Norberg and O'Neill book.
31 For another account that persuasively undercuts the inevitability or "obviousness" of the triumph of digital over analog computing, see Larry Owens, "Where are We Going, Phil Morse? Changing Agendas and the Rhetoric of Obviousness in the Transformation of Computing at MIT, 1939-1957, IEE Annals of the History of Computing 18:4 (1996): 34-41. Owens offers a number of non-technical reasons for the triumph of the digital computing, including "Cold War worries about unrest, uncertainty, and unpredictability [that] fed a countervailing emphasis on management and control" (38).
32 Edwards, Closed World, 7.
33Edwards, Closed World, 3-4.
34Hafner and Lyon, Where, 29, 34. They dedicate their book to Licklider's memory.
35J. C.R. Licklider, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1 (March 1960), 5; Edwards, Closed World, 272; J.C.R. Licklider and Albert Vezza, "Applications of Information Networks," Proceedings of the IEEE, 66 (November 1978): 1335. Licklider later told an interviewer that he had "this positive feeling toward the military. It wasn't just to fund our stuff but they really needed it and they were good guys." Edwards, Closed World, 267.
36Edwards, Closed World, 101.
37Norberg and O'Neill, Transforming, 270.
38 Although Edwards devotes little attention to counter-discourses, he does note the "survival" in the current moment of "vestiges" of a "green-world discourse,"which he locates in "animistic religions, feminist witchcraft, certain Green political parties, and the deep ecology movement," but he says these "lie at the farthest margins of politics, society, and culture." He argues (and it is an argument that I have trouble following) that "the only possibility for genuine self-determination, is the political subject position of the cyborg." Edwards, Closed World, 350.
39Statement reproduced in Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993 Annual Report (Cambridge, 1994), inside front cover. See also undated flier "The Beginnings" from Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Mass., and Leslie, Cold War and American Science, 233-41.
40 In the aftermath of demonstrations against military research at the Stanford Research Institute, one group of graduate students, under faculty sponsorship, organized a course on sponsored research at Stanford, which sought to understand "how a generation of close interaction with the Department of Defense has affected Stanford as an academic institution." Quoted in Leslie, Cold War and American Science, 248. The group published two volumes on Defense Department research at Stanford. More generally (and from a critical vantage), Brook Hindle argues that "darkside" views of science and technology emerged out of radical protests of the 1960s. Hindle, "Historians of Technology and the Context of History," in Cutcliffe and Post, In Context, 235-40.
41 Leslie, Cold War and American Science, 245.
42 Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Delta, 1994), 416-18.
43 David Hudson offers a similar "bottom up" perspective on the Net's history in Rewired, 13-35.
44 Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, Computer, 293.
45Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet (Los Alamitos, 1997), 41.
46 Hauben, Netizens, 172; Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, Computer, 221. Unix was initially developed at AT&T's Bell Labs in the late 1960s. Although the system was a commercial development, AT&T was prevented by a 1956 consent decree from profiting from sources other than the phone business. As a result, they made Unix widely and cheaply available, and by the 1970s, it became a widely used standard, particularly in academic computing, Where a university license cost only $150.
47 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 187-218.
48 Hauben, Netizens, 48-49, x. The second quote comes from a preface signed separately by Michael Hauben. The other chapters appear to have been individually written by Rhoda and Michael (who are mother and son), and Michael's chapters tend to take a more aggressively populist stance.
49 Hauben and Hauben, Netizens, 102-5.
50 Stephen D. Crocker, "The Origins of RFCs" in RFC 1000: The Request for Comments Reference Guide, August 1987 available at http://www.isi.edu/in-notes/rfc1000.txt; Hauben, Netizens, 103, 106-7. The most detailed discussion of the RFCs can be found in Salus's more technically oriented history: Casting the Net. Many of the RFCs can be found on-line at pages maintained by the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute: http://www.isi.edu/rfc-editor/.
50 Levy, Hackers, 7, 168, 172. On Nelson, see Gary Wolf, "The Curse of Xanadu," Wired, 3 (June 1995), 137 ff.
51Levy, Hackers, 272, 156, 143. In a delightful irony that must have been evident to the people behind Community Memory, the computer used was an XDS-940, but it was also known by its original initials, which were very familiar to 1960s activists–SDS. (The change reflected the takeover of Scientific Data Systems by Xerox Corporation.) The on-line "Community Memory Discussion List on the History of Cyberspace" is named after the Berkeley project. See http://memex.org/community-memory.html.
52 Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, Computer, 220-221.
53 For the origins of the phrase, see "Free Speech Movement: Do Not Fold, Bend, Mutilate or Spindle," anonymous statement from FSM Newsletter, reproduced by Sixties Project Web site at: http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/FSM_fold_bend.html
54Leslie, Cold War and American Science, 233-4.
55 The Port Huron statement is available on line at: http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SDS_Port_Huron.html. (The most remarkable statement from a subsequent perpective is its warm embrace of nuclear energy.) For Savio's famous statement, see W. J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War: The 1960s (New York, 1989), 31. The alternative neo-Luddite strain in New Left and Counterculture thought remains potent today. See, for example, Kirkpartrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future : The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (Reading, 995)..
56Severo Ornstein, one of the key BBN engineers, once wore an anti-war button to a briefing on Arpanet with Pentagon officials. Hafner and Lyon, Where, 113.Ornstein went on to become the Chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. See Severo M. Ornstein, "Computers in Battle: A Human Overview," in David Bellin and Gary Chapman, eds., Computers in Battle–Will they Work? (Boston, 1987), 1-43.
57Hauben, Netizens, 40.
58These works devote surprisingly little attention to analyzing the obvious role of gendered concepts and practices in a development in which the key figures were almost entirely men. Edwards does offer an interesting analysis of the gendered language of "hard" and "soft" sciences and approaches. Edwards, Closed World, 167-73. See also his essay, "The Army and the Microwold: Computers and the Militarized Politics of Gender," Signs, 16:1 (1990): 102-127.
59 Hafner and Lyon, Where, 210; Hauben, Netizens, 41. See also Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, Computer, 292.
60Hafner and Lyon, Where, 240. On NSF and Internet, see David Roessner et al., "The Role of NSF's Support of Engineering in Enabling Technological Innovation," First Year Final Report, January 1997, prepared for the National Science Foundation, available at http://www.sri.com/policy/stp/techin/.
61 Ian Hardy, "The Evolution of ARPANET email ," Unpublished Senior Thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1996, available at http://www.ifla.org/documents/internet/hari1.txt. On the "informalization" of American society in the 1960s, see Kenneth Cmiel, "The Politics of Civility," in David Farber, ed., The Sixties: From Memory to History (Chapel Hill, 1994), 263-90.
62Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, 1997), 13.
63For a detailed discussion of the links between the drug culture and the contemporary computer industry, see Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (San Francisco, 1994). According to Rushkoff, programmers regularly circulate lists of which companies are "friendly" to drug users and don't do drug testing (page 30).
64This widely repeated phrase was first used (in print) by Stewart Brand in The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. (New York, 1988), 202. Less widely used is his corollary that "information also wants to be expensive"–"free" because "it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine" and "expensive" because "it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient."
65 Levy, Hackers, 229, 268.
66 BBN's entry into commercial networking was spurred by competition from three of their own engineers, who created Packet Communications Incorporated (and demanded the IMP source code). Some companies like Tymshare, which were in the time-sharing business became network providers (under the name Tymnet); large communications companies like Western Union and MCI also started to offer e-mail. Hafner and Lyon, Where, 232-4; Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, Computer, 295.
67IBM charged as much as $300,000 for processors to link its mainframes using its proprietary, Systems Network Architecture (SNA). In the 1990s, routers using TCP/IP, which cost a fraction of the price, displaced SNA.
68On technolibertarianism, see, for example, Paulina Borsook, "Cyberselfish," Mother Jones (July/August 1996) at http://www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JA96/borsook.html; Hudson, Rewired, 173-259.
69Mark Lilla, "A Tale of Two Reactions," New York Review of Books, 45 (May 14, 1998): 7.
70On WorldCom, see Thomas E. Weber and Rebecca Quick, "Would WorldCom-MCI Deal Turn the Net into a Toll-road?" San Diego Union-Tribune,( October 7, 1997,) 11 (originally published in Wall Street Journal); Michelle V. Rafter, "WorldCom Bids For No. 1 Status," Internet.com (October 6, 1997,) and Barbara Grady, "Opposition Mounts to WorldCom-MCI Merger," Internet.com (March 23, 1998,) available at http://www.iw.com/. A major subsidiary of WorldCom and the world's largest Internet Service Provider is UUNET, which was founded in 1987 by the academic Unix user's group, Usenix, to sell access to Usenet; it later became a for-profit corporation and was bought by WorldCom in 1996. On the creation of UUNET, see Salus, "Casting the Net," 177-78. The counter argument against monopolization of the Internet backbone is the rapid construction of new fiber cables by companies like Qwest. In response to European and American regulatory pressures, MCI sold off its Internet backbone to the British company, Cable & Wireless. But there was speculation that MCI WorldCom would still wind up with forty to sixty percent of the Internet backbone anyway. See Larry Dignan, "The Day Ahead: Internet Asset Sale May Not Be Enough," Inter@ctive Investor, (May 28, 1998,) available at http://www.zdii.com/industry_list.asp?mode=news&doc_id=ZE201596.
71 Current FTC and Justice Department anti-trust actions against Microsoft and Intel –or less plausibly the revival of popular anti-monopoly sentiments–could potentially alter this landscape.
72See Graphic, Visualization, and Usability Center of Georgia Tech, "8th WWW User Survey" (Dec. 1997), reported at http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/user_surveys/survey-1997-10/#highsum.
73On Linux, see Glyn Moody, "The Greatest OS That (N)ever Was," Wired, 5.08 (August 1997), 122 ff and http://www.li.org/. On the Free Software Foundation and Stallman, see its web pages at http://www.gnu.org/fsf/fsf.html and Stallman's essay "Why Software Should Not Have Owners," which is available at http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/why-free.html. Andrew Leonard, "Apache's Free-Software Warriors!" Salon (Nov. 20, 1997), available at http://archive.salon.com/21st/feature/1997/11/cov_20feature.html. Torvald's Usenet postings are archived at http://firstname.lastname@example.org%20 (Linus%20Torvalds)