Counter-histories of the Internet


What could the internet have been? We’ve grown so used to our digital networks that they can seem like a force of nature, with laws as immutable as the laws of physics. Yet not long ago, these networks were the object of experiments, conflicts, and at times arbitrary choices. And the fates of many industries hung in the balance. For instance, should users pay for online access in units of time, or of bandwidth, or according to the number of websites they enter? This was once a live question; over the years, providers have settled on a combination of the first two options. But suppose that the architects of the web had chosen a different course: if entering a new website cost us a few cents, we might be more discriminating. Fake news, consequently, might spread across smaller ranges and at slower speeds.

Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

Extant histories of the internet favor either heroic or deterministic narratives. On the determinist side, we have Paul Edwards’s The Closed World (1996), Fred Turner’s Democratic Surround (2013) and From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said (2006), and others that describe the internet as the result of collisions between large-scale Cold War policies or zeitgeists. With some variations, these narratives portray the digital revolution as born from the improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex. The blame for their unfortunate offspring—namely, rampant self-expression monetized by savvy entrepreneurs and embraced by a generally ignorant populace—is laid at the feet of now one, now the other of its putative parents.

On the heroic, individualist side, we have Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late (1996), Michael Hiltzik’s Dealers of Lightning (1999), Walter Isaacson’s Innovators (2014) and Steve Jobs (2011), Leslie Berlin’s Troublemakers (2017), and Adam Fischer’s Valley of Genius (2018), whose titles speak for themselves. Histories in this genre extoll the whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors, of whom Jobs is the prime exemplar. Some do acknowledge the contingencies that facilitated the rise of these digital “geniuses.” But overall, they tend to represent Silicon Valley as a titanic battleground that proved the superior mettle of its winners. Both extremes are tempting in their clarity; both make for a gripping story. Occasionally—as in Liza Mundy’s Code Girls (2017) or Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016)—a simultaneously individualist and Marxist approach unveils underappreciated digital counter-heroes.

Our ethics and desires can shape digital networks at least as forcefully as those networks influence us.

Clark’s and Rankin’s books are uninterested in structural or teleological narratives. To a historian in the heroic mode, they may appear to be merely microhistories of digital pioneers whose ideas ended up being superseded or absorbed by other, more ambitious visions. To the determinist, they may seem to toggle hesitantly between a history of institutional mechanisms and personal idiosyncrasies, without believing strongly in the causal power of either.

In fact, both books attempt two wholly different and new tasks. First, they show how much of early computing was done amid multigenerational, partly aimless academic communities working collectively, more motivated by curiosity and pedagogy than by ego, power, or profit. Second, they contest the evolutionary logic that would accept the current version of the internet as the most optimal possible outcome. The internet, as they see it, emerged out of a multiplicity of divergent trajectories and models of development. To imagine a better version of our mediated world, we need to acknowledge these alternatives and to embrace their multiplicity—and often to retrace our steps to roads not taken in the past.

Obviously inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Joy Lisi Rankin’s book positions itself as a corrective to what she calls “Silicon Valley mythology,” what I describe above as the heroic narrative of computing. Her subjects are, instead, “the students and educators who built and used academic computing networks, then known as time-sharing systems, during the 1960s and 1970s.” Around their stories, Rankin “develop[s] a history of the digital age that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and community”:

Time-sharing networks emerged neither from individual genius nor from the military-industrial complex; rather, they were created for—and by—students and educators at universities and public schools as civilian, civic-minded projects. At their most idealistic, the developers of these systems viewed access to computing as a public good available to all members of a collective body, whether that body consisted of a university, a school system, a state, or even a country.

Describing these “students and educators” as “computing citizens,” Rankin depicts an alternative digital world in which we might see ourselves as something other than “consumers” or “users” of our digital devices. In chapters on the 1960s time-sharing network at Dartmouth College, the subsequent expansion of the computing language BASIC into high schools, and the development of PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Rankin contests the preconception that personal computing trickled down to schools only after it had gestated in the minds of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and in the labs of the military-industrial complex.

Students attracted to these programs ranged from high schoolers to postdocs. They created some of the first online web forums, interactive stories, and computer games (including the still addictive, adorably pixelated Oregon Trail). Their side projects at first frustrated, but gradually came to delight, their pedagogues. Playful competition between the computers’ gatekeepers and their pupils gave rise to amazing hacking exploits and ever more advanced security systems from whose principles we continue to benefit.

These early experiments were animated by an ethos of “time-sharing.” The stations at which students and faculty worked were all powered by one central computing system. At the time, no other solution would have been financially sustainable; it also carried a certain utopian ethos of mutual respect and transparency. Rankin defends this model as “a feature, not a bug, of the networks.” Time-sharing, she argues, taught young people to use computers as a flexible, interactive commons, rather than as a private workspace. While bemoaning some of these early experiments’ limitations, such as their implicit privileging of male students and perspectives, Rankin is optimistic about the lessons we might draw from them. She wants her book to show that “the act of computing” is never fully predetermined by the computer itself. Our ethics and desires can shape digital networks at least as forcefully as those networks influence us.

Rankin does not propose a clear path forward (or backward) to time-sharing. But she does seem to hope that her readers might be inspired to seek this path on their own, or, at the very least, to look at their consumerist digital habits with greater suspicion.

More technical than Rankin’s book, David Clark’s Designing the Internet positions itself on the boundary line between history and speculation. Clark calls it “a book-length position paper.” He is an old hand speaking to a younger generation, an MIT scholar involved in the early modeling and development of what became the World Wide Web.

The internet, Clark insists, did not simply happen. Instead, the scaffolding on which it grew was consciously designed by people, many of whom did not hope for much profit beyond the satisfaction of solving a complicated mathematical problem. Clark’s book is very abstract—to a degree that the lay reader may have trouble following. But even skimming its contents proves fascinating. Clark describes versions of internet architecture that never took off; versions that he wishes he had thought of earlier; and qualities of the current version that he thinks are most conducive to its flexibility, or most inimical to it.

Today, Clark explains, the internet is divisible into three sections with varying policies and architectures. One of them exists only in China; one, in the jurisdiction of the European Union; a third, the most global in reach, is based primarily in the United States. These sections are divided by firewalls but share a fundamental “spanning architecture.” What if the regions of the digital world were more numerous and more heterogeneous? Clark shows that many engineers have pursued this question, proposing models for interregional communication with names like Plutarch, Sirpent, and Metanet. He explains why some of them should be tempting to us, based on what we most value in our current digital world: e.g., speed, security, or flexibility of future development. He also shows that adopting one of them would not necessarily (as one might fear) increase governments’ control over online activity. Today, only a large entity like China or the European Union can sustain a strong, official barrier between its citizens’ internet activity and the rest of the globe. If the internet were inherently fragmented, smaller, nongovernmental communities could self-regulate within it with more efficiency and local power, in pursuit of purposes more varied and idealistic than the ones that drive people into the Dark Net.

Clark and Rankin dream of an internet that could do more than reinforce our shared sense of personal and political helplessness.

When Clark tries to make predictions about the future, he tends to be vague and unsurprising: “Future advances in network capability will be not higher access speeds but instead more diverse delivery services.” “My own bet for the next ‘killer app’ … is immersive, multiperson, interactive virtual reality, or it might be swarms of autonomous vehicles.” He is at his best, in ways that linger with the reader, when he suddenly emerges from technicalities and predictions into lucid reflections on the limits and capacities of an unrealizable ideal network.

Clark’s abstract, half-aesthetic and half-mathematical pragmatism brings relief from both heroic idealizations of the current web and determinist cost-benefit analyses of it. He reminds us of the difference between the limits to our communicative systems that we cannot overcome (such as the speed of light) and the ones that we can manipulate (such as regional differences between different parts of the web). Clark emphasizes that thinking about the future of the internet has at least as much to do with planning a city as with cornering a market, Airbnb or Uber style. Online architecture and infrastructure, like the layouts of cities, have a huge influence on the shape human activities take within them. It is disarming and exhilarating to consider the extent to which our digital lives could be changed by the rearrangement of these foundations.

Rankin’s and Clark’s approaches bring to mind the Enlightenment’s utopian educational theories. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, their books dream of synergies between students and teachers—between an older generation that wants to teach its children intellectual autonomy and a younger generation that embraces their elders’ guidance with trust and creativity.

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

As in Rousseau, the contradictions within Clark’s and Rankin’s ideal of guided play are as obvious as they are fascinating. Rousseau’s educational utopia condescends to young learners while idealizing them. “Watch over [your child],” says Rousseau, “from the moment he comes into the world. As soon as he is born take possession of him and do not leave him till he is a man; you will never succeed otherwise.” And yet the ideal tutor should also strive to “become a child himself. … [He] must not give precepts, he must let them be found.” Émile also makes sharp divisions between those who can and those who cannot be educated in properly liberated fashion. “There is no parity between the two sexes.” Indeed, “woman is specially made to please man.”

Of course, neither Clark nor the explicitly feminist Rankin come close to sharing Rousseau’s views on women. But inequalities of access and institutional hierarchies remain huge, unfixed problems for the university communities they describe. Both scholars also underplay Oedipal academic conflicts and the ways in which they can delay or warp innovation. Clark and Rankin depict universities through rose-tinted glasses, as intellectual hothouses whose unworldliness fosters a creative impersonality that the world beyond them badly needs. For both authors, universities provide spaces of mentorship in which students are taught how to free their thinking from the need for elders. Of course, intellectual bubbles do make it easier to conceive of political utopias. But a skeptic might scoff at the romanticism of these assumptions and quip that Clark and Rankin see university professors as “unacknowledged legislators of the world”: a dream all the more spurious when expressed by an academic rather than a poet.

It seems useful, however, to take a more generous view of Clark’s and Rankin’s arguments. Both imagine an internet that could do more than reinforce our shared sense of personal and political helplessness. They see it as a realm in which intellectual and political agency should be achievable, if within certain limits—and in which our activities need not be shaped by economic considerations alone. Clark marvels at the beauty of elegant alternative networks; Rankin is similarly amazed at early computer users’ capacity for selfless cooperation. To inhabit their sense of wonder, however briefly, is to be reminded of our shared capacity for pursuing goals other than personal gain, such as aesthetic pleasure, knowledge, and altruism.

Some may raise an eyebrow at Clark’s and Rankin’s visions of a lost world of communally shared, structurally modifiable digital networks. But we doubt their vision at the risk of passively accepting our internet environments as givens that can only be changed, deus ex machina, by another genius innovator. Educational utopianism has its own dangers, but daring to rethink the structure of our digital world is worth the gamble.

This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Screenshot from a PLATO teaching program showing the anatomy of a human eye. Illinois Distributed Museum