“the blurriness in how we use “internet” has a history and a function: it has allowed the word to become a metonymy – a part that stands for the whole – for a complex, shifting, intertwined mix of institutions, technologies, and practices. In this it is similar to “the Church,” “the press,” “Hollywood,” or “television.” …This metonymic pattern is much more than a convenience. It is an assertion of power.”The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)
Internet — Tom Streeter, University of Vermont
The “internet” has many meanings: hardware, software, protocols, institutional arrangements, practices, and social values. More often than not, which meaning we are using goes unspecified. Someone in a coffee shop might ask the laptop-wielding person next to them “are you getting internet?” when they mean “are you getting a wifi signal?” – which is actually a local, not internetwork, technology. The term “internet” is often used to refer to a host of different technologies, from non-TCP/IP systems of connection like local area networks and mobile phone data networks, to major “internet backbone” connections involving core routers, fiber optic long distance lines, and undersea cables. An “internet connected computer” can mean variously a computer running its own TCP/IP server with its own IP address, or simply any kind of gadget capable of sending some kind of data to and/or from global data networks. (A recent news clip referred to “an internet connected umbrella” the handle of which glows when rain is expected, as if “the internet” is the distinguishing technology here rather than, say, the equally essential microchips or wireless technologies.)
The range of multiple meanings go well beyond the technological. A recent headline read, “The 35 Writers Who Run the Literary Internet.” This locution assumes that the internet is a separate space or forum apart from other kinds of discussions of literature – even though the community of literary reviewers and their readers actually spans across outlets that vary both in terms of technology (print, digital) and economic organization (profit, non-profit, advertising supported, subscription, etc.). “Netroots,” a portmanteau of “internet” and “grassroots,” generally refers to progressive left-wing activists who use a mix of traditional and internet forms of political organizing; one does not talk about the Tea Party as a Netroots organization, though it also makes heavy use of the internet. The “internet” foregrounded in “netroots” is thus actually a modest part of a politically inflected whole.
My point here is not simply to denounce the vagueness with which we use the word. Rather, the blurriness in how we use “internet” has a history and a function: it has allowed the word to become a metonymy – a part that stands for the whole – for a complex, shifting, intertwined mix of institutions, technologies, and practices. In this it is similar to “the Church,” “the press,” “Hollywood,” or “television.” In each case, the use of a part – a building, technology, geographical location, or box in our living room – stands for the whole whatever-it-is. This metonymic pattern is much more than a convenience. It is an assertion of power. It treats fluid, complex relationships as a self-evident thing, and thereby can cover up instabilities and contested elements within the institutions being considered. This reification, in turn, can help perpetuate, for better or worse, a specific set of social arrangements. The metonymy shapes the processes it purports to describe. Unpacking “the internet” as a keyword, therefore, offers a window into both the history of the last thirty years and some key political issues of the present.
Early History: an internet vs. the Internet
The root word “network” itself has a history of multiple meanings, in the last century principally divided between an understanding of networks as webs of face-to-face contact without any necessary implication of technological mediation, and networks as technological systems that materially interconnect individuals across distances, such as railroads or telephone systems.
The dual sociological and technological meanings of “network” served as a backdrop when the word internet emerged in the 1970s. From the beginning the term expressed some of the tensions and hopes involved in the intertwined problems of technological design and the organization of social relations. “Internetwork” appeared among computer engineers as shorthand for a network of networks or interconnected network. This was not just a technical problem. It was a social condition, namely that the first connections of computers across distance occurred in a context of private corporations which sold competing systems based on incompatible telecommunications standards. An internetwork was thus something intended to overcome the existing incompatibilities among computer systems from different firms and institutions. Soon shortened further to “internet,” it thus began life as a colloquial term for a particular kind of technological solution to an institutional (rather than purely technical) problem.
A 1977 technical document by Jon Postel, for example, opens,
This memo suggests an approach to protocols used in internetwork systems. . . . The position taken here is that internetwork communication should be view [sic] as having two components: the hop by hop relaying of a message, and the end to end control of the conversation. This leads to a proposal for a hop by hop oriented internet protocol, an end to end oriented host level protocol, and the interface between them. . . . We are screwing up in our design of internet protocols by violating the principle of layering.
In this passage one can see not only the shift from “internetwork” to the more shortened “internet,” but also a move from speaking of “networks of networks” in general – “internetwork systems” – towards speaking of the specific system being constructed – “our design of internet protocols.” Later in the memo this use of “internet” to refer to a specific system becomes even clearer: “An analogy may be drawn between the internet situation and the ARPANET.” In this last passage, “the internet” is clearly being used to refer to the specific system being designed at the time, and thus contrasted with its predecessor network of networks, the ARPANET.
In the next decade, a colloquial use of “internet” to refer to a specific institution under construction continued alongside other uses. (And more colloquialisms emerged during this time, such as an even further shortened “the Net.”) During this period, confusion between “internet” as a general principle vs. a specific system became of enough concern for engineers of the day to begin to capitalize the latter: an internet vs. the Internet. But this use of “Internet” to refer to a specific system remained relatively colloquial through the 1980s. At a key moment in 1983, when the existing ARPANET was split into military and research-oriented halves, press reports described the military side as “Milnet” and the civilian side as “R&DNet.” While “R&DNet” as a term never caught on, its direct descendant – funded by the National Science Foundation or NSF – was officially described as NSFNET through the 1980s. In May 1989, the Federal Research Internet Coordinating Committee released a “Program Plan for the National Research and Education Network”; in this instance the committee devoted to internetworking in general uses “Internet” in its self-description, but the proper noun, the specific thing being proposed, is called NREN.
For the next two years, “Internet” remained an insider’s colloquial term for one internetwork among many others, such as BITNET, BBS systems, USENET, etc. As late as December, 1992, a famous exchange between Vice President elect Al Gore and the CEO of AT&T about whether or not government should be involved in the construction of nationwide computer networks, did not contain the word “internet.” The first issue of Wired, released the following month, referred to the internet only occasionally in passing, largely as one instance of computer communication systems along others, not as the network of networks, not as the center of the “digital revolution” that the magazine was created to celebrate. A May 1993 article in Newsweek about the future of computer networks did not mention the internet at all.
The metonymy consolidates 1993-95
All this changed between the fall of 1993 and late 1995, when the contemporary use of “internet” emerged explosively into broad usage, and “the Internet” went from being an internetwork to the network of networks. By early 1996, the remaining consumer computer communication systems from the 1980s like Compuserve and Prodigy were all selling themselves as means of access to the internet rather than the other way around, the U.S. Congress heavily revised its communications law for the first time in more than half a century in the ’96 Telecommunications Act, major corporations from the phone companies to Microsoft to the television networks were radically revamping core strategies to adapt to the internet, and television ads for Coke and Pepsi routinely displayed URLs. The previously colloquial and unstable term became the fixed name of a global phenomenon.
Though the word became fixed, the phenomenon it referred to was not. For example, the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 was often said to be in part motivated by the rise of the internet, and it referred to “the Internet” several times, defining it rather circularly as “the international computer network of both Federal and non-Federal interoperable packet switched data networks.” (X.25 networks, inherited from the 1970s and still in use at the time by banks and other large institutions, were international and packet-switched but were not what the ’96 Act was referring to.) The use of “the international computer network” instead of “an international computer network” thus indicates a referent that was assumed rather than precisely delineated.
What changed in the 1992-96 period was not so much the technology or its reach, but the way it was imagined: the shared assumptions, ideas, and values invested in the term took on a new cast and intensity, which in turn shaped collective behavior. It is true that in 1996 there existed a system of material TCP/IP-based computer networking technologies of increasing effectiveness. But the number of nodes and users in that system had been growing logarithmically for several years before 1992 when “internet” was a relatively obscure term, and by the end of 1996 the total number of users remained less than 1% of the world population, and less than 8% of the U.S. population. By 1996 “the internet” was crystallized as a term, but it was not by any stretch an established central form of communication or means of doing business, and the specific wires and computer systems of which it was made would largely be replaced and transformed within a decade. The material technologies associated with the “internet” therefore were not by themselves as yet all that dominant or settled. The designs, hopes, and money that started flowing towards the thing called the internet in 1996 were based on future expectations, on a shared set of beliefs and visions, as much as on material facts. The Internet thus was as much a set of ideas and expectations as it was any specific object, yet the habit of referring to it as an object – the metonymy – played a major role in coagulating those ideas and expectations.
Internet as social vision: interactivity, forum, telos
So what did the term “internet” refer to, if it did not only refer to an existing technology? One connotation of the term was a particular experience of interactivity that was widely accessible and designed to be used in an unplanned, playful or exploratory way, rather than merely as a means to a known end. Most occurrences of “Internet” in the ’96 Act are accompanied by the phrase “and other interactive computer services.” While not made explicit, the “interaction” referred to here was not just any social interaction. In its sociological sense, talking on the telephone is an interaction, a bank official transmitting financial data via an X.25 network is an interaction, but these were already old hat and thus not what was being referred to. The “interaction” in question assumed a certain ease, immediacy, and unplanned type of horizontal connections via connected computers, and wide availability and open access – a fear of which with regard to children was seen in the “Communications Decency” portion of the ’96 Act which forbid pornography on the internet and was subsequently found unconstitutional.
A second important connotation of the internet that emerged was a spatial metaphor, tied to an understanding of it as a kind of forum, rather than, say, as a conduit. In the syllabus of the 1997 decision that overturned the Communications Decency part of the ’96 Act, the U.S. Supreme Court defined the Internet as “an international network of interconnected computers that enables millions of people to communicate with one another in ‘cyberspace’ and to access vast amounts of information from around the world.” (The term cyberspace occurs twice more in the Decision, without quotes.) Here, to articulate what the internet is, the U.S. Supreme Court casually adopts a spatial metaphor from science fiction (replacing the conduit-oriented “information superhighway” metaphor that dominated in the culture a few years earlier). This spatial metaphor helped ground the Court’s description of the internet as what it called “this new forum,” as a space within which citizens interact and deliberate, which thereby underwrote the Court’s judgment that the internet is worthy of stronger free speech protections than, say, broadcasters.
During this period, the internet also came to be described as having a kind of agency, a force of its own or a teleology. The surprising way in which the internet emerged into broad public consciousness in this period is arguably due to a set of peculiar historical circumstances. But those circumstances were eclipsed by the pressures of the time; it all just seemed to happen as if from nowhere. The resulting shared sense of surprise underwrote a habit of speaking as if it all came from some kind of force attributable to technology alone, without human agency or design. The first, January 1993 issue of Wired magazine flamboyantly attributed to the “Digital Revolution” the disruptive force of “a Bengali Typhoon.” Over the course of 1993, as the internet came to broad public attention, the magazine began to make such attributions of agency directly to the internet, and thus while not inventing the sense of internet-as-force certainly contributed to its momentum. And this all led to a proliferation of slogans such as “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” and a generalized sense that the internet, whatever it was, contained within it a set of inherent traits that had a causal force on society. An entire genre of punditry emerged that exploited the discursive possibilities of this sense of telos: speaking as though one had special insight into the mysterious internet suggested one had a unique insight into the future, imparting a kind of speaker’s benefit similar to that Foucault pointed out accrues to being an expert on sexuality.
Much of this talk is now easily seen as hyperbolic: it is now routine for various governments to censor their internet, and the late 1990s claim that the internet had somehow suspended the laws of economics led to a record-setting stock bubble, with painful consequences when it collapsed. But the sense that the internet has a kind of social force of its own, separable from the intentions and social context of the individuals that construct and use it, persists to this day.
What emerged at the end of the 1992-96 period, in sum, was a meaning of “internet” that unreflectively mixed a shifting set of technologies, protocols, and institutions with connotations of accessible exploratory interaction, a forum, and a sense that the whole “thing” had a teleological causal force. Because this was at a time when the actual systems that we now use were just beginning to be built out, the mix can be seen to have played a constitutive role in those systems’ creation.
All these tendencies combine to give the word “internet” an outsized gravitational force in the description of any emerging social practice that has anything at all to do with computer networks. The sense of the internet possessing a kind of agency or telos in particular remains vivid in political and social debates. For example, contemporary net neutrality proponents proclaim “save the internet!” – which presumes that the internet, like a National Park or a species of animal, has a kind of natural state of openness, inherent in the internet itself. (It is only recently that less teleological arguments have been advanced, such as the argument that net neutrality would help uphold the values of democracy.) An assumption that the internet has a natural telos is also evident in the still common framing of internet trends as if they represented a natural unfolding rather than economic and social choices. The term “Web 2.0,” borrowing from the tradition of numbered software upgrades, carried with it a sense of an unstoppable progression. A current discourse about a coming “internet of things” similarly implies a kind of “next phase” logic of progression, while implying that the use of wireless and data technologies in home appliances has grand implications, rather than representing merely a continuation of the more than century-long trend in the automation of consumer durables.
In the future, the word internet might fall into disuse, and historians may wonder why this ill-defined thing called “the internet” received so much attention. From 1990-2015, after all, the mobile phone and television both grew dramatically in reach and impact globally, and as of this writing they each still have more users than the internet, however defined. Furthermore, platforms like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Netflix may not be framed as things “on the internet,” but as the quite distinct institutions they are, with different social, economic, technological, and political implications. A future is conceivable in which an internet expert is no more intriguing than a plumbing expert.
Yet future historians will not be able to explain the political, economic, or social histories of the 1990-2015 period without considering the impact of talk about “the internet.” Laws were passed, stock bubbles inflated and collapsed, political campaigns launched, and a host of influential and broadly shared expectations about politics, economics, and social life were shaped by the term internet and the sets of assumptions it carried with it. The word may be vague, but it has mattered nonetheless.
At this point in history, scholars should avoid referring to the internet as a self-evident, single object. But they should also pay explicit attention to the hopes, values, and struggles that have been embedded in both the term and the phenomena. The “internet” may not be the answer, but the questions the term raises are nonetheless crucial. The question of how society designs technologies while organizing social relations, implicit already in the first casual uses of the term in the 1970s, remains a crucial intellectual and political problem. The “internet” may not be the solution to the problem of democracy, but a democratic future will still need to consider, among other things, questions about technological systems of interconnection and related political legal, and economic questions. And finally, it is significant that one of the great technological triumphs of history was to a significant degree shaped by widely shared hopes and visions of democracy and horizontal interactivity, by desires for open fora. The internet may not be inherently democratic, but the fact that we have imagined it as so, that we have invested it with widely shared hopes for democracy, deserves our attention.
1. Kristyn Ulanday, “The Internet of Things,” The New York Times, July 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/video/garden/100000003003809/the-internet-of-things.html.
3. It has become the norm to speak of information and events as on the internet: “I found it on the internet”; “I was arguing with someone on the internet”; “I looked it up on the internet,” “check on the internet.” While we say “I talked to her on the telephone,” we would not say “I found it on the telephone.” The telephone is not viewed as its own place so much as a tool to get in touch with specific individuals across space. Arguably, one could say the internet is more telephone-like: it is the conduit, whereas individual websites or platforms provide the conditions within which we are getting information, interacting with others, and so forth. “I saw it on Facebook” or “I looked it up on Wikipedia” are in that sense more accurate. Yet finding or doing something “on the internet” as if it were a location rather than a conduit remains an entirely common way of speaking. The locution for the internet is more like how we say “I saw it on television” than with cinema, where we are more likely to say “I saw it in a movie.”
4. For a lively example of denunciation, see Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (PublicAffairs, 2013), 21.
5. The internet is thus a keyword in two senses: the sense that “the problems of its meanings [are] inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] being used to discuss,” (Williams, 15) but also that its meanings are “primarily embedded in actual relationships, . . . . within the structures of particular social orders and the processes of social and historical change.” (Williams, 22).
6. The tradition is usually said to have begun with Georg Simmel. See e.g., Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, 1973, 1360-80.
7. E.g., NBC’s Red and Blue radio “networks” of the mid-1920s – though the U.S. 1927 Radio Act and subsequent legal documents referred not to networks but to “chain broadcasting,” putting more emphasis on the economic and contractual relationships than technological ones.
8. The continued availability of purely social connotations of “network” and its derivatives, however, is evident in the title of the “Human Rights Internet,” appearing in 1981 or earlier, which was a clearinghouse for information about human rights abuses worldwide; to my knowledge it was organized entirely without the use or consideration of computers. See http://www.hri.ca/ or e.g., David Ziskind, “Labor Laws in the Vortex of Human Rights Protection,” Comp. Lab. L. 5 (1982): 131.
9. http://www.rfc-editor.org/ien/ien2.txt IEN # 18.104.22.168 “Comments on Internet Protocol and TCP,” Jon Postel, 15 August 1977
10. So, for example, in 1989, an IBM technical manual stated, “when written with a capital ‘I,’ the Internet refers to the worldwide set of interconnected networks. Hence, the Internet is an internet, but the reverse does not apply.” TCP/IP Tutorial and Technical Overview (ISBN 0-7384-2165-0), cited in “Capitalization of ‘Internet’,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, June 30, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capitalization_of_%22Internet%22&oldid=614895170. A discussion list created in 1990 to discuss technical and institutional problems with the evolving system was called “Commercialization and Privatization of the Internet” (“com-priv” for short). In this title, the emphasis was already on the Internet, not an internet. Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (NYU Press, 2011), 110.
11. William J. Broad, “Pentagon Curbing Computer Access; Global Network Split in a Bid to Increase Its Security,” The New York Times, October 5, 1983.
12. Streeter, The Net Effect, 107.
13. “THE TRANSITION; Excerpts From Clinton’s Conference on State of the Economy,” New York Times, December 15, 1992, New York edition, sec. B.
14. Using the “premiere issue” distributed as an iPad-only reissue in 2012 as a guide, only two out of seven feature articles mention the Internet at all, each case in the sense of a specific system alongside others, such as BBS’s, Britain’s JANET, and so forth.
15. Jim Impoco, “Technology Titans Sound Off on the Digital Future,” U.S. News and World Report, May 3, 1993.
16. Streeter, The Net Effect, 133-134.
17. Most of the 106-page ’96 Act addresses well-established telecommunications systems, e.g., “the general duties of telecommunications carriers.” Federal Communications Commission and others, “Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Public Law 104, no. 104 (1996): 84.
18. http://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm; Farhad Manjoo, “Jurassic Web,” Slate, February 24, 2009, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2009/02/jurassic_web.html.
19. The once-common term “information retrieval” captures the opposing sense of the use of online communication for a pre-planned purpose.
20. e.g., “The rapidly developing array of Internet and other interactive computer services available to individual Americans represent an extraordinary advance.” Ibid., 83.
21. Reno, Attorney General of the United States, Et Al. v. American Civil, U.S. (U.S. Supreme Court 1997).
22. Streeter, The Net Effect, 119-137.
24. One might rewrite what Foucault said about the repressive hypothesis by replacing references to sexuality with “internet revolution,” thusly:
[T]here may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship [between technology and society in terms of revolution]: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. [If the internet is revolutionary], then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. . . . [when we speak about the internet] we are conscious of defying established power, our tone of voice shows that we know we are being subversive, and we ardently conjure away the present and appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making. Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse.” History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, pp. 6-7.