“The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.” US President Barack Obama, at a rally in Roanoke, Virginia, July 13, 2012
Suddenly, in the wake of President Obama’s untimely but ultimately non-fatal but non-optimal grammar, the question of who made the internet was up for debate. Dishonestly editing this speech into artificially smug accusations that every small business owner isn’t responsible for their creation, the television and internet video dimensions of the pro-business Republican Party seized on the moment to produce radio, television, and internet video clips exhibiting President Obama as a big-government braggart. This statement appeared to show the US President as out of touch with the contributions made by private business to the United States and the invention of the internet.
The question of who built the internet–big government, big business, the “people,” or a series of lone geniuses–was quickly picked-up by the journalists turned internet hagiographers turned political polemicists. The internet’s history was politicized as its ontogenesis was topically mined for points across the political spectrum. This battle over who made the internet—federal employees at the US Department of Defense and Advanced Research Projects (DARPA); private companies Xerox and Apple; the volunteer bevy of open source coders; or “founder father” network engineers Paul Baran at RAND visualizing packet-switching, Vint Cerf at DARPA engineering TCP/IP, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN developing HTML, or Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at the U of Illinois making the graphic browser 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 edits and pundits hit television screens and internet video sites, four arguments emerged about who “really” made the internet. L. Gordon Crovitz (2012) 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 and not the government which made the internet. Farhad Manjoo (2012) 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 (2012) 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 like Berners-Lee who should be thanked for the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson (2012) writing in the New York Times said it wasn’t states, corporations, nor smart individuals but the people, namely a public of open source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the internet. These four liberal historiographies form pairs around economic and social liberalism, impacting how the US government frames the regulation of media companies. These historiographing tribes include technocapitalists, technoprogressives, technoindividualists, and technopopulists.
“It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet.” L. Gordon Crovitz 2012
President Obama may have gaffed, assistant editors at the conservative Fox News cable television network and the US Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the misquote, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. The “urban legend” (Crovitz, 2012) that the government created the internet has been a given fact for most of internet history.
“In tech, no one does anything on his own. … in the tech industry, it takes a village” Farhad Manjoo 2012
Two days after the Wall Street Journal opinion was published, Manjoo (2012) rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and materially supported in its creation by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument, this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure” (Manjoo, 2012). This argument is progressive –advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political frame opposed to the Darwin technocapitalism expounded by Crovitz.
“[I]n the end, everything is invented by individuals” Harry McCracken 2012
Thus far Crovitz’s (2012) and Manjoo’s (2012) 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 solitary genius and his impact on the development of the internet. Individualism is key to the “technoliberal disposition” which embodies “personal freedom and … liberal faith in the aggregate effects of individual actions,” as anthropologist Thomas Malaby explains (2009: 361).
Time magazine tech writer Harry McCracken (2012) added that the liberal frame that both Manjoo and Crovitz missed was the role of “gifted individuals” in the development of the internet, the World Wide Web (WWW), and WWW browsers. McCracken (2012) begins by calling DARPA director Robert Taylor a “visionary.” He then goes onto populate his text with the great men of internet history: Vint Cerf as the inventor of TCP/IP (and also a federal employee at ARPA), Douglas Englebart as the inventor of the mouse and hypertext, Ted Nelson the father of the term “hyperlink”, 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. 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-men-theory-of-history was first popularized by 19th century Scottish author Thomas Carlyle and debunked by anthropologists and their precursors, including Herbert Spencer, but its persistence in these instances of internet historiographical revisionism illustrates how liberal discourses of individualism continue to articulate with origins stories of networked technology.
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” Steven Johnson 2012
It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson (2012) claimed in the New York Times, but populist citizens in peer networks who built the internet. It was the much celebrated free and open source volunteers who built the internet, which is like “the people” only with a lot more coding competency and free time than most “people.” 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.
So who is most correct in their internet historiography? Or is nobody correct because nobody invented the internet, or at least not yet? Spyer (2013) advances an anthropological theory that instead of Johnson’s technopopulist intentionality it was the normative desire for social interaction that was the impetus behind the growth of the internet. Spyer (2013) supports his argument by discussing email, an invention by DARPA employee Ray Tomlinson. Email was an unintended consequence of the human need for communication and the first social app riding on the ARPAnet. Spyer likens the development of email to “cities, languages and cultures,” which result not from our ability to gaze at the future and forge new scientific miracles, but rather from something everyone has and is very parochial and simple: our drive for social interaction” (Spyer 2013). And thus, like cities, languages, and cultures, the internet is never finished and therefore has yet to be built. Paul Baran, who created one important brick in that cathedral which became the internet, packet switching technology, put it best when he said: “The process of technological development is like building a cathedral. …Over the course of several hundred years new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, `I built a cathedral.’ . . . If you are not careful, you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part” (Hafner and Lyon 1996: 79-80). Spyer and Baran’s internet historiographies bring us closest to a social scientific understanding of technological evolution, which, like the theory of assemblage, emphasizes the “heterogeneous within the ephemeral” and instability “infused with movement and change” (Marcus and Saka 2006: 102). This historically shifting, technologically enabled, and culturally inflected internet of historical contingencies, technologies, institutions, politics, and people looks like a global assemblage.
Crovitz (2012) twisted his story to fit his technocapitalist agenda. Manjoo (2012) aligned his more accurate history of the internet in a technoprogressive defense of the President’s wickedly edited non-gaffe. McCracken (2012) used a most overused and unconvincing technoindividualistic argument to champion the great white men of internet history. Finally, Johnson (2012) 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. Taken together the four histories map the four key subvariants of liberalism.
Historiographies of the internet can be situated within four genres of liberalism: capitalism, progressivism, individualism, and populism. While each genre of liberalism is distinct enough to warrant its own typological position, thematic couples form from the four iterations. Namely, capitalism and individualism form one relatable unit. Progressivism and populism form another interlocking set. On the one hand, the formation of liberalism that links capitalism and individualism is economic liberalism. The economic impetus overdetermines the manifestation of liberal individualism as it does liberal capitalism. On the other hand, the formation of liberalism that links progressivism and populism is social liberalism. The social justice impetus overdetermines the manifestation of liberal progressivism and liberal populism.
Each journalist shares liberal values but capital combined with influence and leverage can elevate one liberal value over another. This brings us to the most recent iteration of liberalism, namely neoliberalism in the information economy. “Informational neoliberalism” (Neubauer, 2011) is a free market fundamentalism–privatization, deregulation, and elimination of social liberal programs—energized by the time-space compression and big data capacities of networks, storage, and information analysis. Despite its antagonism with government, which neoliberalism brands as being coterminous with social liberalism, neoliberalism requires collaborative governments which privatize and deregulate in favour of corporations the services previously performed by the social liberal state. Journalism, as one facet of the information economy subject to neoliberal principles, has been folded within this ideology. As such, journalism’s social liberal components–a rigorously independent free press–have been minimized or eliminated as the market fundamentalism of neoliberal media corporations have acquired the functions and organizations of journalism. There is no better example of the neoliberal media corporation than News Corp, a multinational media corporation with holdings in print, film studios, satellite television, and internet journalism capable of leveraging this globally distributed and iterative system to maximize profit while transforming social liberal systems like a free press into profitable or expendable subsidiaries. News Corp owns the Wall Street Journal from which Crovitz gave his technocapitalist historiography that falls directly in-line with the neoliberal principles which governs News Corp in its relationship with governments and other media corporations. Considering the ascent and present domination of informational neoliberalism in the last two decades, to read Crovitz is to hear the gloating of a victor. Recent federal US anti-trust prosecutions failing to limit Google’s online advertising domination and the failure of US cable public television and public satellite television “set-asides” to make a measureable impact on television diversity in the United States are further evidence of the weaknesses of technoprogressive policy. It is technocapitalism that is succeeding as we continue into the second decade of the 21st century United States. What are needed are studies that challenge this thesis and the decline of social liberalism.