Internet – On the Histories

This series digresses here to review and consider internet history. This includes, of course, the well-documented series of events and interactions and innovations and and and … that led to what we see when we go online these days. It also includes the conditions under which those events and interactions and innovations and so on took place, to inform ongoing research into internet development in other parts of the contemporary world. And, these posts stemming from the skeptical position of cultural scholarship, it also questions who gets to write the history of the internet, and with what sources. This line of questioning leads us back, cautiously, to the major themes of the semester.

As it is told through authoritative sources such as academic histories and the Internet Society, internet roots reach back to the 1960s. The foundations of packet switching and open network architecture were developed then, leading to ways of organizing the quickly growing number of nodes and networks such as TCP/IP. ARPANET, the first such instance of a broadly distributed network, extended its scale, and began to link with other networks. Applications such as email and telnet developed within these first ten years, along with other protocols such as the DNS index and FTP.  By the mid-1980s, the number of networks had grown, as had the number of their uses — list services, news groups, and internet service providers began to proliferate. In the early 1990s, several networks merged together under an open architecture in a modern incarnation, finally named the Internet. It was also then that the most famous application — the World Wide Web — appeared in use, leading to further development and interaction among users. Over the last twenty years, the Web has risen, given way to web 2.0, and the internet has become a household familiarity. But the fifty-year history under question cannot remain so linear and smooth when we look at it more closely through these studies.


One visualization of a timeline for early internet history, showing the separation and linkage between various networks in addition to milestone events.

One important question to arise from historical investigation centers on how an archive of internet history is compiled. There are at least two ways of gathering data in this context: individually, or collectively. The same goes for producing knowledge. In large aggregations, vastly different archives of data — not to mention their interpretations — can arise compared to those set out by individual researchers. A canonical historiography that depends on an assumption of linear progress bolstered by examples of minute details, great men (and women), and technological determinism (e.g. – a problem arose when the size of the internet grew quickly, so a solution to naming conventions and indices was developed) also appears in these contexts as a history written by insiders, whose personal insights into their own contributions to the internet remind one of nothing so much as oral history. This raises the question, in turn, of mediation for internet historians — a huge number of internet histories are available online, digitally. Many of these take the same forms as the tools used to manage data for internet development: log files, version control systems, memory caching, backups, and indexing come to mind. But their visibility seems to matter a great deal: being able to search, via the internet, for information about the internet seems an obvious necessity; books about the internet can seem superfluous or easily outdated by comparison. This assumption deserves some stressing down the line.

Though linearity persists in canonical narratives of these histories — as evinced by the timeline shown here, among many others, whose measurements of progress can account for both discrete events and for long-term development and relationships between networks, if not always for other layers of causality or interaction — their avoidance of non-linear methods of representation lingers. The archives that establish this context also rely on certain constitutive absences. Contributions from non-institutional developers of networking technologies appear only infrequently in these accounts. As insiders share their personal interpretations, computational logs often go unprocessed. Finally, when questions of the sources of capital arise — the role of the department of defense in particular — a curious silence often descends upon the narratives. Strange paradoxes abound. A history of innovation becomes written traditionally, from insiders’ perspectives, often without regard to the social implications of a canon. But technics do not determine culture.

So we encounter the fundamental historical question of continuity and rupture. The internet is not an event – is it an era? In terms of the purpose of this series, and the relevance of this post to larger projects, theories of history from cultural perspectives become crucial. To study ongoing development of the internet in parts of the world where it is only now coming into full form, we must engage with existing constraints on its patterns. These can range from cultural and social expectations to economic and international factors, each of which must be held in mind at once. A major challenge will be to maintain accountability for the massive investments of capital and labor that are often hidden, but nonetheless necessary to build internet infrastructure.

Further questions broached, but not answered this week will structure some of the ensuing reading and research. First, what influence do non-digital (analog/codex) histories maintain in this field? Second, how do we compare academic scholarship with crowdsourced or collectively generated knowledge as we build an original archive? Third, does the adoption and diffusion of the internet as an innovation follow the smooth and exponential path so often charted by its chroniclers, and if it varies, how? Fourth, how necessary is the computational aspect of a history of the internet — and what will that entail? Finally, most generally, and perhaps most centrally, fifty years into its existence, how does internetting and its history change? We will encounter these questions, attempt to answer them, and find out what lies behind them, in the course of this series. From here out, we will gravitate from contextual and metacognitive issues into more focused areas of inquiry.

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