Counter-Histories of the Internet

What could the internet have been? We have 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. This is all the truer in Poland, since we came to digital networks quite belatedly.
The United States and the Soviet Union began work on their respective internets in the 1960s. The American internet won out, but it only reached Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By that time, it seemed like a finished product to which we had to accommodate ourselves. Even now, we are still catching up on its latest updates and extensions.

From such a geopolitical standpoint, it is hard to think about the internet speculatively. Yet that is one of the most interesting directions taken by contemporary historians of the internet. To consider their arguments illuminates the contingency of new media and its infrastructures. It also empowers one to new kinds of political agency and activism within it. As we bemoan how digital media are reshaping our public sphere, it feels increasingly pressing to take a closer look at the forms of citizenship these media foster – and the ways in which these forms could be altered without abandoning our new technologies altogether.

Not long ago, digital networks were the object of experiments, conflicts and at times arbitrary choices. The fate of many industries hung in the balance of such decisions. 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 such speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet (2018) and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018). Clark’s book introduces its readers to the scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin, on the other hand, 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 favour have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future. Many of the authors to whom Clark and Rankin respond have not yet been translated into Polish. Clark’s and Rankin’s interventions are a particularly interesting point at which to join these historical and critical conversations and introduce them to the Polish general public.

Extant histories of the internet favour 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 hippy experiments and the military–industrial complex (confluences of interest between the military and industrial corporations). 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 one or the other of its putative parents, by turns.

On the heroic, individualist side, we have Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), Katie Hafner’s 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 extol the whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors, of whom Steve 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 anti-heroes.

Clark’s and Rankin’s books are not interested 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 waver 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 and 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.

Joy Lisi Rankin’s book positions itself as a corrective to what she calls ‘Silicon Valley mythology’, which 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 (New Hampshire, US), 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 between the 1960s and the 1980s, 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 programmes ranged from high schoolers to postdocs. They created some of the first online web forums, interactive stories and computer games. Their side projects at first frustrated, but gradually came to delight, their tutors. 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 the limitations of some of these early experiments, 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 back 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 modelling 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 it. 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 computer engineers have pursued this question, proposing models for inter-regional 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: for example, speed, security and 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 non-governmental 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.

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 heroic idealizations of the current web, on the one hand, and determinist cost-benefit analyses of it on the other. 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 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 (1762), 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 patronizes young learners while, at the same time, 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 until 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 a 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 sceptic 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.

By the same token, these books encourage us to rethink the beginnings of Polish computing. Influenced by Soviet as well as American models, early Polish computers had many of the features Rankin and Clark praise. Slow to adopt device personalization, Polish computing lingered longer in the realm of collective projects and time-sharing, and within academic circles. These early projects, which include the Odra line of hardware and a number of university-sponsored supercomputing centres, remain unstudied beyond small specialist circles. Rankin’s and Clark’s books show why examining the alternative modes of digital sociality that underpin them might prove historically as well as politically fascinating.

Marta Figlerowicz

Marta Figlerowicz is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and of English at Yale University. She has taught or plans to teach courses on modernism, literary and critical theory, and contemporary cinema. She is also a co-organizer of Utopia after Utopia, a research initiative on contemporary post-socialist critical theory and art practice. Her first book, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford UP, 2016), discusses an odd group of characters – found across the long history of the French and British novel – that simplify in the course of a narrative, instead of deepening and expanding. Her second book, Spaces of Feeling (Cornell UP, 2017) studies representations of intersubjective affective awareness and unawareness in early- to mid-20th-century American, British, and French fiction and poetry. In addition to her academic work, Marta Figlerowicz writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as n+1, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Post45 (Contemporaries), MAKE Literary Magazine and Boston Review. She is a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, which she joined as a Junior Fellow in 2013.

An earlier version of this article appeared in English as ‘Counter-Histories of the Internet’, Public Books, 25 February 2019. Accessed 26 June:

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