[ih] [EXTERNAL] Re: New Republic Article - "How We Misremember the Internet’s Origins"

Jonathan Grudin jgrudin at microsoft.com
Fri Nov 1 18:41:31 PDT 2019

Agreed. I was a student ARPANET user in the 70s. Ted to Vint’s note about commercialization is that national politics were there but in retrospect seem a less important cultural influence than the very high homogeneity and trust in the community. In the 1960s, benign future scenarios were painted by AI researchers and engineers (Bush, Engelbart, Nelson…). In the late 70s, anyone anywhere with a modem could log on as a guest and access any file on the MIT AI Lab PDP-10. The occasional virus or worm was generally a prank or benign and did not trigger strong security responses. Perhaps some of you were thinking early and hard about bad actors, but the extraordinary redirection of resources to security coincided with commercialization and the web overwhelming the homogeneous trusting community. Designers who see positive potential still often don’t consider how bad actors and those operating along a continuum of shades of gray will subvert their inventions. When recently told that the deepest account of how to execute effective A/B testing will be published, I wondered, “Would we publish the design of a nuclear bomb anyone can make from seawater?” My technological optimism of the 70s is more difficult to connect to each passing year.


From: Internet-history <internet-history-bounces at elists.isoc.org> On Behalf Of John Day
Sent: Friday, November 1, 2019 6:13 PM
To: Darius Kazemi <darius.kazemi at gmail.com>
Cc: internet-history at elists.isoc.org; Noel Chiappa <jnc at mercury.lcs.mit.edu>
Subject: [EXTERNAL] Re: [ih] New Republic Article - "How We Misremember the Internet’s Origins"

One last set of comments before I get on a plane for 6 hours...

On Fri, Nov 1, 2019, 8:08 PM Noel Chiappa <jnc at mercury.lcs.mit.edu<mailto:jnc at mercury.lcs.mit.edu>> wrote:

I've read it numerous times over the day, trying to work it out, and I focus
on the last para, where she says:

  "But even the most ad hoc of these events occurred in a particular
  ideological context. What is the result of ignoring or blithely denying that
  context? Lo and behold: It looks a lot like 2019"

which sounds like she's unhappy that we didn't think through how it would be
used, and do a better job to pre3vent, or at least influence, that.

I disagree with this. What she is saying is that latter day technologists and historians deny the context in which the internet was created, and that gets us to our current problems.

They do?  There was a lot of utopian thinking going on during that period. Not all of it made a big splash, such as the group that was discussing Jean Iseli’s I-colony discussions. How does the politics of then lead us to where we are?

If anything, we didn’t foresee how many people would try to use this for less than good purposes.

An earlier
para seems to agree with that:

  "But perhaps the most enduring truth of the internet is that so many of its
  foundational moments and decisive turning points emerged from ad hoc actions
  and experiments undertaken with little sense of foresight or posterity.”

Like what?  My concern is that had we had 20-20 foresight, people wouldn’t like it very much.

There is the possibility that if the Internet had gone through the same transition as most research: productization, deployment to business first (usually early technology is expensive and business does it first), then to the consumer. That some (and I stress ’some’) of the bad aspects of the Internet would have been avoided.  But I don’t see any of those decisions preventing the kinds of problems we have today with Facebook, etc.  All of this is in a domain that the ’technical innovations’ of the 70s and 80s barely touched, i.e. what kinds of applications could be built.

But then there's this:

  "But this is another recurring theme seen in the many moments of ad hoc
  internet history: By emphasizing the technical innovations (and obsessive
  dedication to them) as more important than the political and economic
  contexts in which they were germinated, the graybeards of internet history
  .. perpetuate the illusion that technology magically exists outside of
  politics, rather than existing in a constant dialogue with it."

which sounds more like she's saying that contemporary politics played a large
role in making the Internet look like what it is.

She uses the phrase "internet history" because she is critiquing the way we historicize the internet. Her thesis is that contemporary politics played a large role in making the internet look like what it looks like, *even if* the decisions in the moment were ad hoc. As John pointed out earlier, even ad hoc decisions were made by humans out there in the world with their own political leanings. But the tech industry in particular pushes a narrative of political neutrality *today* that is projected on the internet of the past, one that is not true. It is in the title of the essay even: this is an essay about how we remember the internet, not about what happened at the time.

What she seems to be forgetting is that this is about the 50th anniversary of the ARPANET, not the Internet. The Internet was based on a totally different concept, and while there is some overlap. The lack of overlap is also significant.

There was a remark earlier that Bob Kahn was hardly a hippie.  The thing about the ARPANET was there was a wide range of people in involved.  There were senior people who had real jobs and had finished school before the 60s really took off or were deeply buried in their dissertation when it did.  Then there was a group just a few years younger for whom it was a totally different experience. Both had a significant hand in how things went.

I have offered this conjecture on here before:

Suppose some DCA bureaucrat had been put in charge of IANA, rather than Postel.  What would have happened?

Or Suppose instead of ARPA springing for really expensive super fast 56K lines, we had more normal 9.6K. What would be talking about?

If so, why couldn't she just start out by saying 'The Internet looks like what
it is today because of the political environment at the time it was created -
both in general, and around the people who created it.' Then she could go on
to explain how and why - lay out the detail in an organized way to back up her

This is how I would write a college essay about the topic but probably not what the New Republic is looking for, in terms of style.

I thought journalism was all about clear concise prose.  What is the New Republic interested in?

I think people here are being defensive (understandable) and missing the point that this is a criticism of present day myth making around the internet and how it (the myth!) is used to further agendas of various actors.

I don’t think she understands the history or the myth.

Take care,

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