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Who built the internet?

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 31 January 2013

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

Photo by quinn anya (Creative Commons)

A debate sparkled recently after president Barack Obama said the internet was the result of a government project. Analysts from mainstream media shared their perspectives suggesting that corporations, some intelligent people, everyone or indeed the government should claim responsibility for starting this communication revolution and the topic became a series of posts at the anthropological blog Savage Minds. But amid these conflicting views there is room left for at least one more position: that no one invented the internet.

Yes, the US government paid for Arpanet, the “Eve” of computer networks, but it was not meant to be a communication device for people. As Kevin Kelly has argued earlier, nobody predicted the arrival of the internet and actually, he adds, until quite recently many people doubted that a form of entertainment based on typing would convince more than a handful of enthusiasts to give up TV.

One of the ways of conceiving the internet is as a tool for group communication. Shirky* explains that networked computer communication combines the interactivity of telephones and the reach of television or radio to provide a solution for many people to interact with each other. And this particular element – the possibility of group conversations – was brought to Arpanet by chance as one of the computer engineers installed extra officially a program for email.

The point is that, until then, this email-like program allowed people sharing the same computer to leave messages to one another (computers were quite expensive in the 1960s). As Arpanet connected various computers, this service opened unforeseen possibilities. Suddenly people living apart in different cities could communicate in an interesting fashion: not just it was possible to have more than two participants, they did not have to be simultaneously connected.

As the story about the internet is reviewed, one particular bit seems to always be present: after the installation of this first email program, email quickly became the primary reason for people using the network. It is said that in less than two years, ¾ of the data circulating through connected computers consisted of this kind of text messages meant for humans to use. I feel that what makes this minimal bit of historic data relevant is that it portrays our own surprise with this new communication tool. In other words, what is surprising here is that Arpanet ostensibly belonged to the military, but was quietly re-purposed to serve a different function without anybody even knowing about it.

This argument is similar but significantly different from Steven Johnson’s, who defended the internet as a product of a collective effort. The difference is that for him there is an intention attracting the multiple collaborators working together – as in projects like Linux – whereas through this new perspective, there wasn’t one or not the same kind of intention.

So maybe the argument here is that the internet, in similarity to cities, languages and cultures, resulted not from our abity 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.

* Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together. Penguin, 2009.