Essay by Kevin Driscoll: “Over the past few years, I’ve asked dozens of college students to write down, in a sentence or two, where the internet came from. Year after year, they recount the same stories about the US government, Silicon Valley, the military, and the threat of nuclear war. A few students mention the Department of Defense’s ARPANET by name. Several get the chronology wrong, placing the World Wide Web before the internet or expressing confusion about the invention of email. Others mention “tech wizards” or “geniuses” from Silicon Valley firms and university labs. No fewer than four students have simply written, “Bill Gates.”
Despite the internet’s staggering scale and global reach, its folk histories are surprisingly narrow. This mismatch reflects the uncertain definition of “the internet.” When nonexperts look for internet origin stories, they want to know about the internet as they know it, the internet they carry around in their pockets, the internet they turn to, day after day. Yet the internet of today is not a stable object with a single, coherent history. It is a dynamic socio-technical phenomenon that came into being during the 1990s, at the intersection of hundreds of regional, national, commercial, and cooperative networks—only one of which was previously known as “the internet.” In short, the best-known histories describe an internet that hasn’t existed since 1994. So why do my students continue to repeat stories from 25 years ago? Why haven’t our histories kept up?
The standard account of internet history took shape in the early 1990s, as a mixture of commercial online services, university networks, and local community networks mutated into something bigger, more commercial, and more accessible to the general public. As hype began to build around the “information superhighway,” people wanted a backstory. In countless magazines, TV news reports, and how-to books, the origin of the internet was traced back to ARPANET, the computer network created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency during the Cold War. This founding mythology has become a resource for advancing arguments on issues related to censorship, national sovereignty, cybersecurity, privacy, net neutrality, copyright, and more. But with only this narrow history of the early internet to rely on, the arguments put forth are similarly impoverished…(More)”.