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Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet

Author: Michael Hauben, Ronda Hauben
Publisher: Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society Press, 1997
Review Published: October 1999

 REVIEW 1: Benjamin J. Bates

With the Internet well into its third generation, we're beginning to see writers move from mere speculative visions to a more historical approach to the development and impact of computer networks. Michael and Ronda Hauben provide their readers with such an approach in Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Largely based on a collection of articles originally appearing in the Amateur Computerist, the authors use anecdotal evidence and their own early experiences to take a somewhat different tack from most Internet histories which tend to treat the Internet as arising in a straight line from its ARPANET roots. The book's strength comes from the fact that the Haubens have correctly recognized that the Internet has emerged from several distinct technological developments and utilization trends, including other early networking systems (such as BITNET, FIDOnet), the development of a widely available open platform (UNIX), and an initially unpredicted but highly-valued type of use (Usenet). They also tend to focus on the forces driving developments rather than the results, which provides a stronger basis for considering how the Internet will continue to develop and impact society. The book's greatest weakness is that it is more a collection of papers than a coherent whole -- some topics are duplicated, and others are clearly filler material.

The book is divided into four parts. The first provides a bit of a foundation for their approach, largely focusing on the Usenet as an exemplar for their vision of the Internet as a networked platform for interactive communication and the building of virtual communities. The second section shifts to a somewhat more traditional historical review. The third section turns to more current issues, with two chapters addressing the history of the move to commercialize and privatize the Net and a chapter reflecting on NTIA's 1994 Virtual Conference on Universal Service and Open Access. Two other chapters are tossed in, one on the Net and journalism, and a short exploration of a New York newsgroup. The final section is called "contributions towards developing a theoretical framework," and consists of three unrelated speculative pieces.

In their opening chapter, the Haubens identify their particular focus and perspective as the empowerment of the individual within the "grand intellectual and social commune in the spirit of the collective nature present at the origins of human society" (5) that is the Net, and is reflected in the concept of "netizen." They trace this conceptualization to J. C. R. Licklider who, while not the originator of such concepts, was in a position to implement them from his leadership position at ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office (the original funder of ARPANET). They support their emphasis on empowerment and community-building by quoting extensively from responses to several Usenet postings asking for comments on impacts and uses of the Internet. The next two chapters look at the development of Usenet, provide a basic history, and examine the role played by the rise of ARPANET and UNIX as providing a model and a foundation for the development of Usenet. The final short chapter considers Usenet as more of a social network than a computer network, arguing for the importance of Usenet as a model for cooperative information systems and community-building.

The real strength of this book comes with the historical discussions in the second and third sections. Here the Haubens provide some fascinating insights into the evolution of thinking about computing from single devices to connected networks as a mechanism for time-sharing to an emphasis on interactive communication. Chapter 5 introduces Licklider's vision of an "'intergalactic network,' a time-sharing-utility" (72), and the importance of promoting access to the network. Chapter 6 provides a good grounding in the roots of computing and cybernetics, particularly of the contribution of Norbert Wiener, both as scholar and as convenor of regular interdisciplinary seminars on computer communications held at MIT. The Haubens suggest that the true key, though, was the development of the concept of time-sharing, with its emphasis on communication and shared resources. The next two chapters examine the role of the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA) in supporting research in computer science, and through the development of ARPANET.

Chapter 9 shifts focus away from ARPA to examine the roots of UNIX, finding them again in the concept of time-sharing and the need to develop an operating system which could handle time-sharing and the wide variety of applications and collaborative research that would likely to be found on such systems. The Haubens also discuss the importance of open source code to the diffusion and impact of the UNIX system. Chapter 10 continues the UNIX story, discussing its importance in providing a shared, stable foundation for the development of online communities through the UUCP connection protocols. The flexibility of UNIX was also important for the developers of Usenet, who initial foresaw "a maximum size of 100 sites, and 1-2 articles a day, net-wide" (166). The historical overview then tracks the development of Usenet, from the cross-linking with the ARPANET through its continuing development as an international public network. These chapters abound with recollections of participants, providing insights into some of the motivations and linkages which make Netizens more than a history of technology.

The historical overview continues into the first chapters in the third section, as the Haubens examine the more recent activities of the government in shaping the development of the Net. Chapter 11 looks at the NTIA Conference on the Future of the Net, held in 1994, and Chapter 12 looks at an earlier private conference held at Harvard University. The Haubens argue that the plan to privatize the Internet was largely agreed upon at that conference, under the pretense that it was unfair for the government to offer a service that could be offered privately, even if it could do so more cheaply and universally. As the Haubens present it, the fix was in, and the NSF unilaterally undertook the privatization of the net, actively seeking to restrict dissenting opinions and violating guidelines mandating the collection of public comment and the provision of reasoned documentation supporting what was a significant policy change. The result was the NII Agenda for Action which recommended "turn(ing) the public Net over to the private sector, thereby subordinating the more advanced academic and public sectors involved with the Net to the private sector" (220).

The NTIA online conference, called in response to criticism that public and academic concerns were not being addressed, provided a unique opportunity to learn and address the concerns of those being directly affected by policy. In Chapter 11, the Haubens quote extensively from the public comments, documenting the public concerns over access and the NTIA's emphasis on high-profit broadcast uses, and how the dialogue contributed to the identification of the principles that should shape policy debates. The conference is discussed further in Chapter 14, where the Haubens use it as a foundation for discussing the impact of the Net on politics. There, more quotes from the online debates on a variety of issues are used to illustrate the positive role that the Net can have in facilitating public discourse on policies and other public issues. The NTIA conference showed clearly that the Net can contribute to the political and policy process by raising the level of public participation and discourse. Whether that discourse is heeded, or even considered, though, is another question. The Haubens state that the final result of the NTIA online conference, however, was that "although the stated goal of the conference was to broaden citizen participation in policy development, the government ignored the concerns and voices raised during the online conference and went ahead with the plans to privatize" the Net (211).

The remaining chapters add little more of substance to the book. Chapter 13 looks at journalism and the Net, focusing on the ability to use the Net to bypass traditional journalism without really addressing the underlying issues of whether that's good, bad, or a mixed bag of both. Chapter 15 is a throw-away looking anecdotally at a couple of uses of a community newsgroup. Chapter 16 attempts to link the rise of Usenet with the diffusion of the printing press in Europe, not very compellingly. Chapter 17 calls itself an economic perspective, but reads like a bad college paper that tosses quotes as a substitute for thoughtfulness without really saying anything substantive. Chapter 18 is a short call for action, using John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine to support the ideal of universal access to the Net.

Netizens is a mixed bag. Its weakness lies the fact that it reads like a series of separate, although somewhat conceptually connected, articles. It's not a coherent whole, and there are parts which really don't contribute much to the central theme. The book's strength is in dealing with what could be called the social history of the Net; in compiling and abstracting comments and recollections, providing the background behind the technological history. Netizens is worth reading for the insights the Haubens provide into forces, motivations, and personalities driving the development of the Internet.

Benjamin J. Bates:
Benjamin J. Bates is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Broadcasting, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Information Sciences, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research focuses on the social forces shaping the evolution of communication systems, and he's published widely in the areas of new technologies and information systems, and telecommunications/information policy and economics. 

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