Inventing the Internet
Author: Janet Abbate
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: December 2000
Janet Abbate's book, Inventing the Internet, is a history of the Internet from its development to the introduction of Mosaic in the early 1990s. As a computer programmer and historian Abbate is well suited to the task of creating a detailed history of this medium. Early in her introduction she ponders the inherent contraction that exists within the construction of the Internet: "the Internet had been built and funded by the Department of Defense, yet here I was using the system to chat with my friends and to swap recipes with strangers -- rather like taking a tank for a joyride" (2). This contradiction is the intended focus of her book. While the Internet was originally funded by the Department of Defense, its first users were military and academic. This combination lead to the creation of a medium of communication that is both flexible, fast, impossible to shut down, and well suited to accommodate the changing needs of its users. Abbate works to map the social forces that moved the Internet from a cold war network of computers to a global system of communication. As she accurately summarizes in her introduction, the identity of the Internet as a communication tool was made, not given. The topic of this book is very interesting to me. Unfortunately, this book doesn't read as a social history of the Internet. It reads more like a history of the technology used to create the Internet. Just as there is a difference between a history of television and a history of television technology, there is a difference between a history of the Internet, and a history of Internet technology. Abbate aims for the first, but achieves the second.
It is clear from this book that Abbate is an excellent researcher. Inventing the Internet is a warehouse of information concerning its early days. She read old conference proceedings, newsletters, government documents, internal documents from industry, email exchanges, and interviewed a number of key figures in the Internet's past. Her bibliography is worth the price of the book. I admire an author who does her homework; for this book Abbate did everyone's homework. In fact, the strength of this book lies in the value of her research. This book is a valuable reference tool.
While Inventing the Internet is a useful reference tool, it is not a great read. My chief problem in understanding this book could have been solved by a discerning editor. Abbate over uses acronyms to abbreviate her terms. She uses acronyms to name government agencies, public businesses, computer technology, international organizations, and concepts. Her use of acronyms makes the book difficult to read; determining what an acronym means is often frustrating. These abbreviations are used with a vengeance throughout the book. At first, I simply tried remembering all of the abbreviations. This proved to be impossible. The first chapter alone introduces: ARPA, ARPANET, DCA, AUTOVON, NPL, GPO, EPSS, IPTO, and BBN . My next option, which I briefly tried, I admit, was to skim over the abbreviations in hope that their content didn't really matter to this history of the Internet. Foolish, I know, but very tempting under the circumstances. I quickly realized that the best answer was to create my own list of abbreviations and keep it at my side while reading. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. Abbate often would use an acronym without alerting the reader to its meaning. For example, she fails to tell the reader that BBN stands for Bolt, Beranek and Newman. I had to page to the Index to discover this. This is not a solitary example; I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that there are one or two acronyms I never could figure out. But I don't consider this to be Abbate's problem. She has clearly worked inside of the material for years. Abbate knows exactly what she's talking about when she writes about ISO, NSF, MERIT, PTTs, CITT and the like . But an editor should have caught the excessive and often confusing use of acronyms and alerted the author to make some changes. Too often this seemingly small problem makes the book difficult to follow, frustrating to read, and hard to digest.
The use of acronyms is frustrating and confusing, but not the only problem of the book. The aim of the book is off, given the author's stated intentions. Abbate's history of the Internet is uneven. Inventing the Internet often allocates too much time to some of the less important aspects of the development of the Internet, while passing by important milestones. For example, she dedicates a chapter to the problem of creating international standards with regard to technology. At the same time, the impact of other crucial moments pass by with only a brief mention. For example, early in Internet history Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the company working to create part of the ARPANET infrastructure lost the sole rights to the source code that made the message processors work. Abbate covers this subject in the following way, "One of the more heated conflicts within the ARPANET community arose when BBN refused to share the source code for the IMP programs with other contractors, who protested that they needed to know how the IMP's were programmed in order to do their own work effectively. The authorities at ARPA eventually intervened and established that BBN had no legal right to withhold the source code and had to make it freely available" (71).
This is paramount to saying "Microsoft lost the right to Window's source code." This is a very important moment in the history of the Internet. One of the reasons the Internet runs as it does today, is because early on no one company, or person, held the rights to the hardware or software used to build it. We can all create code for the Internet precisely because businesses like BBN were not allowed that control. This is central to Abbate's point about the Internet being 'user friendly,' and she misses an opportunity to tie the 'user friendly' nature of the Internet with the bigger picture: economics, the power of information, and corporate capitalism. She takes resolution of the debate for granted: of course ARPA refused Bolt Baranek Newman the sole rights to the source code. But it could have gone the other way, and if it had, the Internet would look very different today. Either, we wouldn't be talking about the Internet as a great new medium, because, it never would have gotten off of the ground as it did. Or, if it did take off, Bolt, Baranek, and Newman would be bigger than Bill Gates.
Another example, then I'll move on. Today we accept the Internet as a private enterprise; it is not government owned and anyone with the financial resources can, within the boundaries of federal law, use the Internet. This was not always the case. In fact, until 1991, commercial use was banned from the Internet. While Abbate discusses the history that lead to the commercialization of the Internet, she fails to give any sense of the impact of this moment in Internet history. Abbate writes, "In November of 1991 the NSF issued a new Project Development Plan, which was implemented in 1994. Under the new plan, Internet service should be taken over by competitive Internet Service Providers (ISPs), each of which would operate its own backbone, and the old NSFNET would be dismantled. Customers would connect their computers or LANs to one of the commercial backbones. There would be a set of gateways, called "exchanges," at which two or more ISPs would connect their systems according to bilateral agreements, thus allowing traffic to be sent from on network to another" (199).
Abbate discusses the technical aspects of this shift from governmental ownership to private control. She asks who will manage the backbone of the Internet when it leaves government hands, she does not make clear the amazing impact this act had on the system. When the National Science Foundation, and therefore the government, got out of the Internet business, it exploded. Abbate does not address this fundamental change in any compelling fashion. The chapter of the book dealing with the privatization of the Internet is called, "Popularizing the Internet," but a reader would have to know the end of the story to understand the impact of the history she recounts here. This is a problem with the book in general; the impact of the history Abbate discusses is often left for the reader to figure out. This is a book to be read by someone who already knows the history of the Internet, and is looking for more detail.
Abbate intends to do a social history of the Internet, but it often comes off as a history of the technology: who created it, who controlled it, why and when. This isn't a bad thing. A good solid technical history of the Internet is useful, and Abbate often provides that history. The problem is, she promises more.
While she doesn't deliver as much as she promises, she does deliver some useful insights. For example, Abbate's discussion of the development of the Internet via the needs of its producers/users is wonderful. Abbate invites the reader to remember that at its inception the Internet was built by the very people using it. There was no distinction, (or not much distinction) between those who used the Net and those who created it. One of the men involved in the early days of the ARPANET wrote a paper that became as Abbate states, "a manifesto for reorienting computer science and technology to serve the needs and aspirations of the human user, rather than forcing the user to adapt to the machine" (43). The ARPANET was intended to be a network that connected computers across the country, but it eventually became a network that connected computer users across the country. Because users and producers were one in the same, the network developed to meet the needs of the intellectual community using government machines (remembering that ARPANET was originally a network organizing machines bought and paid for by Uncle Sam). While producer/users were busy working out hardware problems, software problems, and problems with both hardware and software standards, one of the most important elements of ARPANET slipped in the back door: e-mail. Abbate explains how in the early years of the ARPANET the network was underutilized, so ARPANET administrators didn't see the need to stop mailing lists that organized, 'science fiction lovers,' for example (85). Mailing lists and email slipped in the back door and eventually became one of the most popular, and compelling, aspects of the network (106-111).
Abbate's discussion of the user driven nature of the early Internet is not simplistic. She is careful to point out that while ARPANET was friendly to its user/producers, it was not friendly to new users (84). If a person was able to get onto the network (no easy task), there was no single place to go to find out how to work the thing. There weren't manuals of instruction, and 'address books' were often out of date (this was back before the days of sophisticated search engines) (86). She is careful to give an accurate picture of the early days of the Internet, and she does this.
However, she misses the opportunity to make to important points concerning the relationship between the Net and its users. First, women are conspicuously absent from this tale. Abbate doesn't miss them, they weren't there, except, perhaps as, secretaries, and images in a 'photo-op.' While Abbate doesn't leave out the women from her story, she doesn't make much of their absence, or about the location of their limited presence. Abbate uses a wonderful image in her book; it is a picture of a young blonde woman turning on a Mark I computer (33). The young woman rests one arm on the computer, smiles at the camera and flips a switch with the other hand. I find this image fascinating, given the user population at the time (early 1970s). But Abbate misses the opportunity to comment on the image. She uses it to show us the computer. She doesn't discuss the woman in the image. Abbate also fails to discuss the present relationship between producer and user on the Internet. There is an important shift in the history of the Internet, and it passes by unmentioned: users and producers are no longer synonymous on the Internet. There are producers and there are users. Some users are still producers, but most, now, are not. The Internet has become a consumable media, like television. This shift is nowhere examined.
I must say I was disappointed by this book. At the same time I was, and am, in awe of the information contained within its two covers. This book is a resource concerning the history of the technology of the Internet, as it was built and changed hands. If I ever need to know some technical detail about how international standards were adopted with regard to packet switching I will pick up this book. But it is not a compelling or balanced social history of the Internet.
1. ARPA: Advanced Research Projects Agency; ARPANET: ARPA's early version of the Internet; DCA: Defense Communications Agency; AUTOVON: Automatic Voice Network; NPL: National Physics Laboratory; GPO: General Post Office; EPSS: Experimental Packet Switching Service; IPTO: Information Processing Techniques Office; BBN: Bolt, Beranek and Newman.
2. ISO: International Organization for Standardization; NSF: National Science Foundation; PPTs: Post Telegraph and Telephone administrations; MERIT: Michigan Educational Research Information Triad; CITT: Consultative Committee on International Telegraphy and Telephony.
Linda Baughman is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech and Theatre at Saint Lawrence University, located in the hinterlands of New York. She teaches courses on cultural studies, internet technology, and sexual identity. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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