Janet Abbate, “Inventing the Internet”

Janet Abbate, writing in 1999, claims that previous histories of the internet have failed to adequately combine narratives of origins and narratives of use. The internet is a special case for historians in that its origins and development conflate the two: that is, the form it has taken has been influenced not only by its original designers, but also its various users. Furthermore, those various influences can be thought of in terms of the social values held by the various designer and user communities. Embedded in Abbate’s history, then, is a theory of innovation–however narrowly applied–that is non-hierarchical, use-centered, and social constructionist.

The original impetus for the internet was of course military. In the context of the Cold War, survivability and flexibility of communications during wartime were of paramount concern. Paul Baran, working for the Rand corporation, proposed a decentralized network model based upon “packet switching.” Instead of a central switching station that routed incoming messages to outgoing destinations, Baran designed a system of nodes, each of which was capable of routing pieces of information to other nodes in a vast network. This sort of network would be flexible enough to withstand a great deal of damage without compromising its function. In the digital realm, this became packet switching, the fundamental technology underling the ARPANET, and later the internet.

While military values dictated the basic structure of the network, its actual implementation was heavily influenced by the academic scientists who built it. For them, the operative values were collegiality, decentralization of authority, and the open exchange of information. Thus there was at first no distinction between users and administrators. Because the network was seen primarily as a way to facilitate the sharing of scientific data, all users were able to modify the system itself at the software level, to better optimize it for those purposes. Over time, the original two-layer system–which consisted of a host layer and a communications layer that actually did the packet switching–was split into a three layer system, adding an applications layer. Abbate claims that this was done for social reasons: local sites (universities) had complete access to the system, but had originally had no ability to modify the applications that utilized the network. The addition of an applications layer at the level of the network node gave control of applications to local sites. This is turn resulted in the network evolving in unforeseen ways, as new applications were written and promulgated across the network from various sites. This resulted in programs being written for email and (much later) the World Wide Web.

These communication programs lead to a paradigm shift in the usage of the network: originally designed and utilized for resource sharing, its focus shifted to being a communications platform. This in turn lead to a vast widening of the user base and development of technologies that would expand its communication and commercial capabilities, giving rise to the internet in its present form.


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1 Comment

  1. […] the academics who first defined its structure through their early use patterns (see Janet Abbatte, “Inventing the Internet”). These hackers and academics both functioned on the basis of gift economies, and carried those […]

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