A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.
Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.
Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.
It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?