Netizen Kafka?

The late Roy Rosenzweig’s review essay on histories of the internet (I refuse to capitalize it) presents so many thought-provoking opportunities for reflection and discussion, and I find it hard to narrow it down for a blog post.  He very deftly weaves his way among these ideologically disparate yet overlapping histories in a manner that creates what becomes a far more comprehensive–and far more plausible–origin story than any single account. It took on the shape of its subject: rather than a linear meta-history of the internet-as-paradigm-shift, driven by Great Men and Their Ideas, the essay created a kind of rhizomatic or collage-like narrative, governed as much by personalities, events, and ideas as by their critical intersections or juxtapositions in time and space.  As I followed him through this more “networked” history of a network, one question recurred:  at these various junctures, who had the power, how were they using it, and why?  (OK, that’s three questions.)

In fact, the subtext of this review essay seems to be all about the issue of control. And its composite history of the internet takes on a familiar dialectical rhythm around control and decentralization.  Brief and totally oversimplified, it goes like this:

The internet developed from Cold War communications infrastructure that required integration, to ensure centralized command and control over defense systems. The Department of Defense (DoD) developed tools, in conjunction with well-funded research institutions, that enabled different types of computers within its systems to communicate with each other. As these embryonic networks of computers developed, it became clear that the networks themselves needed to be integrated. ARPANET seemed to solve that problem, and once again the government had centralized control over computing-as-communication in the service of national defense. Until groups of users affiliated (or formerly affiliated) with these partner institutions also wanted in. Disgruntled hippie scientists created Usenet to be “the people’s ARPANET.” Now there was a parallel network  for information that wanted to be free. Soon the DoD retrenched, established a hippie-free private net-fiefdom,  and made the resources of ARPANET available to Netizens for further independent development. This decentralization prompted the establishment of protocols to integrate and govern a “meta network”–the internet more or less as we know it now. Yet this ultimately created new opportunities for control: highly lucrative opportunities for individual Netizens who favorably positioned themselves. Personal computing was the next big thing. It wasn’t long before the market was awash with hardware, operating systems, and software (much of them incompatible with each other).

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