The Internet? We Built That

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September 21, 2012

The Internet? We Built That


Who created the Internet and why should we care? These questions, so often raised during the Bush-Gore election in 2000, have found their way back into the political debate this season — starting with one of the most cited texts of the preconvention campaign, Obama’s so-called “you didn’t build that” speech. “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama argued, in the lines that followed his supposed gaffe. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” In other words: business uses the Internet, but government made it happen.

About a week after Obama’s speech, The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz took on those lines from Obama’s speech, claiming it was an “urban legend” that the government built the Internet. Credit for the early networking innovations, Crovitz argued, belonged to private-sector companies like Xerox and Apple. It was no accident, he observed, that the Net languished in relative obscurity for two decades until private corporations and venture capitalists turned their focus to it.

So what had once seemed to be a relatively stable narrative grounding has in recent months erupted with all sorts of political tremors. For most of the past two decades, the story of the Internet’s origins followed a fairly standardized plot: the Internet was originally developed by computer scientists whose research was heavily financed by the federal government, most notably through Darpa, the research arm of the Defense Department. Some narratives emphasized the decentralized network architecture designed by Paul Baran to survive a nuclear strike; others gave credit to the British programmer Tim Berners-Lee, whose World Wide Web gave the Internet a more accessible hypertextual layer. And of course there were all those Al Gore jokes.

The renewed political stakes in the details of this origin story are obvious. If you believe Big Government built the most important communications platform of our time, then that success is a powerful riposte to all the standard claims about bureaucratic inefficiencies and incompetence. Government might be able to out-innovate the private sector, given the right focus and commitment (and freedom from being beholden to stockholders). But if you believe that the Internet’s success is largely attributable to the private sector, all the usual libertarian homilies remain untarnished.

So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital? The answer is: Neither. This is what’s most notable about the debate over the Net’s origins: it misses the most interesting part of the story. We live in a world that assumes that the most important and original products in society — bridges, cars, iPads, hospitals, 787s, houses — are created either by states or by corporations. And yet, against all odds, the Internet came from somewhere else entirely.

Like many of the bedrock technologies that have come to define the digital age, the Internet was created by — and continues to be shaped by — decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world. Yes, government financing supported much of the early research, and private corporations enhanced and commercialized the platforms. But the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.

Peer networks break from the conventions of states and corporations in several crucial respects. They lack the traditional economic incentives of the private sector: almost all of the key technology standards are not owned by any one individual or organization, and a vast majority of contributors to open-source projects do not receive direct compensation for their work. (The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has called this phenomenon “commons-based peer production.”) And yet because peer networks are decentralized, they don’t suffer from the sclerosis of government bureaucracies. Peer networks are great innovators, not because they’re driven by the promise of commercial reward but rather because their open architecture allows others to build more easily on top of existing ideas, just as Berners-Lee built the Web on top of the Internet, and a host of subsequent contributors improved on Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web.

Now imagine, for the sake of argument, that some Dr. Evil invented a kind of targeted magnetic-pulse device that could home in on peer-produced software; one push of the button, and every single line of code that had been created through open-source collaborative networks would instantly vanish. What would happen if that button were pushed?

For starters, the Internet and the Web would instantly evaporate. Every Android smartphone, every iPad, iPhone and Mac would go dark. A massive section of our energy infrastructure would cease to function. The global stock markets would go offline for weeks, if not longer. Planes would drop out of the sky. It would be an event on the scale of a world war or a pandemic.

In other words, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of peer production to the modern digital world. Peer networks created and maintain the Linux operating system on which Android smartphones are based; the UNIX kernel that Mac OS X and iOS devices use; and the Apache software that powers most Web servers in the world (not to mention the millions of entries that now populate Wikipedia). What sounds on the face of it like the most utopian of collectivist fantasies — millions of people sharing their ideas with no ownership claims — turns out to have made possible the communications infrastructure of our age.

It’s not enough to say that peer networks are an interesting alternative to states and markets. The state and the market are now fundamentally dependent on peer networks in ways that would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago.

Why is this distinction worth making? Why should we avoid the easy explanations of a government-built Internet versus one animated by private-sector entrepreneurs?

One reason is that there is a growing number of individuals and organizations who believe the digital success of peer networks can be translated into the “real” world. Peer networks laid the foundation for the scientific revolution during the Enlightenment, via the formal and informal societies and coffeehouse gatherings where new research was shared. The digital revolution has made it clear that peer networks can work wonders in the modern age. New organizations are using peer-network approaches to attack low-tech problems. Consider the way Kickstarter has used networks of smaller funders to help solve the problem of supporting creative projects. Only three years old, Kickstarter is now on track to distribute more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts.

But there is another, more subtle reason to stress the peer-network version of the Internet’s origins. We have an endless supply of folklore about heroic entrepreneurs who changed the world with their vision and their force of will. But as a society we lack master narratives of creative collaboration.

When we talk about change being driven by mass collaboration, it’s often in the form of protest movements: civil rights or marriage equality. That’s a tradition worth celebrating, but it’s only part of the story. The Internet (and all the other achievements of peer networks) is not a story about changing people’s attitudes or widening the range of human tolerance. It’s a story, instead, about a different kind of organization, neither state nor market, that actually builds things, creating new tools that in turn enhance the way states and markets work.

In the lines that followed his “you didn’t build that” comment, Obama managed to champion a collaborative ethos in much more eloquent terms: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country: you know what, there are some things we do better together.”

Obama is right, of course; life is full of things we do better together. But what the Internet and its descendants teach us is that there are now new models for doing things together, success stories that prove convincingly that you don’t need bureaucracies to facilitate public collaboration, and you don’t need the private sector to innovate.

That should be the story we tell our kids when they ask who invented the Internet. Yes, we should tell them about the long-view government spending that paid the initial salaries, and the entrepreneurs who figured out a way to make the new medium commercially viable. But we shouldn’t bury the lead. The Internet was built, first and foremost, by another network, this one made up not of servers but of human minds: open, decentralized, peer.

Steven Johnson is the author of “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age,” published this month.
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