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The Internet? We Built That

| September 21, 2012 | 0 Comments


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.

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

Filed Under: Internet News

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