From Our Book: ARPANET and the Birth of Digital Activism

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Trebor Scholz of The New School, is from the first section on contexts and presents a history of digital activism from the beginning of the ARPANET in 1969.

….Many changes have occurred since the first nodes of ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, were linked together in 1969. At that time, computers were enormous, clunky, and prohibitively expensive—one purpose of ARPANET, which was one of the projects of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, was to allow more scientists to work with these scarce. Instead of putting the networked computers to work on complex calculations, researchers turned ARPANET against the intentions of its creators by using it to communicate with one another. This was the single biggest unintended consequence of ARPANET.

ARPANET’s “network mail,” a precursor to today’s email, was not exclusively used to discuss research—it also helped distribute messages against the Vietnam War, hosted discussions about the Watergate scandal, and ultimately the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon.

At the same time, however, ARPANET also became a tool that helped the Pentagon shadow political activists. The American public became aware of ARPANET in the early 1970s—two years after it was activated. National media alerted them to the role of this research network in government surveillance. During the political unrest of the late 1960s, military intelligence had started to collect information about the location of firehouses and police precincts in dozens of American cities. One Pentagon official decided to add local troublemakers to this map. After the story broke in 1972, the Pentagon was ordered by a judge to destroy all related files. As was later revealed, however, the Pentagon used ARPANET to move these files to a new location in direct violation of the court order.

Since its inception, the Internet has helped to both control and empower citizens. At the outset, ARPANET provided a communication forum for male, Caucasian, middle-class scientists with a Department of Defense contract. The ARPANET was not the only networking solution available at the time, however. Several alternative and more open communication systems were on hand. Usenet, for example, was nicknamed “the people’s ARPANET,” because it offered easy access to networked communication for anyone with a dial-up connection.

In 1991, ARPANET became more available to the public when it was taken over by the National Science Foundation. Military restrictions no longer applied, thus allowing ARPANET to expand beyond the defense community. Foreign networks could also join, with Japan among the first. In 1987, the first Chinese connection was established and tested by sending an email from the Technical University in Beijing to the University Karlsruhe in Germany. Throughout Europe, the number of Internet sites skyrocketed in the early 1990s.

But military declassification was not enough. For broader reach, the network also needed a commonly agreed upon language, a set of protocols that computers worldwide could use to communicate with one another. Accordingly, many governments and countless organizations, globally, had to agree to use one specific language, one protocol suite. TCP/IP became the agreed-upon language that defined how information on the Internet transferred from computer to computer across national borders.

From the early 1990s on, people in their living rooms, basements, libraries, and schools not only started to use the Internet in large numbers, they also co-shaped it. Roughly two decades were needed for the circle of network users to achieve substantial international reach.

One thought on “From Our Book: ARPANET and the Birth of Digital Activism

  1. Congratulations on your book. This post is intriguing. And I expect to read the entire book.

    Just a minor doubt. According to online resources that I ran into, the first email sent from China to University of Karlsruhe in Germany was from Institute of Computer Application of State Commission of Machine Industry in Beijing, instead of Technical University in Beijing.

    Here is just one link came up from Google serach:
    And this is a web page in Chinese, containing a image of first email.

    I have not verified these sources, so I could be wrong here. If your statement is based on reliable sources, could you please direct me to them?

    And I know this may be a rather minor fact, but I do sincerely hope your book to be as flawless as it can be.

    Once again congratulations to all authors on this great book.

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