Is the Internet a boon to capitalists or anarchists? Tyrants or dissidents? The powerful or the powerless? The short answer is “yes.” The Internet has made fortunes in e-commerce just as it aids hackers who wish to attack online storefronts (see Anonymous’s attack of Amazon.com in 2010). The Internet makes it easier for oppressive governments to track and control public political speech, just as it has created spaces wherepublic political speech is easier to create than ever before (see China’s weibo microblogging services). While the Internet allows anyone with access to an Internet connection the ability to upload a YouTube video or create a blog or Facebook page for free, those services are owned by private corporations with market valuations in the billions. Your self expression is their pay-day.
We should not be surprised that today’s Internet is contradictory; it always has been. In fact, this contestation over the meaning of the Internet even precedes the Internet itself. As an illustration, let’s go back to the 1960’s, an era of contestation if ever there was one. On the one hand it was an era of unprecedented challenge to authority. Movements for gay rights, civil rights, and women’s liberation surged in the US and thirty-three African countries gained independence. It was also a time of great violence and repression. It was the height of the Cold War, a decade that began with the Bay of Pigs invasion (a moment when the Cold War almost got Hot) and included a vicious proxy war in Vietnam, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and the violent Cultural Revolution in China, in which at least a million people were killed.
In this decade two precursors to the Internet emerged. The first was SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), a huge and hugely-expensive government-funded MIT and IBM-built compute, which connected radar tracking stations for the purpose of identifying and firing upon Soviet bombers in US airspace. Though the first SAGE Division became operational in 1959, by 1963 there were 22 Sector Direction Centers across the country, which collected radar data, transmitted digitally through telephone modems. At each center an operator could read radar data on a yellow terminal screen (see left) and then give commands as to whether to engage with targets (the final human decision is what made the system “semi-automatic”).
This vision of the Internet was non-generative (computers built for a single function), controlled by elites (government, corporations, top universities), not accessible to or designed for public use, and tremendously expensive. The basic Internet structure provided by the telephone modems was part of a secret government project and was a weapon of war. Each SAGE computer weighed 300 tons and filled a four-story building. The entire project cost approximately $10 billion dollars. There is debate as to whether the system was ever functional and, in any case, it never shot down a single Soviet bomber.
In 1968 an entirely different vision of the Internet was born, this time on paper. It was the Whole Earth Catalog. Its creator, Stewart Brand was – not to put too fine a point on it – a hippie. He was a friend of Ken Kesey‘s, was profiled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and originally envisioned the catalog as a resource for people living in the back-to-the-land commune movement. (The catalog includes sections like “Shelter and Land Use” and “Industry and Craft”.)
Yet there was a greater goal. J. Baldwin, one of the the catalog’s editors, remembers Brand’s vision: “I want to make this thing called a ‘whole Earth’ catalog so that anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything.” As Steve Jobs pointed out forty years later, “it was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” The last WEC was published in 1998, when the Internet made it obsolete by serving the same purpose more efficiently.
Where SAGE was narrow and non-generative, the WEC was full of user-generated content. Informed individuals were paid $10 to review a product and the writing style was friendly and personal, like a blog post. Where SAGE was a private endeavor that enriched a private company, IBM, the WEC was not designed to make money. The catalog did not sell the products it listed, but rather provided listings of reliable vendors. Where SAGE was not designed for public use, WEC was designed specifically to make the world’s information accessible to ordinary people – even if they were living out on a commune. And it was not only made for ordinary (free-thinking, quirky, iconoclastic) people, it was made with them. A page from a 1969 catalog notes, “If the supplier gives you poor service, please let us know. That information can be added to his review.” WEC was apparently also a predecessor of Yelp.
Though the Internet of today looks a lot more like the Whole Earth Catalog than like SAGE, it is still being contested, right now through SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which aims to stop the online distribution of pirated media by making it easier to shut down sites that distribute it. More worryingly, SOPA also makes Internet service providers and social media platforms liable for pirated content shared on their platform, in effect encouraging them to pro-actively censor content the way China social media platforms already do. (Read more about the implications of SOPA here, from Rebecca MacKinnon and Ivan Sigal).
Is the Internet a boon to capitalists or anarchists? Corporations or individuals? Producers or consumers? The answer is still being contested.