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“The Internet is a product of the U.S. military” Discuss

The internet is a product of the US military only in the sense that the US military contributed to the development of the internet, but so did a lot of other researchers, institutions and forces. Furthermore, the internet we have today is far from what was envisaged in the 1960s. While it is true to say that the US military contributed to some of the elements that would help create the internet, it cannot be said to be a direct product of the military.In determining who (if anyone) was the creator of the internet we first need to ask what the internet is, which is not such an easy question as it appears, particularly as it is an amorphous, changing object. Abbate (1999 p3) considers the internet a “system of interconnected networks”. Peter (2004) supports this definition, but also points out that some people further require that it use TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) before qualifying as an internet. In terms of the early history of the internet Bob Taylor, quoted by Peter (2004), specifically states: “The ARPANet was not an internet. An internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.” The ARPANet was the network developed as a result of US military funding.

The US Defense Department’s Request for Quotations clearly refers to the creation of only one network, though it does place emphasis on the disparate nature of the computers and operating systems it would connect (“a highly inhomogenous network”) (Department of Defense, 1968, p. 23) as well as packet transmission and error recovery (Department of Defense, 1968, p. 28) all of which are elements that underpin the internet we know today.

If we have difficulty in defining the internet exactly, the next difficulty we encounter is determining at what point the internet should be dated from. Howe (2007) dates it to the early 1960s in general, and the “visionary thinking” of people such as J.C.R. Licklider who in 1962 suggested a worldwide network, and Lawrence Roberts who networked two computers in 1965 by telephone.

Anderberg (2007), remarkably, takes his timeline back to 700BC and the use of homing pigeons to send messages! It is fair to say that all technologies build on what has come before, but this illustrates how arbitrary choosing a start point can be.

Zakon (2006) dates his timeline from 1957 and the launch of Sputnik which prompted the development of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency – ARPA alternated its name with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) at various times (DARPA, 2006). ARPA is used throughout this document for convenience) though arguably the development of ARPA is not the same as the development of the internet, as pointed out above.

Stevenson (2001) remarks that the “internet” which existed in the sixties and seventies (ARPANet, the first network, came into existence in 1969) is not the same as the internet we now have: protocols were different, and communication was limited to telnet and ftp. The internet we are familiar with resulted from ongoing development building on the advances of the early researchers (including militarily funded research), and shaping by the users. For example, email did not exist until 1971 (Stevenson, 2001). The WWW or World Wide Web (what many popularly consider to be the internet) did not exist until 1989, as a result of development by Tim Berners-Lee (Zeltser, 1995) – which itself could be dated back to 1945 and Vannevar Bush’s concept of linked text (Bush, 1945) in the same way that “internet” timelines can go back decades or further. The WWW, and other uses of the internet today such as Instant Messaging, Peer to Peer file sharing, and Voice over Internet Protocol telephone calls are all subsequent developments to the ARPA funded research. The developing network that arose out of the innovations of the sixties and seventies was also very quickly used for unforeseen purposes, such as personal messages and a mailing list for discussion of Science Fiction (Sterling, 1993). Social factors were already beginning to warp and alter the construct of the fledgling internet even at the beginning.

The contribution of the military also needs to be assessed in order to determine if the internet is a product of it. Stevenson (2001) points out that ARPA, a branch of the US Defense Department, funded a variety of research programs, one of which was relevant to the internet we have today, but that the actual development work was “independent research at a variety of sites”. A significant aspect of this research was the development of packet switching (Stevenson, 2001) which is still the method of transferring data on the internet. This was not of much use until the further development of TCP/IP which allowed different protocols to communicate successfully across networks. TCP/IP was a group development, originally proposed by Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn in 1974 (Stevenson, 2001). This allowed the closed ARPANet to become part of a connection to open networks, thus creating what is generally regarded as an “internet”. The question of the contribution of the military is interesting, since in this case the military took something back from the academic community:

[W]hile computer scientists attempted to facilitate the creation of what Cerf has called a “highly robust technology for supporting military command and control,” ARPA adopted something of the hacker ethic in its acceptance of a decentralized structure and its virtually free distribution of protocol specifications in order to make TCP/IP ubiquitous. (Stevenson, 2001).

Abbate (1999, p2) states that the military created both the “Internet and its predecessor, the ARPANET” and strongly stresses the military funding, and application of military values over commercial values, in its development, though she also points out that it was a community of academic scientists who did the work, and that social forces helped shape that development and continue to do so (Abbate, 1999, p5).

Peter (2004) discusses five different theories of the origin of the internet, concluding that there were multiple factors (government/military, commercial, academic) that contributed to its development, and that promoting one entity or development as the “creation” of the internet is to ignore how many factors worked together to develop it. “In the end, the History of the Internet is better understood as the history of an era than that of a protocol.” (Peter, 2004).

It can therefore be seen that the internet is a product of the US military only in the sense that the US military contributed to the development of the internet, but so did a lot of other researchers, institutions and forces. Furthermore, the internet we have today is far from what was envisaged in the 1960s. While it is true to say that the US military contributed to some of the elements that would help create the internet, it cannot be said to be a direct product of the military.

References

Abbate, J. (1999). Inventing the Internet. Cambridge: Mass. MIT Press, 1-6. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from Curtin University of Technology Library & Information Service E-Reserve.
Anderberg, A. (2007). History of the Internet and Web. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.anderbergfamily.net/ant/history/
Bush, V.(1945). As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved March 17, 2008 from http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush
DARPA. (2006). ARPA-DARPA: The History of the Name. Retrieved April 2, 2008 from http://www.darpa.mil/body/arpa_darpa.html
Department of Defense (1968). Request for Quotation. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/chris/DIGITAL_ARCHIVE/ARPANET/RFQ-ARPA-IMP.pdf
Howe, W. (2007). A Brief History of the Internet. Retrieved March 6, 2008 from http://www.walthowe.com/navnet/history.html
Peter, I. (2004). So, who really did invent the Internet?. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.nethistory.info/History%20of%20the%20Internet/origins.html
Sterling, B. (1993). Short History of the Internet. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://w3.aces.uiuc.edu/AIM/scale/nethistory.html
Stevenson, J. H. (2001). (De)Constructing the Matrix: Toward a Social History of the Early Internet. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.tranquileye.com/netessays/de_constructing_the_matrix.html
Zakon, R. H. (2006). Hobbes’ Internet Timeline v8.2. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/
Zeltser, L. (1995). The World-Wide Web: Origins and Beyond. Retrieved March 15, 2008 from http://www.zeltser.com/web-history/

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