Internetics and Conviviality

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Tierney Gearon

So I thoroughly enjoyed reading through two books this weekend: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum and Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. The first book focuses on the geographically grounded physicality of the internet and is quite fascinating insofar as it brings it back down into the mud of things in flesh and blood away from the heavenly realm of Platonic Ideas–even though the ‘blood’ of the internet is pure light, something Blum is really insistent to point out all throughout the book.

The second work takes up another piece of the puzzle of that elusive identity known as ‘the’ internet. Whereas Blum is interested in the geographical space of connectedness, Hafner and Lyon set themselves the historical task of documenting the genealogy of the internet through its chronologically historical dramatization. When I say dramatization, perhaps there should be some scare quotes around ‘drama’, because essentially the drama that is conveyed is all the excitement, hard work, time and money that went into painstakingly developing the internet from the ground up. This narrative is exciting in itself because Hafner and Lyon do a great job of keeping the minute details linked up and clearly evident along the historical path that they have elaborated.

Nevertheless, I am left with the impression at the end of the work that the narrative remains unfinished. This shouldn’t be taken too quickly to be an indictment of the authors’ historical narrative or the labor that went into linking up these disparate actors in what I referred to above as a ‘dramatization’. It’s not to say that the book itself is incomplete—the history of the internet could, of course, keep going deeper, add more players, or simply push back the timeframe further and further back into the past such that the authors would be forced to start with Prometheus. And yet, that kind of complaint would simply be a relativism that would claim there’s ‘always more’ to any store—a truism, no doubt, for everything and thus specific to nothing.

So, to be clearer, my impression that the narrative is incomplete stems less from this kind of criticism that would be transcendent to the scope of the book and is instead immanent to the story that the authors themselves wish to tell from the start. In the ‘Prologue’, the authors begin by evoking what has seemingly become a ‘truth’ about the internet: that its origins have something to do with being plugged into a military-industrial complex. Yet the authors want to point out that from the perspective of the key players, this assumption needs to be tackled and undermined, i.e. that the inspiration behind the internet “had nothing to do with supporting or surviving war” (10).

To be fair, this prologue is short and to the point, but at the same time it’s quite pointed and obvious that it seems to be a strong indication to what lies behind the genesis of the history that Hafner and Lyon want to write: the internet did not take war as its object and was not necessarily a symbolic token of American superiority over the Soviets, even if the mindset and political climate at that time made every innovation virtually endowed with the latter function. However, what I’m trying to point to is that if the need to write the book about the internet’s origins is inspired by the desire to set the record straight on how it did not arise as another weapon from the start, then I would have to say that the authors do not necessarily come back to treat this claim specifically. The historical narrative ‘itself’ is substituted for the encounter between two ARPA directors—Taylor and Hertzfield—that the prologue seems to suggest will be the only way to ‘solve’ the conundrum with historical accuracy. So what I am left with is this: there is a political element at stake in detailing this history, and the book begins with a challenge to the standard political reading that the internet was ‘meant’ for war. Political critique by the end of the book is left out, and we are left without any refutation of the premise. It has to be inferred from the personal and transnational narratives that weave together the history the authors have elaborated. I would say that the political problematic about the origins is displaced through the means of dealing at times with the political stakes involved with an internet that is just starting to get running, for example, in the 1980s. The global threat of an internet involved in macropolitics becomes replaced by the local struggles over the micropolitical organization of the internet’s functions—the early headers of emails is a key example in this context. I would suggest, then, that perhaps there is not such a glaring contradiction or ‘gap’ in the work that the authors ‘failed’ to elaborate on. They have tackled the issue in their own way, albeit indirectly for the most part. On the other hand, the space that they leave open for other thinkers to tinker with the questions of cybernetics/internetics and politics is quite vast and perhaps begs for more analysis. If I were to go further in this direction, it is quite necessary, from my perspective, to link it up with arguments from Capitalism and Schizophrenia. More immediately, however, I think that it might almost be more fruitful to tackle these issues with Tools for Conviviality, because, at the heart of Hafner and Lyon’s work, there is an intimation that the internet was ‘never meant’ for making war but for being-with, for creating new modalities of collective (de)subjectification. This would be my way to ‘capitalize’ on the ‘interest’ of this historical work, which is if anything quite necessary for its concreteness about the subject matter at hand.

The Author

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1 Comment

  1. I think that’s a rather well-accepted fact for anyone doing history of the Internet. It’s very tempting, however, for everyone else to assert that the Internet is designed for military use, but the ARPA funding at that time was much less directed at war. There is a great interview with Jack Ruina at the Charles Babbage Institute archive where the interviewer gives up, having found out very quickly, that the then director of ARPA simply did not care much what IPTO (the part of ARPA doing computers) was up to because he focused his time on the more expensive work more directly related to nukes.


    Convivality…for computer researchers then, and then for others later.

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