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Author: Dennis A. Trinkle
Title: Inventing the Internet (Janet Abbate)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2000

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Source: Inventing the Internet (Janet Abbate)
Dennis A. Trinkle

vol. 3, no. 3, November 2000
Article Type: Book Review

Janet Abbate's Inventing the Internet

Dennis A. Trinkle

Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999)

Given the growing number of recent books that explore the Internet as a religious and spiritual terrain, such as Erik Davis' Techgnosis, it should not be surprising that the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies has begun transforming into mythology. Even generally measured business publications like The Economist can be caught recounting the activities and ventures of scientists, technologists, and digital entrepreneurs in biblical, epic, and heroic terms.

For the professional historian, this is important ground. The digital technologies being developed, and their social, political, economic, and cultural impacts deserve wide and serious historical investigation. The new digital mythologies of the twenty- first century will also be an significant area of investigation in coming years. This exciting terrain is as dangerous for the historian, however, as it is important. In a period of hyperbole about the Internet Revolution, the attraction of writing the Great Internet Creation Myth can lure scholars like fragrant flowers draw bees in summer. This is one reason why Voltaire counseled that the historian should not pick up his pen until all his subjects were dead.

To write a balanced, analytically sophisticated account of the Internet's history at a time when personal accounts and journalistic paeans fill the New York Times best sellers list, therefore, requires a historian dedicated to complexity, nuance, and equity. Janet Abbate deserves high praise for writing precisely such an account with her new book— Inventing the Internet. Abbate's book is the most balanced, well-researched volume on the history of the Internet yet written, and it will be the touchstone work for sometime.

In many ways, Abbate's account can be considered the companion work to Paul Ceruzzi's A History of Modern Computing, which was published in 1998 by MIT. Whereas Ceruzzi's work focused on the commercial computing systems created in the United States from the Second World War on, Abbate's focus is on the Internet and the ancillary networking technologies it fostered. Like Ceruzzi, however, Abbate does not examine simply the machines and technical minutiae. Her background (She worked as a computer programmer in the 1980s and early 1990s before pursuing graduate studies in history at Rutgers University) enables her to recognize the social and cultural dimensions of the Internet's development and to present them clearly as an interconnected web of causation that is perfectly appropriate for her topic.

Abbate traces her story from the familiar account of the Internet's origins in Cold War think tanks and defense department initiatives to the explosion and chaotic growth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Her first chapter focuses on the creation of packet technologies and the ARPANET, and it immediately signals that she will not follow the typical narrative of great male creators or technologies created amidst fear of nuclear annihilation. Important figures are discussed and given their due. The importance of the Cold War and military concerns is clearly articulated, but Abbate also stresses that the history of the Internet is "a tale of collaboration and conflict among a remarkable variety of players" and that it provides a case study for "how technologies are socially constructed) (p. 3).

In chapter three, Abbate provides a useful correction to the notions that the Internet's success and importance was foreseen and that networking technologies were carried inexorably forward by the pork-barrel politics and closed world ideologies of Cold War military spending. Instead, the book presents teams of researchers struggling to justify their continued funding–until email was serendipitously introduced, creating the demand and use needed to support sustained research and funding. With the example of email, Abbate also proves convincingly that it is wrong to regard the Internet simply as a creation of the military, industrial, university research complex. The academic and commercial users of the Internet took the technologies in unanticipated and uncontrollable directions from the start. Their ends were often personal and social, and they occasional ran directly counter to the interests of the institutions funding their efforts.

Abbate's fifth chapter provides another useful corrective. It places the development of the Internet and networking technologies in a global context, countering the perception that the Internet was a uniquely American creation. Rather she shows that important efforts in Europe (such as the French Cyclades and Minitel projects and Tim Bern Lee's work at CERN in Switzerland) were crucial to the development of networking technologies and standards. From the beginning, the Internet drew people, technologies, standards, and views together in powerful synergies that transcending boundaries, according to Abbate.

The concluding chapter looks at the commercialization of the Internet (as the World Wide Web) in the 1990s. It also distills Abbate's central thesis as a historical interpretation and prediction for the future of the Net. She argues that "the World Wide Web continues the trend of informal, decentralized, user-driven development that characterized the Internet's earlier history" (p. 4).

Abbate also suggests that the Internet's history, like the Internet itself, is an open and consistently shifting entity. Each perspective and instant lends new understandings. The Internet cannot be frozen in time. Inventing the Internet is a metaphor for continual creation, and historians are fortunate to have such a well-told creation analysis at a time when creation myths abound.