While everyone has heard the creation story of the internet, Campbell-Kelly and Garcia-Swartz (2013) claim that the story that the internet grew from the continuous expansion of the 1969 ARPANET network is a myth. They described it as a teleological history which claims a single and uncomplicated root cause, but the truth is much more complicated. Their article proposes that there is a missing narrative, and that in order to understand the beginnings of the internet, it is necessary to reconstruct the history, the significance of various networks, and the rise of the dominant designs used today.
Reconstructing the early history of the internet
Computer networks were a dormant technology in the 1960s and 1970s, in that there were plenty of interconnected networks, or internets, but not Internet linking them all through a common protocol (Campbell-Kelly & Garcia-Swartz, 2013). The idea wasn’t new though, since the writer H.G. Wells thought of a “world brain” network in the 1930s, and by the 1960s there were growing university research networks, as well as commercial networks driving both banking and airline flights.
The significance of the networks
ARPANET was simply a network that existed within a web of networks, and it is likely that these commercial and non-commercial networks would have developed into the Internet even without ARPANET, although there were many possible outcomes. The issue holding back the advancement was the difficulty and expense of computer processing, which was typically using a mainframe that served time sharing computer resources through the use of terminals. It was not easily available, and it definitely wasn’t affordable for middle class households.
While the earliest commercial information networks did not need to connect to other networks, by the 1970s this has already begun to change, and the result was the development of EDI, the electronic data interchange movement, and this was advanced by the development of UPC codes for grocery chains that allowed for inventory monitoring. The continued use of networks by corporations and industries was therefore a major influence, and that which appealed to these organizations was advanced as well.
Dominance of specific designs
More important than the development of the networks that became the Internet is the development of the communities that developed its processes, content and products (Tuomi, 2001). The difficulty of either negotiating between disconnected entities, or enforcing a single standard protocol, was resolved by a series of accidents of history, not the least of which was the fact that there was no one authority or control. As Campbell-Kelly and Garcia-Swartz (2013, pp.) described, “A central irony of the web is that it took off because the absence of a centralized directory removed all the bureaucratic obstacles that might have prevented individuals from creating web pages”. The technological innovation was not as important as the capacity for scale, distribution and uptake, and this was related to the adoption of packet switching as a means of more efficient distribution of data. Commercial needs and drivers were of course a major influence, not only on development but in determining the easiest and available options. The logic of technological innovation as a progression is countered by the actual histories of what became dominant designs and protocols. Accidents and unexpected interaction play a leading role in this development.
The history of information systems is not as simple or as logical as it is presented in the creation myth of the Internet from ARPANET. There were in fact competing streams and other possible outcomes that might have been similar, leading to the Internet that we know today. By removing any one element, other elements would have taken its place, although the trajectory might have taken different paths.