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Re: <nettime> Zittrain’s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
Michael Wojcik on Wed, 22 Oct 2008 23:40:16 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Zittrain’s Foundational Myth of the Open Internet

Geert Lovink wrote:

> Jonathan Zittrain's Future of the Internet is based on a myth.  

I take the force of this argument, and I'm sympathetic to it. However:

> The Zittrain myth says that, compared to  
> centralized, content-controlled systems such as AOL, CompuServe and  
> Prodigy, the 'generative' Internet of the late 1980s was an open  
> network. But this was simply not the case, it was closed to the  
> general public.

The "general" public? Sure. But there was some public access, and the
Internet was still radically different from CompuServe and the like,
in that there was no single sponsor or central gatekeeper of content.

> The first decades the Internet was a closed world, only accessible to  
> (Western) academics and the U.S. military. In order to access the  
> Internet one had to be an academic computer scientist or a physicist.  

This is a significant exaggeration. Many academics who were not in CS
or EE, or other computing-related disciplines, had access. Many
students had access. Some corporations (such as IBM) gave some
employees access, though until the NSFNet charter was revised it could
only be used for "non-commercial" purposes. (That wasn't a problem for
IBM, which had a private network of roughly the same size as the

Cleveland Freenet added Internet access in 1989. It was open to the
public - that was indeed the whole point. PSINet was founded in 1989,
and anyone could get a dial-up ISP account from them.

Certainly the private BBS systems, from CompuServe to the one-computer
sites run by hobbyists; ad hoc networks like FIDONET and Usenet (the
whole UUCP store-and-forward network, not just NetNews); and corporate
and academic networks like BITNET existed as alternatives to the
Internet because the Internet was not available to the public. But
then most of the public didn't give a damn. There wasn't much on the
Internet that they wanted.

> Until the early nineties it was not possible for ordinary citizens,  
> artists, business or activists, in the USA or elsewhere, to obtain an  
> email address and make use of the rudimentary UNIX-based applications.

It often wasn't easy, but it certainly was possible, at least as early
as 1989. For that matter, anyone with the right friends could
generally get an account and a phone number to call for dial-up access
through a university.

The ARPANET Big Switch to TCP/IP happened in 1983. NSFNet only went
online in 1986, and it only took three more years for the Internet to
get three commercial ISPs (PSINet, UUNET, and CERFNET). That doesn't
strike me as a huge lag.

A more important challenge to Zittrain's argument along these lines is
the other non-centralized networks. Yes, the Internet was different
from CompuServe. It was not nearly as different from Telenet, Tymnet,
Usenet, FIDONET, etc. This is basically the argument you're making
from this point on, and that's fine. I just want to point out that
harping on the supposedly "closed" nature of the Internet in the 1980s
is not, I think, a particularly strong tack.

> Back then, the advancement of the  
> ugly looking Internet was its interoperability. It was a network of  
> networks–but still a closed one. This only changed gradually,  
> depending on the country you lived in, in the early-mid nineties.

How could it possibly have changed quickly? Cables and routers don't
magically appear around the world overnight.

I haven't read Zittrain, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if his
history is bunk. I just returned from the Watson conference, and there
were a number of naive and tremendously flawed histories of IT on
parade there, I can tell you. (Like many disciplines in the
humanities, Composition & Rhetoric fetishizes history but rarely
actually practices it.)

So yes, I agree that it sounds like he's perpetuating a foundational
myth in order to support a suspect thesis; and I agree that we do well
to remember the competing networks of the late 20th century,
particularly the ad hoc ones like Usenet and FIDONET, to say nothing
of the hobbyist BBSes.

But showing that the early Internet was relatively closed is at best a
minor point.

Michael Wojcik
Micro Focus
Rhetoric & Writing, Michigan State University

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