The Cold Cradle Of The Internet


David Banks describes how the ethos of the Internet is rooted in the rivalry between the US and USSR:

The Cold War is usually associated with big, hulking organizations that rely on strategic planning and mathematical theory: Historical accounts are replete with continental super powers strutting along each others’ borders with military technologies that are, themselves, highly centralized and ordered entities. Both sides tried to out-maneuver the other by decentralizing resources and populations. In America, it meant spending lots of defense money on building the first peer-to-peer computer networks and the nation’s first interstate highways. Decentralization and redundancy is the best defense against centralized power. [T]he decision to decentralize cities and computer systems was a political (not to mention military) decision.

Perhaps the Cold War logic that birthed the Internet has such a tenuous bearing on how we currently use the Internet, that it barely warrants mentioning.

The intentions of the early Internet’s designers probably do not factor into my choice of Tumblr theme, or the Instagram filter I put on a photo of my houseplants. But intentions aren’t even half the story. Technologies live and act beyond their creators’ intentions and quite often produce unintended consequences. Think about all of the decentralized, rhizomatic organizations and social movements that have been earmarked or popularly associated with the digital technologies they used so well: the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, and the BART protests have all out-maneuvered (at least for a time) the state and corporate bureaucracies that sought to shut them down. The Internet doesn’t unilaterally impose or determine certain political organizations, but it does assist and afford their continued existence.

(Photo: Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake with the IBM 7090, from Dr. Strangelove, 1964)