Almost as soon as long-distance computer networking was conceived, there sprung up conversations between people who would ordinarily never speak to one another because of geography. This was the point: facilitating science research and collaboration among different university, governmental, and private R&D labs, sharing new technologies. There was a spirit of “Let’s all go into the future together.” And as industry histories such as Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon and Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee show, the project of connecting computers and information indeed progressed through trial, error, experimentation, and innovation with a certain sense of free-market wonder. Bracketing for a moment the fact that these histories espouse a teleology leading towards a perfect cyber democracy and neoliberal economy of information, another aspect of networking they demonstrate is the sheer physicality and localness of it.
I know this sounds dumb. The information, as Tim Berners-Lee says in his industrial autobiography, is the Web itself, made possible by the confluence of transmission protocols, hardware, and software (130). To continue paraphrasing people, this time Fox Mulder, “The truth is out there,” decentralized, everywhere and nowhere. I believe this to be a general consensus today in 2013, and also, despite its general accuracy describing the architecture of servers located across the globe broadcasting and receiving packets of machine poetry, hiding the fact that the stuff on the web (and transmitted through other protocols such as P2P, ftp, email, UUCP, whatever) is also somewhere. With ARPANET, users in Cambridge, Massachusetts, would connect to a machine in Santa Barbara in sunny California through phone lines to access resources on that machine. The fact is this is more or less still how the Internet works: remote access of physical stuff. Even today’s “cloud computing”—despite its pretty name—is a commercialized, service-oriented, and more “remote” version of time-sharing, the system of computer lab resource management that was the basic premise of ARPANET to begin with.
With everything online in “the cloud,” it must have surprised some when some websites went down due to general natural-disaster mayhem during Hurricane Sandy last October. I remember certain sites making do with impromptu migrations over to Tumblr, one of a million “web 2.0” services that offer Mr. Berners-Lee’s utopian, everyone-can-do-it vision of universal content creation he came up with in 1989. These sites, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc, etc, as we know, come at a price: some corporation sort of owns the content you post, and even if it doesn’t exactly, it certainly profits off of it. Tumblr has servers in Chicago and Texas and Utah. Everyone’s tweets are in San Francisco, Boston, San Antonio, and New York City. Some of these servers are leased from datacenters; some are proprietary. Here we see another network: a network of physical and economic entanglements, of private and public interests, of the manipulations of people by people.
This network is intrinsically tied to the means of power. For instance, the company charged with setting up ARPANET, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman—also known, apparently, as the “Third University”—was recently bought by Raytheon, one of the biggest offensive R&D contractors for the US military, a company who famously created a nice heat ray gun. The “Active Denial System”—a technology that has nothing to do with the Internet despite its name—shoots concentrated microwave beams 0.4 mm into people’s skin from a half kilometer away, creating the sensation of extreme burning pain. This is intended to be used to control populations such as protestors and prisoners. While we sit around and praise that new, wondrous situation that massive connectivity has afforded us, we must also be sober to materiality and its politics that lie hiding in the cloud, located in the servers and the companies that own them.
Coming back to the Berners-Lee hope for free exchange of ideas and extending human social processes to the digital world, after reading his book and the history of ARPANET, BBSes, and other Internet topics, I can’t help but be suspicious. While Berners-Lee does caution us to approach the new technology with both critical thinking and good will, we should also look at it not as an idealized, ethereal situation, but one as mired in the physical and geographical as anything else, something that can be owned, regulated, and denied. Something that created communities that allowed members to imagine across geographical distance, making imaginary places “real” in the pulse of electromagnetic vibrations running along cables, assembled into something comforting to the human mind. But something that is as subject to matrices of power based on location, money, privilege, and violence as what came before, even if it offers some glimmer of subversion.