Roy Rosenzweig, History of the Internet

Rosenzweig’s essay concerns itself with a singular issue facing today’s historians and historiographers: namely, how might the history of the Internet be written?  As a “review essay,” most of the article’s pages are spent providing summaries and critical evaluations of recent works that try to write this history.  Each work is shown to describe their subject in markedly different ways, and none of the variations seem to fully please Rosenzweig; however, he does voice his appreciation of these authors’ efforts every now and again. It is to my mind noteworthy that this history is such a thorny problem to begin with, for it is perhaps indicative of the nature of historiography itself–considering most historical works focus on the all-too-human aspects of the events of the world (although not all, Braudel’s geological history of the Mediterranean comes to mind), historians, once they come face to face with computers, the very epitome of the artificial, do not quite know how or where to begin.

I have not read any of the authors Rosenzweig mentions; however, there are a number of conclusions from his evaluations I think we can draw. I will detail just three interconnected points:

  1. The history of the internet cannot not be divorced from broader historical developments. The internet is not (although it can sometimes appear to be) a world apart from the one in which we daily toil; subsequently, a history of the internet cannot avoid the cultural and social underpinnings that influenced its development.
  2. Taking cue from 1, we should always be cognizant of the internet’s origins in military spending (e.g., ARPA’s contracts with the Defense Dept.), and the constant possibility, in various permutations, of its potential for weaponization (useful to remember considering today’s political situations).
  3. The theory underlying the development of network systems and the internet must itself must be framed by two opposing tendencies:  the ideal of a “closed” world, built on the slag of Cold War paranoia, and the ideal of an “open” world, inspired by proponents of the 60’s dream of freedom and human connection.

Going a little beyond Rosenzweig’s essay, I cannot help but feel Benjamin’s essay looms large when considering these issues, especially when it comes to historical preservation.  Historians usually like to work with original source documents; since this is not always feasible, reproductions may do.  Historians have almost always (until now) worked with physical reproductions (like copies on microforms).  The arrival of computers and the internet, however, has opened up the vast realm of digital reproductions.  Thus, even while historians are busying themselves with how to actually write a history of the internet, the internet is all the while shaping and influencing the way historians think and do their work.  Any “history of the internet” thus needs to be conscious of how the internet has changed history.  Furthermore, if there is ever a time or place for Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum of the historian as a “retrospective prophet” to be taken under advisement, it is here and now–because the internet is very much alive and well today, and ever-evolving, historians, even as they look to its past, should also be considering its futural prospects.  Perhaps the source code contains the portents, as it were, of where its technology will lead us next.


3 thoughts on “Roy Rosenzweig, History of the Internet

  1. Before reading Rosenzweig’s article, my only approach to the history of the Internet had been a French documentary that came out in 2013 (“La Contre-Histoire de l’Internet”). I watched it last summer and found it outdated at best because the binary that frames its historical narrative (‘citizen’s activism from below is good vs. companies/governments are bad’) has lost a good chunk of its currency in the face of phenomena such as alt-right.
    On the contrary, Rosenzweig warns us against the tendency to idealize or demonize one side or another too hastily. His deconstructing of each narrative’s assumptions and ideological underpinnings urges us to contextualize each participant and factor involved in the history of the Internet, and to complicate further the whole picture.
    I would not know whether Rosenzweig is a “retrospective prophet” (thanks for bringing up this phrase) but, even though there are things that could hardly be foreseen back in 1998 (Apple > Microsoft, for instance) it seems to me that overall his perspective still holds true 20 years later – which makes me think he did an outstanding job at the time.

  2. I appreciate Rosenzweig’s cautionary take on a reductive duality of the history of the Internet as both Angelique and Zach points out “the ideal of a ‘closed’ world, built on the slag of Cold War paranoia, and the ideal of an ‘open’ world, inspired by proponents of the 60’s dream of freedom and human connection”. (3) I also felt Benjamin ‘looming large’ while reading “Wizards, et al”.

  3. Thanks Zack for the systematic reading of Roy Rosenzweig,

    Within the historicity or history of internet, an additional aspect that seems appealing to me was the “hackers’ section and the role they played in the diffusion of internet.
    Indeed, I have – had – a completely negative view of Hackers as for me they could only stand for all the spyware and other malevolent viruses they send in computers, or else, to theft of personal information for evil purpose.
    I could not imagine that back then(1960-1970) , “their ancestors” were ‘heroes of the computer revolution’ who fought to render computer more accessible to all.
    Even if their operating zone went beyond making computer accessible to all at any costs, as Levy stipulate: ‘hackers ethic’ was not simply the technological side of counterculture and antiwar movement” , the fact that they were motors of computer revolution gives a humanistic dimension to the understanding of the origin of the hacking phenomenon.
    In that sense, the dimension of those “who regard[ed] computing as the most important thing in the world” debunks the completely negative opinion I had on them.
    Going a bit out of context, I am wondering what the marginals and those at the fringe of society could bring to its development.

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