chapter  2
32 Pages

Rethinking internet history: James Curran

ByJAMES CURRAN

When the internet expanded in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was cloaked in romance.1 The internet’s pioneer users developed a distinctive argot, introducing acronyms like MOO and MUD (which refer to adventure and role-playing games). To use the internet in this period was like belonging to a cult, with its own inner secrets, sub-cultural style and tough entry requirement of technical competence. Users were overwhelmingly young, and in the know. Even when the internet entered the mainstream in the mid-1990s, it still

retained something of its early exotic allure. Long articles appeared in the prestige press, explaining how the internet worked and what it could be used for. Words like ‘cyberspace’, derived from internet pioneers’ romance with science fiction, became part of the general vocabulary. It was around this time that serious attempts to research the origins and development of the internet got under way. However, these early histories were conditioned by the awestruck period in which they were written, something that was reflected in the way they all spelt the internet with a capital ‘I’ (Abbate 2000; Gillies and Cailliau 2000; Berners-Lee 2000; Rheingold 2000).2 Although illuminating, these accounts are laudatory. Their central theme is that utopian dreams, mutual reciprocity and pragmatic flexibility led to the building of a transformative technology that built a better world. There is a clear parallel between the emergence of this historiography and

pioneer Victorian histories of the British press, written in 1850-87, a period when liberals, in particular, invested enormous hope in the transformative power of popular newspapers mass produced by new print technology. As with early internet history, these studies genuflected before the altar of technology by capitalising the first letters of Newspaper Press (e.g. Hunt 1850: 178; Grant 1871-72: 453). They were also adulatory, associating the rise of the popular press with the march of reason, liberty and progress. It was only later – when the lapse of time encouraged a greater critical dis-

tance and when negative trends in the press became too prominent to ignore – that the central themes of pioneer press history were challenged.3 This revisionist

moment has not yet arrived in internet history. While there are new illuminating specialist studies, general histories of the internet are stuck in the pioneer mould. They are celebratory chronicles of technology and progress (Flichy 2007; Banks 2008; Ryan 2010).4