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[ih] infrastructure history [was: who invented the Internet]

On Jul 26, 2012, at 12:42 PM, John Day wrote:

> I would go slightly further.  The primary reason most private corporations were involved was because there was government funding.

My reaction, as an academic historian and not a participant in the events under discussion, is to go even further, or perhaps to go in a different direction, and point out that we are using a narrow conception of "government."  

It's important also to remember that "government" is not a monolith with an on/off switch, but is in fact a number of different entities that play multiple roles - often overlapping, often conflicting.  So the important factors are not merely direct funding through grants, procurement, etc., but also the protection of intellectual property (a patent is a govt-granted monopoly, after all), subsidies for a skilled workforce (think about different govt support at various levels of the American education system, as well as engineers who learn through experience in the military), tax breaks & R&D credits for corporations (at the local, state, and federal levels), antitrust exemption for trade associations & standard-setting bodies, subsidies and support from previous generations of infrastructure upon which newer systems are built (leased lines from AT&T in the Internet's case), etc. etc. etc.  I haven't watched the initial Obama comments that seemed to have touched off this controversy, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is close to the point he was trying to make; certainly Elizabeth Warren made the point with some eloquence earlier this year.

The various academic histories of Silicon Valley (as an example) tease out these and other role(s) of government(s) - see for example _Understanding Silicon Valley_, excerpts at http://books.google.com/books?id=CLxzUW4V_2cC; and, more generally, the volume edited by Richard Nelson, _National Innovation Systems_ (http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YFDGjgxc2CYC).  But after seeing the Crovitz WSJ piece and the various reactions to it, it's pretty clear to me that most people - and certainly Crovitz - are (perhaps willfully) ignorant of the available literature on these topics.  (That anyone would base a short editorial article about Internet history on a strange reading of only one of the books about Xerox, for example, is indicative; I bet it wouldn't take long for google to tell him about Janet Abbate's book if he searched for, say, "Inventing the Internet" ;-)  As a result, much of the subsequent discussion about "who invented the Internet" strikes me as analogous to how creationists like to "teach the controversy" about evolution, instead of doing any real research on relevant empirical questions.  But I think if we did solid and honest research - as so many scholars have - on what roles the American federal (and other!) governments played in the development of computer networks (including but not limited to the TCP/IP Internet), we probably wouldn't end up with policy lessons that the editors of the WSJ would like to publish.  


Andy Russell
Stevens Institute of Technology