The Latest Synthesis

Book Cover for A History of the Internet and the Digital Future by Johnny Ryan

Ars Technica has posted the last of three articles adapted from Johnny Ryan's recent book, A History of the Internet and the Digital Future (Here are the first and second.) Ryan's main thesis is that the Internet represents the victory of "centrifgual" systems over "centripetal" ones. I can't endorse this material as great history. Most of it ha been done better in academic studies such as Janet Abatte's definitive Inventing the Internet or in more popular works such as John Naughton's A Brief History of the Future or Mitch Waldrop's excellent The Dream Machine. As Internet historian Peter Salus points out, Ryan perpetuates the dubious linkage of the Internet to nuclear survivability. He also makes the occasional historically incomprehensible statement, such as this one:

The meritocracy of the RFCs[Requests for Comments] was exemplified by a generation of delinquent programmers at MIT from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, who in turn created the "hacker" culture that influenced much of what was to follow.

This sentence reads as RFC meritocracy -> MIT hackers -> hacker culture. How the hackers of the late 1950s could exemplify RFCs (which didn't first appear until 1969) is a head-scratcher. Finally, the latter part of the book is a wearying exercise in the sort of gee-whiz enthusiasm over digital technology that we've all read a thousand times before. Ryan's book, however, is a compact synthesis of the history of the Internet from the 1950s to Web 2.0 in highly readable prose. Nothing really comparable exists, in either the popular or scholarly literature (it's been over a decade since Inventing the Internet!). So get out there, computer historians, and bring the public a new and fascinating interpretation of Internet history that will put Ryan's account in the shade! Update (4/6/2011): Based on a (very cordial) correspondence with Johnny Ryan, I feel it's necessary to clarify and partially retract some of the points I made above:

  1. It might be inferred from what I've written that Ryan is not a historian (and indeed that was what I thought at the time I wrote it, given his affiliation with a policy think tank), but in fact he has a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.
  2. Based on what Ryan has told me, my claim that he perpetuates the nuclear war myth is unfair. What Ryan is offering is a historical reinterpretation based on the primary sources he's examined that makes the Baran/RAND-to-ARPA linkage primary in explaining the diffusion of packet-switching, rather than the Davies/National Physical Laboratory-to-ARPA linkage.
  3. Ryan has clarified that his intent was simply to suggest a similarity between the RFC culture and the hacker culture, not a causal link. Any confusion regarding causality is in the text, not his mind.