Why The Debate Over Who Created The Internet Is So Important To Conservatives

by evanmcmurry

One of the primary examples Obama used in his now-famous “you didn’t build that” speech was internet:

The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Because we’re now in a time when the fact that Obama/the left/the mainstream media says something automatically makes it false, conservatives have since been trying to dispute the claim that the gummiment had anything to do with the internet besides Slowing It Down with Bureaucracy. This is a pretty difficult task, as the fact that the internet was created with government involvement is pretty settled history. And this isn’t “theCivilWarwasn’taboutslaveryitwasaboutstatesrights” level revisionism, in which the inherent murkiness of the distant past automatically puts the veracity of history up for grabs for anybody cynical enough to exploit it; the internet’s creation is recent enough that most of the people involved are still alive and remember it.

Not that this has stopped anybody on the right. Breitbart Jr. had a salvo the other day, ably rebutted by Breitbart watchdogs Wonkette, but nobody cares what Breitbart.com thinks. Enter the Wall Street Journal, which published an op-ed of some bozo claiming exactly what I wrote above: not only did the gummiment not help create the internet, but actively slowed it via red tape.

Farhad Manjoo absolutely eviscerates this claim, in a piece that deserves a full read:

Crovitz’s entire yarn is almost hysterically false. He gets basic history wrong, he gets the Internet’s defining technologies wrong, and, most importantly, he misses the important interplay between public and private funds that has been necessary for all great modern technological advances.

If you spend time looking at the history of the Internet, you’ll find the government there at every step. Researchers working directly for the government and at university labs funded by the government were some of the first people on the planet to think up a worldwide network, and, at the beginning, they were the only people working to build such an outlandish thing. That’s not true just of the Internet. Pop open your smartphone and you’ll find government research at the heart of just about every component, from the batteries to the GPS chip to the microprocessor to the multitouch interface.

[…]  Crovitz strays into what seems like intentional intellectual dishonesty. He mentions offhandedly that “Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol,” but he skips over both the gravity of this development and the government’s role in it. TCP/IP is the Internet’s defining language, the only reason that any two computers, anywhere, can send a message to one another. In this way, TCP/IP is the Internet. What’s more, Crovitz neglects to mention that when Cerf created TCP/IP, he did so with Robert Kahn, who was an employee of the Defense Department, and that both of them were working under funding from the government.*

And so on. But here’s the money part:

Crovitz’s contention that the government slowed down the Internet is also totally backward. In fact, if you want to blame any single institution for delaying the Internet, your best bet would be the largest private corporation in the land—AT&T.

Manjoo’s short ballad of Paul Baran—an AT&T engineer who created the idea for transmitting data through split paths, which is the ideational homunculus of today’s internet—touches on the real problem with the logic employed in the debate over the government’s role in the creation of the net, and the government’s role in relation to the private sector in general:

Put shortly, this entire debate rests on a false binary, wholly an invention of modern conservatives, that the government is in an antagonistic and competitive relation to the private sector, as if there were a race between the two to determine dominance. But Obama isn’t out on the stump every day arguing for government’s superiority over the private sector, nor is his or liberalism’s goal to defeat the private sector as part of a governmental conquest. The idea that the private sector and the government are at odds grew out of an antagonism read into regulations by conservatives, which has grown to such obscene proportions that it’s now taken on an intentional quality: whereas the government was once thought to create problems for businesses as a side effect of regulation, it is now thought to intentionally and aggressively attack the private sector for its own gains. Regulations used to be the cause of government largesse; they’re now the cover for it.

Thus, Obama’s claim that the federal government was involved in the creation of the internet is viewed as a proprietary one: he wants it for himself (this is more Breitbart Jr.’s claim). He doesn’t, of course, and nobody who’s actually listened to a single thing Obama has said, including in the speech that started all this, could think so. What Obama’s arguing is that cooperation between the private sector and the federal government is often necessary for larger-scale improvements to technology and infrastructure. This isn’t because Obama or anyone else believes government is inherently good, but because the system of risk and reward that exists in the private sector is inadequate for the investment of time and money required by longer-term projects.

AT&T’s reluctance is a perfect simulacrum of this problem. Via Manjoo:

As recounted in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, when Baran presented this idea to AT&T, the company’s engineers thought he was nuts. They argued that he had no idea how to run a communications system, and they fiercely resisted the idea of creating a packet-switching network. And that’s why the task fell to the federal government—the Defense Department had to create the Internet because private enterprise refused to.

Decades later, it’s easy to blame AT&T for being short-sighted. At the time, though, the company’s decision seemed perfectly reasonable. Baran was proposing something completely radical—who in his right mind would route a message from New York to San Francisco through so many different paths? And why make such a huge change when AT&T’s old way worked so well for its own aims (that is, building a profitable business)?

In other words, creating something as grand and untested as the Internet was something that a private company simply couldn’t do. The project was too big, and the payoff too uncertain. That’s true of most technologies in their infancy. The Army created ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose computer—and only after the military proved the basic idea was sound did IBM jump into the business. Apple began working on a multitouch interface in the 2000s, but that was only after decades of research at other labs, including by many researchers funded by the government. The American military developed and launched the network of satellites that form the Global Positioning System—and only then could tech companies come along to make spectacular use of that system.

The same complex is at work in infrastructure. Here’s Gin and Tacos on the Hoover Dam:

That isn’t an oversimplification; no Hoover Dam, no Phoenix. No Las Vegas. No Los Angeles. Vegas and Phoenix barely existed in 1900 because they’re in the middle of a goddamn desert. There is no water and there were no power resources. The dam brought the electricity and fresh water that allowed the growth of infrastructure, industry, and population in places that could not otherwise have any of it. Now, for a million bonus points, who built the Hoover Dam?

A) The Free Market
B) The Federal Government
C) State and Local Government

Congratulations, B is correct!

The passage of the legislation to build it took many years and was vociferously opposed by private utilities in Arizona and California (Nevada basically had no population to speak of until the Dam) because they feared competition from government electricity. They used allies in the media, particularly Hearst and Chandler, to label the project as socialism. Eventually Republicans in California realized that the overall economic growth of the state would be more beneficial in the long run than parochial concerns about the profits of Southern California Edison, and they threw support behind the bill that Calvin Coolidge eventually signed. In the long run I’d say that thousand-percent growth of population and industry in the Southwest has made local utilities more money than they lost to Socialist Electricity.

It casts the reactionary, ultraconservative politics of Arizona, Orange County, Utah, and Nevada in high relief to point out that the coyote population would outnumber the humans in the region if not for Big Government doing what private industry would not – elevate national, long term interests over short term profit.

In short, the debate over who created the internet is dumb, because we know who created the internet. But it’s even more problematic as the very private sector vs. big government binary from which the argument arises is specious. Cooperation between the two sides is necessary for societal advancement. As Manjoo points out, even if the government was instrumental in creating the base technology of the internet, we still needed AOLs, Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc. to make it a worthwhile and revolutionary technology—which is why Obama explicitly gave companies credit for the success of the internet, just not its invention.

Obama’s point about the internet is driving the right nuts, not because he’s promoting big government, but because his argument lays bare the fallaciousness of the right’s entire ideological binary; if they lose the fight over the creation of the internet, their entire hand could be tipped. Conservatives seem to sense, almost on an instinctual level, that this battle is the war.

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