Social construction of the internet and web

The internet, as the platform or backbone of the web, uses packet switching to share data more efficiently, reliably and quickly.  Janet Abbate* explains how researchers in the US and Britain  were discovering the abilities of packet switching about the same time, but for different local social concerns. The US (Baran) was looking for a command and control communications system that could survive attack during the cold war, while Britain (Davies) was looking for a cheaper means for interactive computing, specifically ways for multiple users to share one computer. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) built the first large-scale packet switching network, based on the work of Baran and Davies as well as the US Department of Defence’s university-based ‘centers of excellence’ who were all connected via time-sharing computers, led by Lawrence Roberts. The outcome was affected by levels of government funding and interpretations of the technology as military or civilian. Roberts had access to money and computer experts that led ARPA to a superior system. Abbate concludes that packet switching required more than the “right technical idea:  it also required the right environment” (p.368).

In World Wide Web (WWW) creator Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 Wired interview with Chris Oakes’, Berners-Lee’s vision was of an electronic democracy that brought society together and enabled ordinary people to collaborate on new ideas. It was supposed to be fun, encourage creativity and solve problems. His “right technical idea,” through the test of super-sonic web time, and his consortium, which could be considered “the right environment,” Berners-Lee still holds true to that vision.

*Abbate, Janet. (1999). Cold war and white heat: The origins and meanings of packet switching. In D. MackKenzie and J.Wajcman (Eds.) Social Shaping of Technology. Buckingham: Open University Press.


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