Al Gore was once routinely mocked for supposedly claiming to have “invented the Internet.” He didn’t really say that but that didn’t do much to stop the joke from spreading. Now, in similarly fact-challenged fashion, Wall Street Journal columnist L. Gordon Crovitz has attempted to extend the idea and claim that government itself didn’t really have much to do with the Internet’s creation.
The difference is that critics of Crovitz’s misrepresentation of history are pushing back hard to set the record straight.
“It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” Crovitz writes in a column published in the Journal’s Monday edition, a rebuttal of sorts to President Barack Obama’s recent campaign-trail remarks about the U.S. government’s role in the creation of the Net.
Citing Michael Hiltzik’s history of Xerox PARC, “Dealers of Lightning,” Crovitz contends that it was the technologists at Xerox PARC who really invented the Internet and that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which created the widely recognized Internet precursor known as ARPANET, played a bit part at best.
The trouble for Crovitz is that Hiltzik himself, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, has turned up to say, basically, “You know nothing of my work! … How you got to write a column on anything is totally amazing!”
Hiltzik takes a scalpel to much of the column, noting that “while I’m gratified in a sense that [Croviz] cites my book about Xerox PARC, ‘Dealers of Lightning,’ to support his case, it’s my duty to point out that he’s wrong.”
Some of what Crovitz gets wrong is simply bad research. For example, he credits Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of “hyperlinks,” when in fact, Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN created the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that gave rise to the World Wide Web. Hiltzik names Doug Engelbart as the “hyperlink” inventor Crovitz probably meant, noting wryly that, anyway, the development of these important technologies at CERN, a European government consortium, and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) where Englebert created his NLS collaborative computing system with DARPA, NASA, and U.S. Air Force funding, does little to advance Crovitz’s cause.
The main pillar of the Journal columnist’s argument seems to be that Robert Taylor, who ran DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office before moving on to Xerox PARC and then the Digital Equipment Corporation, once said, “[t]he Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.”
Here’s Hiltzik picking apart Crovitz’s reliance on that quote:
“Crovitz confuses AN internet with THE Internet. Taylor was citing a technical definition of ‘internet’ in his statement. But I know Bob Taylor, Bob Taylor is a friend of mine, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that he fully endorses the idea as a point of personal pride that the government-funded ARPANet was very much the precursor of the Internet as we know it today. Nor was ARPA’s support ‘modest,’ as Crovitz contends. It was full-throated and total. Bob Taylor was the single most important figure in the history of the Internet, and he holds that stature because of his government role.”
Game, set, match? Probably, but there’s more. Hiltzik notes with puzzlement that Crovitz wants to somehow credit private industry for the invention of the TCP/IP communications protocol without acknowledging that Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn developed it on a government contract. He also appears to have a thin grasp on what Ethernet is.
Then there’s the strange spectacle of Crovitz criticizing the government for allowing TCP/IP to “languish” for 30 years before private companies figured out how to make money from it, while at the same time heaping praise on Xeroxa company even he admits was far better at inventing things than packaging them for commercial sale.
Hiltzik, of course, is a fan of Xerox PARC and would scarcely disagree that its many contributions to the computing revolution were singularly impactful, if not always as beneficial to Xerox shareholders as they wound up being for Apple’s and Microsoft’s.
Luckily for the history of the Internet, the author isn’t such a big fan of revisionism.
For more from Damon, follow him on Twitter @dpoeter.
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