SOME YEARS AGO, in 2014, a simple but far from trivial pin found its way to the lab I direct, the Media Archaeology Lab. The pin reads, “Ask Me About INTERnet.”
Shortly before its arrival, I had read Howard Rheingold’s 1993 The Virtual Community and found myself startled by his strange use of “internet,” the noun floating free of its article. In the following months, as I pursued my research on the history of pre-internet networks, I increasingly noticed the absence of “the” before “internet” in a host of other venues. Slogging my way through manuals on internet protocols, especially for TCP/IP (short for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol and officially adopted in 1983 as the standard language for networks to communicate with each other), I could see the ways in which, despite all the shoulder-shrugging about the origins of “the internet,” that singular, monolithic network governing our waking lives, this network of networks had in fact emerged from decades of inchoate heterogeneity that could have gone in any number of directions.
Just tracking the evolution of the term turns out to be illuminating. Before being called “the internet,” it was referred to simply as “internet,” itself preceded by “internetwork,” which reminds us that the internet is not “a” network but a proliferation of networks communicating with each other, with “internetworking” as a verb emphasizing the work it takes to get these networks talking to each other, and “internetworking” as an adjective describing the process of transferring packets of information to and from any kind of telecommunications network.
What, then, were all these different networks that existed before the creation of TCP/IP and later “the internet”? What was possible on these networks that might not be possible on today’s internet, which is de facto a network of surveillance and commercialization whose underlying workings are mysterious to most users?
Sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina reminds us that “a network is an arrangement of nodes tied together by relationships,” which serve as conduits for communication and resources. Her definition rightly suggests that the manner in which nodes are tied together could encompass any kind of technology or technique — including semaphore (a system of sending messages by holding arms or flags or poles in certain positions), Morse code, or, say, short wave radio. The medium matters: it shapes the resulting communication, much as texting instead of calling a family member produces a distinctly different kind of connection and even a different kind of relationship if one is exclusively used instead of the other. Thus, while the excavation of alternative models of networks is important for the sake of a full historical record, it is also important for giving us tools to imagine how network-mediated relationships might be other than they are. It allows us to ask “what if” questions.