The Internet? We Built That

Steven Johnson | New York Times | September 21, 2012

Who created the Internet and why should we care? These questions, so often raised during the Bush-Gore election in 2000, have found their way back into the political debate this season — starting with one of the most cited texts of the preconvention campaign, Obama’s so-called “you didn’t build that” speech. “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama argued, in the lines that followed his supposed gaffe. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” In other words: business uses the Internet, but government made it happen.

About a week after Obama’s speech, The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz took on those lines from Obama’s speech, claiming it was an “urban legend” that the government built the Internet. Credit for the early networking innovations, Crovitz argued, belonged to private-sector companies like Xerox and Apple. It was no accident, he observed, that the Net languished in relative obscurity for two decades until private corporations and venture capitalists turned their focus to it.

...So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital? The answer is: Neither. This is what’s most notable about the debate over the Net’s origins: it misses the most interesting part of the story. We live in a world that assumes that the most important and original products in society — bridges, cars, iPads, hospitals, 787s, houses — are created either by states or by corporations. And yet, against all odds, the Internet came from somewhere else entirely. Like many of the bedrock technologies that have come to define the digital age, the Internet was created by — and continues to be shaped by — decentralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor with the entire world...