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The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

Thomas Streeter
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Net Effect
    Book Description:

    This book about America's romance with computer communication looks at the internet, not as harbinger of the future or the next big thing, but as an expression of the times. Streeter demonstrates that our ideas about what connected computers are for have been in constant flux since their invention. In the 1950s they were imagined as the means for fighting nuclear wars, in the 1960s as systems for bringing mathematical certainty to the messy complexity of social life, in the 1970s as countercultural playgrounds, in the 1980s as an icon for what's good about free markets, in the 1990s as a new frontier to be conquered and, by the late 1990s, as the transcendence of markets in an anarchist open source utopia. The Net Effect teases out how culture has influenced the construction of the internet and how the structure of the internet has played a role in cultures of social and political thought. It argues that the internet's real and imagined anarchic qualities are not a product of the technology alone, but of the historical peculiarities of how it emerged and was embraced. Finding several different traditions at work in the development of the internet - most uniquely, romanticism - Streeter demonstrates how the creation of technology is shot through with profoundly cultural forces - with the deep weight of the remembered past, and the pressures of shared passions made articulate.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0874-3
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    It is still common in some circles to assume that rationality, technology, and the modern are somehow opposed to or fundamentally different from culture, the imagination, nature, and expression. This book starts from the premise that this is not so and that the internet is prima facie evidence of that. The internet has been tangled up with all manner of human longings, in both obvious ways—for example, the internet stock bubble—and more subtle ways, such as certain aspects of its technical design and trends in its regulation. In hopes of better understanding both technology and longings, this book...

  5. 1 “Self-Motivating Exhilaration”: On the Cultural Sources of Computer Communication
    (pp. 17-43)

    In a now-legendary moment in the history of the internet, when ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) Director Jack P. Ruina was searching for someone to oversee the Department of Defense’s research efforts in computing in 1962, he turned to J. C. R. Licklider. Ruina said Licklider “used to tell me how he liked to spend a lot of time at a computer console…. He said he would get hung up on it and become sort of addicted.”² Today, in the early twenty-first century, that peculiar feeling of interacting with computers is familiar to millions; whether through computer games, web surfing,...

  6. 2 Romanticism and the Machine: The Formation of the Computer Counterculture
    (pp. 44-68)

    In 1972, four years after the Engelbart demo, Stewart Brand penned an article forRolling Stoneentitled “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums.”² Visiting Xerox PARC just as its engineers were further developing some of Engelbart’s concepts, Brand had decided, not just that computer programmers now sometimes sported long hair and sandals rather than the crisp white shirts, crew cuts, and black ties associated with IBM engineers, but that some of them were exploring an approach to computing that was something quite different. “The general bent of research at Xerox [PARC is] soft,” Brand wrote, “away...

  7. 3 Missing the Net: The 1980s, Microcomputers, and the Rise of Neoliberalism
    (pp. 69-92)

    The Apple II computer was initially the product of the collaboration of three people, Steven Jobs, Steven Wozniak, and Armas Clifford “Mike” Markkula, Jr. Markkula, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, was clearly essential to the creation and success of the company; Wozniak has suggested Markkula was the most important of the three.² He provided both capital and managerial skills, served as chairman of the board, and for a while during Apple’s period of most rapid growth, he was Apple’s CEO.³ The Apple was not the first microcomputer; there were many hobbyists tinkering with tiny computers at the time Apple was...

  8. 4 Networks and the Social Imagination
    (pp. 93-118)

    When can a person using a computer be said to be acting alone, and when are they acting with others? At first glance, staring at a monochrome screen and typing arcane commands to connect to and interact over a network is hardly different from configuring a spreadsheet on an Apple II. Both involve esoteric interaction with a machine and lend themselves to an obsessive absorption; both can have the effect of removing one’s attention from the physically proximate person in the next room. But, in the United States in the 1980s, for those narrow circles of individuals involved in various...

  9. 5 The Moment of Wired
    (pp. 119-137)

    Recall—or, if you are young enough, imagine—what it was like to go online in the early 1990s. At the time, desktop computers had recently lost their novelty and become a routine part of office life. Word processing had, in the preceding five years, become a standard secretarial skill, and a new desktop computer was a standard part of an academic job offer. The desktop computer had become just another part of office routine, like the photocopier.

    In most offices, however, people who used email were still a small minority, and web browsing was unknown. Those who had experimented...

  10. 6 Open Source, the Expressive Programmer, and the Problem of Property
    (pp. 138-167)

    What it would take to finally put some cracks in the foundation of the neoliberal consensus, it turns out, was the same thing that gave it renewed life in the early 1990s: romantic individualist representations of computing.

    Long before the spread of the internet, even before the appearance of microcomputers, Ted Nelson, inComputer Lib, briefly reflected on the problem of funding his system of hyperlinked digital texts he called Xanadu:

    Can it be done? I dunno…. My assumption is that the way to this is not through big business (since all these corporations see is other corporations); not through...

  11. Conclusion: Capitalism, Passions, Democracy
    (pp. 168-188)

    Back in 1994, towards the end of the stock-bubble-inspiringWiredinterview with Marc Andreessen, interviewer Gary Wolf pressed Andreessen to specify the exact difference between what he was doing and the efforts of Microsoft, whom Andreessen saw as “the forces of darkness.” Is not Netscape, Wolf asked, also a for-profit software company seeking to dominate a market by establishing a proprietary standard? (Netscape was giving away the program, still called Mosaic at the time, but not the source code, and it was rapidly creating proprietary new standards for web content.) When Wolf pressed Andreessen on these issues, after some waffling,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 189-212)
  13. Index
    (pp. 213-220)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 221-221)