Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet

By Brian Winston | Go to book overview
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18

THE INTERNET

PROTOTYPES AND IDEATION: COMPUTER NETWORKS

The history outlined in this third section demonstrates that the idea of networks is as old as telecommunications. Quite extraordinary claims were nevertheless made for the results of simply (comparatively speaking) linking distant computers together—the Internet. It is, of course, always possible that some technological development will have profoundly disturbing social effects, despite the fact that, over time, most such technologies exhibit far less radical potential. However, if a claim for radical exceptionalism (as it might be termed) is to be sustained, it would seem reasonable to suppose that the technology ought to exhibit some exceptional elements from the outset. This the Internet cannot do. The history and pattern of its development and the pace of its diffusion are, when all hyperbole is laid aside, not markedly different from the accounts given of the other networks here discussed—or, indeed, in general, from the technologies described in the earlier parts of this book.

The ground of scientific competence for the Internet includes the existence of computers and the use of machine code compilers—languages—as a basis of communicating with them. The existence of telecommunications networks, which date back into the nineteenth century, is also obviously crucial as are the theoretical tools for the design of such networks, exemplified by the development of Information Theory in the late 1940s. This theory emerged, as we have seen, from Norbert Wiener’s wartime work on predictive gun-sights (which had led to the idea of ‘cybernetics’); and the formulae developed in 1949 at Bell Labs by Shannon and Weaver for designing the most efficient telephone systems possible. Cybernetics was widely discussed. Norbert Wiener’s best-selling popular outline of these concepts, The Human Use of Human Beings, appeared in 1954; but Wiener’s Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine was published in 1961, which spoke to its continued currency. Cybernetics and Information

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