The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet


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.


“Communication” is a registry of modern longings.

— John Durham Peters

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 gives that entanglement a close look.

Part of what emerges in looking at the internet this way is our networked desktop computers are not so much direct descendants of the giant computers of the 1960s as they are reactions against those computers and what they represented, a reaction that was to some degree cultural. Beginning in the 1960s, engineers who had different impulses for how to build and use computers began to draw on what is properly called romanticism to construct justifications for their alternative designs. By the 1970s and 1980s, skilled popular writers like Stewart Brand, Ted Nelson, and Steven Levy joined them to elaborate these gestures into a more fully articulate vision.

The original giant computers were often associated with misguided efforts to somehow calculate our way out of human dilemmas: to control the horror of nuclear warfare, for example, or to win the Vietnam war, or to industrialize secretarial work, or to turn school children into studious and obedient users of electronic encyclopedias. Sensing the folly of these plans to use computers to control human complexity and to frame it in a predictable grid, increasing numbers of individuals began to reinterpret the act of computing as a form of expression, exploration, or art, to see themselves as artist, rebel, or both, and to find communities with similar experiences that would reinforce that interpretation. People need to express themselves, it was said, people want and need spontaneity, creativity, or dragon-slaying heroism, and direct, unplanned interaction with computers offered a kind of enticing, safely limited unpredictability that would fulfill . . .

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