Though the Internet can facilitate new forms of historical representation and information sharing, the medium also has biases that can restrict certain forms of expression. The Internet has immense possibilities for open, democratic knowledge sharing, but its history as a military invention designed in a closed-world network continues to influence the platform today. As historians begin to move our work on to the web, we need to consider this history and move towards open-access digital history.

The Web’s history

In his article “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers,” Roy Rosenzweig traces four different founding narratives of the Internet.[1]

  1. In the ‘wizards’ narrative, historians tend to focus on the history of the Internet as a group of young, male geniuses who came together to build ARPANET, the first iteration of what would become the Internet.[2] This story, however, downplays the social and political context of ARPANET’s development.
  2. In the ‘bureaucrats’ narrative, the emphasis is on ARPANET’s development in the 1960s by US Department of Defense funding contracts that wanted a decentralized communication system in case of nuclear warfare.[3]
  3. Building on this, the ‘warrior’ trope more heavily emphasizes the Cold War context from which ARPANET and other communication technologies emerged. As Rosenzweig puts it,

“It becomes clear that computer systems were invented for the Cold War, which provided the justification for massive government spending, and were pushed in particular technological directions. But these same computer systems, in turn, helped to support the discourse of the Cold War; they sustained the fantasy of a closed world that was subject to technological control”[4]

  1. The final narrative explores the social context of the 1960s. Focusing on hackers and “netizens,” a populist account of the history of the internet focuses on bearded grad students influenced by the counter-culture and anti-war movements of the era. This narrative shows how the internet also belongs in an “open world” discourse that ideologically emphasizes bottom-up development and free speech opportunities. Rosenzweig, however, offers a cautionary note to this tale – “some of them may have had beards, but most were also willing to take Defense Department funding.” Furthermore, most commentary on the early ARPANET were focused on technological questions rather than ideological discussions. By the 1990s, the focus on liberation and free speech evolved into emphasis on libertarianism and free markets.[5]

The narratives all have a few attributes in common – early Internet prototypes were built in male-dominated settings, and military funding drove development. Despite their differences, the narratives also all have implications for understanding the Internet as either an open or closed medium. Though the ‘hacker’ narrative focuses on the democratic, open-access ideals of the Internet, the military aspect and “closed world” discourse of its development still permeate the medium. While no one ‘owns’ the Internet today, it is highly controlled by an oligopoly of Internet service providers, search engines, and for-profit content creators that restrict access.

New opportunities

An image of the Wikipedia logo
A quickly growing source of information, Wikipedia has over 5 million articles in English, and millions more in other languages.

Though Rosenzweig offers a cautionary note on the history of the Internet, he is also optimistic about its use for open, democratic knowledge sharing. In his article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” he explores how Wikipedia challenges the deeply individualistic nature of historical scholarship.[6] Wikipedia operates substantially differently from most historians; it relies on series of unknown authors and is both free to access and free to use. The four main rules for participating enshrine these principles:

  1. Wikipedia is only an encyclopedia which means no original research. Instead, participants summarize conventional opinions.
  2. Contributors must respect “NPOV” – no point of view. Even if neutrality is a myth, it is Wikipedia’s founding myth, which Rosenzweig compares to objectivity as the ultimate aim in history.
  3. Visitors must not infringe copyright. This means that anyone can freely use the information on Wikipedia as long they do not add any further conditions to the original open access, open use license. Rosenzweig notes that sometimes it is better to have free, imperfect data than restricted, perfect sources.
  4. The final rule is simple and preserves a collegial attitude – respect other contributors.[7]

Wikipedia has its own biases, namely that the largest contributor base is men in English-speaking countries resulting in articles disproportionately about Western culture and in English.[8] However, Rosenzweig argues that historians have an obligation to share their knowledge in Wikipedia’s open distribution and open production model.

“Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general?”[9]

Conclusion

Historians must actively decide whether their role on the Internet will work towards open-access principles or fall back on the closed-world methodologies of the Internet’s founding principles.

The Internet has great potential for bringing academics’ work to public audiences, but when historians move their research on to the web, they need to make sure they avoid defaulting to paywalled networks that dominate the Internet, and instead choose options that emphasize free and open access to information.

References

[1] Roy Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” The American Historical Review 103, no. 5 (1998): 1530–52, doi:10.2307/2649970, 1531.

[2] Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers,” 1533.

[3] Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers,” 1535.

[4] Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers,” 1541.

[5] Rosenzweig, “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers,” 1547, 1550.

[6] Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (2006): 117–46, http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/stable/4486062, 117.

[7] Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source,” 121-124.

[8] Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source,” 128.

[9] Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source,” 138.

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