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Searching for missing “net histories”

Kevin Discroll and Camille Paloque-Berges (2017) · Read 2/16/2021


  • "Internet arrived to most users as simultaneously brand-new and already-historical"
  • Haigh, Russell, Dutton's 3 objections to standard account of Internet history (2015):

    • Teleological: centers unresolvable dispute over "who invented the Internet?" and fuels perception that conflicting accounts of history are competing to win a zero-sum game
    • Privileges “fittest” technologies that remain in use today, leaving out the political, economic, social, cultural and geographic conditions under which technologies are adopted or abandoned
    • Mainly first-hand accounts from “fathers of the Internet,” nickname reflects normative conception of Internet as primarily a technological achievement
  • "epistemological reflexivity of critical historiography may reveal unacknowledged power relationships embedded in our knowledge of the Internet’s past"
  • Internet has always been multiple: "[Amsterdam's] vibrant squatter culture shaped the growing network by situating it within a pre-existing tradition of media appropriation, activism and organising"
  • "histories of the Net begin with the experiences of users"

    • "definition of “user” is not self-evident"
  • "tighter focus on uncertain or inconsistent temporalities, archives and software will be crucial to realising a more diverse point of view in the study of historical computer networks"
  • "develop an “operational” notion of what the Internet is"

An argument for “net histories”

  • "Internet is as much mythology as technology... held together by a set of narratives and beliefs about how information and communication power ought to be distributed through a society"
  • "At its simplest, the Internet is defined as a “network of networks,” a recursive puzzle that resists beginnings and endings"
  • The term "net histories"

    • Self-conscious about its ambiguity, and like “the Grid” or “the Matrix”
    • "Superset... inclusive of an ever-evolving complex of information systems and communication networks"
    • "vernacular term of art, calling forth a memory of computer networks as sites of exploration and play"
  • Geography

    • "We should not simply jump from region to region, re-writing the same tales of a first modem, first email, first ISP, etc."
  • Time

    • "Popular histories of the Internet tend to focus on either the 1970s or the 1990s"

What do (new) sources hide?

  • On new:

    • "digital is “always already new”: what we consider “sources” are also structures and instruments through which history is framed “newly” with every study"
    • "there is nothing natural in “web-native” culture"
    • "uncover what born-digital sources hide behind the fascination to which they subject us"
  • Digital data

    • Always structured
    • Hard to consider data outside its digital document frame
    • "Media that are hard to read or hard to reach tend to be forgotten."
  • Software

    • "no automatic “authenticity,” in the historiographical sense, when recovering, compiling and running old source code on new machines"
    • "Critical code and software studies offer guidance for analysing source code and databases, revealing issues of cultural and political power in the design and operation of these technological systems" ooh
    • "But one peculiar question is seldom raised: what happens when the program does not work? How do we make historical sense of software failure as programs move from their “original” contexts into states of recovery, emulation and reproduction?"
  • "How do computerised artefacts themselves materialise social contexts?"

    • "What do people think, do and feel when there is a machine around?"
    • "networked computers encode what is already there, an imperfect re"ection of existing social conditions"
  • "People also exist independently to machines"

    • "nostalgia is frowned upon as a form of techno-fetishism, but it may also provide an opportunity for the rediscovery of alternative histories and motivate the amateur preservation of source material"

Net.things: lost and found

  • "dominant ideology of the Internet values novelty over memory... manifests in both active and passive forms... old versions of software are not only devalued, but seen as a liability thanks to intellectual property disputes and unpatched security flaws... online services often age poorly, descending slowly into a tangle of dead links, broken images and 404 errors"
  • "The corporations of the net industries have proven poor stewards of cultural heritage."

    • What are the stories here?
  • "National libraries and other institutions tasked with a mission to maintain national web archives are caught between short-term demands and long-term priorities."

    • "invisibility of collected material, for legal and technical reasons"
    • "sense of emergency that motivates the collection of cultural materials"
    • "“time-capsule” effect: when one institution or one group decides to create a [dump for future users to make sense of]" — connect to infra ethnography paper for how to approach this data
  • "some networks are ephemeral by design"

    • Might be interesting to connect these precedents to Snapchat


  • Net histories realls a time when enthusiasts believed the Internet to be "a communication technology that was always-already counter-cultural, somehow readymade with an “alternativeness” to broadcast media" — empathize w/ them

Keywords: mythology, multiplicity/plurality, nostalgia/memory

(Joel from STS.044: "Invent a new mythology to help us understand technology. The Bible is full of stories that help people exist in a world we don’t understand.")