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Was the Internet Inevitable?

Can we imagine an alternate history resulting in many isolated networks?

2 min read
Illustration: Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

Many novels have portrayed alternative versions of history, such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland: A Novel (originally published by Hutchison, 1992) or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (first published by Putnam, 1962). In both books the Axis powers are victorious in World War II, and the world today is dramatically different. However, in spite of technology’s role in shaping history, there appear to be few books in which history is altered by imagined changes in technological innovation. An exception is the 1991 novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (first edition by Bantam Books), in which Charles Babbage perfects a steam-driven analytical engine and the information age arrives a century earlier.

The Difference Engine launched an entire subgenre of speculative fiction and a corresponding aesthetic, both dubbed steampunk. But outside this subgenre’s narrow confines (which often owe more to Jules Verne’s conventional, forward-looking science fiction than to Gibson and Sterling’s deliberately retrospective approach), there is a dearth of historical technology fiction. This may be because technology seems to evolve in a robust and inalterable manner, unchanged in the long run by outcomes of individual events. For example, suppose that the transistor had not been invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1947. In all likelihood, that invention would have occurred soon thereafter at some other place. Before long someone else would have fabricated the first integrated circuit, and ultimately technology might be little changed today. It’s as if there are preordained stepping-stones along a pathway of innovation that are simply uncovered when the time is right. The paradox, of course, is that those stepping-stones are evident only in retrospect.

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A sign outside of a building says Palo Alto Research Center Xerox

An undated exterior view of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is shown in Palo Alto, California.

Xerox/Getty Images

In late 1969, C. Peter McColough, chairman of Xerox Corp., told the New York Society of Security Analysts that Xerox was determined to develop “the architecture of information” to solve the problems that had been created by the “knowledge explosion.” Legend has it that McColough then turned to Jack E. Goldman, senior vice president of research and development, and said, “All right, go start a lab that will find out what I just meant.”

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