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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.

I tried to imagine a substantial revision of technology history: Could I envision a singular event that, when changed, would have resulted in there being no Internet as we know it today? This seemed difficult because so many different people and organizations were involved in its evolution. Nonetheless, I wondered what might have happened if in the 1960s and ’70s the Advanced Research Projects Agency had had other priorities and decided not to fund work in computer networking.

Without ARPA’s funding, vision, and project management, there would have been less R&D in computer networking, but even so, there would have still been many pockets of work in the field. What would have been absent is the role of government as a neutral steward of the evolving network. So in my imagined scenario, information networks, instead of being designed by the users themselves, empowered by the open TCP/IP platform, are designed by the telecommunications industry. Now, instead of an Internet, there is a balkanized tapestry of many competing proprietary systems largely controlled by telco service providers.

Each country has its own system, and the browser and the World Wide Web never evolve as such. Telephones have built-in displays and log in automatically to the local service provider, where users immediately encounter an enormous tree of menus. Fees are charged by the bit and for selected interactions, so the service is relatively expensive and usage is sparse. With the low participation, regionalization, and tight control of information services, national brands do not emerge—no Google, Amazon, or Facebook.

Well, all this seems like a bad dream, but in truth such a scenario would have been very unlikely. My own belief is that something akin to today’s Internet would have been so compellingly attractive that it would have emerged from some alternative pathway through the swirling chaos of actions and interactions.

But we’ll never know.

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