For a limited time only, read an excerpt from Thomas Streeter’s fascinating new book, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (Critical Cultural Communication), at Scribd.com. In this chapter, he explores the history of the computer network and how its development process was fundamentally different from that of the personal computer.
When can a person using a computer be said to be acting alone, and when are they acting with others? At first glance, staring at a monochrome screen and typing arcane commands to connect to and interact over a network is hardly different from configuring a spreadsheet on an Apple II. Both involve esoteric interaction with a machine and lend themselves to an obsessive absorption; both can have the effect of removing one’s attention from the physically proximate person in the next room. But, in the United States in the 1980s, for those narrow circles of individuals involved in various stages of the early development of the internet, there were key differences between their experience and the experience of the millions who were encountering microcomputers, and those differences lent themselves to different possibilities for articulation with larger visions. If using a stand-alone microcomputer in the early days lent itself to a feeling of Lockean autonomy from others, using a computer network could have something of the reverse effect; working on a computer terminal connected to a network, particularly over time, foregrounds the social connections embedded in the technology. Anyone who has had to intervene in a discussion list or in a chat room to keep things going smoothly—by, say, giving technical advice to a newbie or by encouraging a flamer to moderate their tone for the sake of group harmony—has had a small taste of this effect. Attention becomes directed towards the social mechanics of interaction within a system.