Monday, September 21, 2009

Bureaucracy Can Be Beautiful

The libertarian ideologies that are not so latent in Michael Hiltzik's "The Internet is proof that government doesn't bungle everything" offer a remarkably facile look at the government's involvement with digital communication that emphasizes the conventional myths of the founding fathers of ARPAnet and the local UCLA connection.

Although the article does point out that the early Internet's failure to attract investors as a private start-up did shape some of its subsequent history, it ignores the legacy of those like Vannevar Bush who worked closely with the military-industrial complex and the weirder aspects of the rhetoric of J.C.R. Licklider who is praised in the article as one of what Peter Lunenfeld has called "The Patriarchs."

Forty years on, that remarkable paper reads like a work of clairvoyance. "In a few years," it began, "men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face." It forecast that the network would provide some services for which you'd "subscribe on a regular basis," like investment advice, and others that you would "call for when you need them," like dictionaries and encyclopedias. Communicating online, it concluded, "will be as natural an extension of individual work as face-to-face communication is now." Sound familiar?

Certainly, Licklider "foresaw its development into a public utility," but -- as the last chapter of the Virtualpolitik book describes -- he also hobbled the nascent network by tying it to the gendered office norms of Cold War culture in which women type but men don't.

Thanks to Lisa Moricoli Latham for the link.

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