History of the Internet: Building Conceptual Frameworks

by Nishant Shah last modified Jan 08, 2014 07:56 AM
In this module Nishant Shah analyses the understanding of the Internet, cyberspace and everyday life and why do we need to know the history of the internet.

Introduction: Understanding the Internet

Let’s begin at the beginning. Before we get into the history of the Internet, it might be a good thing to try and figure out what the Internet is and what exactly are we talking about when we say ‘Internet’. Let’s take a moment and figure out what the Internet is. If you pause right now, and try and define the Internet it is going to be tricky. However, if you look at other media and communication technologies you realise that the same is true for all the other technologies that you daily deal with. Try and define what a book is. Or, what is a film? It is one of the signs that a technology has become internal, personal and ubiquitous that it becomes transparent. It doesn’t require us to think about how it works. Almost like magic, the technologies just ease our way into life and perform crucial tasks of everyday living, without really making their internal mechanics transparent. So it is highly possible that unless you are trained in technologies, you have a vague idea of what the Internet is and how it works.

At a very basic level, the Internet is a network of computers that are able to talk to each other using a protocol that is popularly known as the TCP/IP suite. That is it. At a most cursory level, that is all there is to the Internet. An extensive network – even a network of network – that makes it possible for billions of users across the globe, to exchange information using digital data, in asynchronous and distributed forms. And this has been historically the case. The origins of the Internet are in military and state funded research in the United States of America in 1960s, where they were developing robust communication networks that could account for redundancy – which  is to say that they wanted a network which would function even when particular nodes fell out of service, or certain flow-lines within the network were blocked. A history of the Internet then, will be a history of its technological development – the different protocols, programmes and innovations that allowed for this network to grow out of the defense research labs in the 1960s, be used extensively in American and European academia in the 1980s and then made available to the public in the 1990s. So that is one history that we might need to look at. It is a technological history of the Internet, that allows us to understand what the challenges, strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Internet technologies have been and how we have constantly innovated to meet these problems and aspirations.

However, as you can imagine, that is a technical history of technology which is well documented, well, on the Internet. A look at the page on Wikipedia[1] will show you all the different technological, institutional and digital innovations that have shaped the Internet from its early days residing on the ARPANET to the global phenomenon that we know now. It is a history of facts and dates, names and numbers and it is easily accessible to anybody who wants to look at the different institutions, technologies and conversations shaped what we understand as the Internet today. You might also want to look at these three different accounts of that history to get the facts,[2] anecdotes[3] and stories[4] in order.

You will realise from the sources that the Internet is the backbone of our digital experience. It hosts a vast range of services, like peer-2-peer networks, voice and text chats, hypertext documents, and indeed, the most prominent of them all – the World Wide Web. We need to understand that the Internet is thus larger than the World Wide Web and what we have access to, using the WWW, is a very small subset of this larger global digital network. To know the structure of the internet, how it is governed, what are the different inequities, vulnerabilities and problems it creates are important to study because they give us an entry point into understanding how the technological and technical choices that are made affect and impact our everyday concerns around questions of privacy, identity, access, usage, affordability, accessibility etc. These are questions that often get addressed under the rubric of Internet Governance[5] and will be dealt with in the subsequent sessions for this Institute that expand upon the Infrastructure and Institutions that govern the Internet[6] In the meantime, I want to begin with the personal. Instead of beginning with the technological, I want to begin with our everyday experiences on the Internet, and particularly of this thing that we call cyberspace.

Pinning down Cyberspace

Let’s take a pause and try and answer a hard question: What is Cyberspace? If you thought that defining the Internet was tough, you will quickly realise that defining Cyberspace is going to be even tougher. We know when we are on cyberspace. We use it across a variety of devices and interfaces. We think of ourselves as connected and online for most of our waking (and sleeping) hours. Cyberspace is right there – You will be able to point to it, give examples, even talk about what it facilitates. For example, cyberspace is a virtual space created by digital communication and connection. Or cyberspace is a repository of information that people create globally using computing technologies. Or cyberspace is a space where people manage their social networks. These are all different instances of cyberspace and indicate the wide variety of things that we do when we are online, but they don’t necessarily tell us what cyberspace is.

Like all good things, the origins of the word cyberspace are actually in Science Fiction. William Gibson in his iconic cyberpunk novel ‘NeuroMancer’ (1984), first coined the word cyberspace and defined it thus:

Cyberspace: A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

While there are several critiques of Gibson’s description of the word, we  must remember that it is fiction and look at it to see what are the conceptual complexities that Gibson is throwing up that are now being discussed in contemporary debates. I want to highlight three things that Gibson’s definition  brings up, which might be important to understand how deal and engage with cyberspace.

  1. Consensual hallucination – This is probably one of the strongest and the strangest ways of talking about cyberspace. A hallucination is something that happens in your head. It is a space of virtuality. It is an event that nobody except for the one individual who claims it, can verify. It is thus, categorically the non-real. However, a consensual hallucination is a mystifying thing.

    Let’s say that you propose that from this moment on, you are a dog (even though, as the cartoon famously says, on the internet nobody knows you are a dog). If you were to stand up in your social circles and announce that you are a dog, it would lead to some strange reactions. If you persisted in acting like a dog and responding only to a dog, chances are that you might be put into a mental asylum to be treated of this hallucination. However, if everybody else in the room consented that you are a dog, and indeed, they are all, also dogs, then your hallucination becomes real. It gains valence. It has legitimacy. It becomes a norm.

    Gibson, in positing cyberspace as a ‘consensual hallucination’ is reminding us that this is indeed, the very way in which our reality is constructed. For instance, think of the colour blue. Now try and figure out how the blue that you are thinking about and the blue that I am thinking about is the same blue. We can’t verify that we are all talking about the same blue. And yet, there is a consensus among us that there is a blueness to the colour blue that we all refer to when we think of the colour blue.

    Reality is a process of consensual hallucination. So is Cyberspace. Which mean that instead of making the distinction between the real and the virtual, or trying to figure out what is real and what is not, it is more fruitful for us to engage with the idea that the virtual is a part of the real. There are various processes – social, cultural, political, economic, and governmental – that structure and validate our reality. And hence, reality is always changing. The science fiction futures that were dreamt in the last century are the present times that we live in. The idea of consensual hallucination, takes us away from a debate about Virtual Reality and Real Life (VR – RL) that has been endemic to the conversations around cyberspace. Following Gibson’s lead I would encourage us, not to think of cyberspace in terms of the virtual or the unreal, but as a constitutive and generative part of our reality.
  2. A graphic representation of abstracted data: The use of the term ‘space’ is often bewildering in Gibson’s coinage because it does not really seem to appear in the definition. Space, as we understand it, is a location metaphor. It refers to spatial dimensions of a thing. It gives us a sense of fixity. However, these are all expectations of physical space. The ‘space’ in cyberspace has more in common with the abstract concepts of space in mathematics and metaphors rather than in terms of geography and location.

    We need to understand that even in geographical terms, space is an abstraction of sorts. Space is the virtual or perceived usage, volume and experience of place. If you have a piece of land, that is the place of that land. The place is geographically present. It can be materially touched and located. However, the space is what you attribute to that piece of land. It is defined by the intentions and aspirations, by what is allowed and what is not. Space is a philosophical concept. Which is why, in everyday talk, when you say, ‘I need some space’, you don’t necessarily mean that you need geographical isolation, but often refers to the head-space that is less tangible.

    Similarly, the space in Cyberspace, even though it has been often used to talk about the space on the network that connects different webpages, or the immersive environments that role playing games offer, or the virtual communities on social networking sites  like Facebook, it is important to remember that space is an abstraction. And cyberspace thus is not the actual mechanics and nitty-gritties of technology but what is built because of those interactions.

    Bruce Sterling, in his introduction to The Hacker Crackdown quite evocatively explains this:  ‘Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. [...] in the past twenty years, this electrical "space," which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional—little more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone—has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-in-the-box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.”
  3. Non-space of the mind: In the cyberpunk universe of the novel Neuromancer, Gibson makes a difference between cyberspace and meat-space. There is a definite privileging of cyberspace, which is the world of seduction, adventure, excitement and entertainment. The meat-space, where our biological bodies survive and live, is in a state of collapse and disrepair. This bleak vision of the biological as disintegrating and the digital as becoming the primary mode of existence has been espoused by various science fiction and fantasy narratives. For all of us who have seen The Matrix, we are familiar with this idea that slowly and singularly, we are moving towards creating digital lives which are gaining precedence over our ‘real’ lives.[7] Especially when it comes to the discourse around digital objects, this hierarchy of dismissing the biological and the real over the virtual and the digital is often reinforced. However, Gibson was already reminding us, with the ‘non-space of the mind’ that the digital and the biological are not as separate or discrete as we would have liked to imagine. Let us look at what the ‘non-space’ can mean.  For this, we might have to look at two different conceptual moves in philosophy.
  • The first is a distinction between the brain and mind. It is obvious that the brain and the mind are not the same thing. The brain is the biological organ in our cranial cavity. It is made up on cells and neurons, flesh and blood, so to speak. It is what the artificial intelligence scholar Andy Clark calls ‘a skin bag’. The brain performs various functions that keep our body alive and sapient. The mind, is an abstraction of the brain. The mind is our thoughts, memories, associations, feelings, and all the other things that make us human. The brain might support the mind but they are not the same. I hope that this is beginning to sound familiar to us – that the brain-mind relationship is the same as we have mapped out for Internet-Cyberspace. Just like cyberspace is an abstraction of data that we have consented to be real, the mind is also an abstraction that encapsulates the interiority of our selves.
  • The second is an understanding of binaries and opposites. We are designed, as human beings (even though we attribute this to the digital machines) to think in binaries. Black-White, Good-Bad, Day-Night. This is the way in which our cultures have been built. We think of the positive and the negative and create a spectrum in between to understand our world. These binaries are often confused with being opposites. So we would say that the opposite of Black is white. Or that the opposite of Day is Night. However, in the study of Logics, we are taught that the binary is not the same as opposite. All the way back in history, Aristotle had already posited that it is a fallacy to mistake a binary for an opposite. So, for instance the binary opposition of ‘day’ might be ‘night’, but the logical opposite of ‘day’ is ‘non-day’. Or to make it simpler, the binary opposition of the colour ‘black’ is ‘white’. However, the logical opposite of ‘black’ is ‘non-black’ and hence every other colour that is not black, is its logical opposite.  We go through this to realise that in the brain-mind mapping, the brain is the place. The mind is the non-brain, or the space. And then the non-space of the mind, is the brain all over again. Gibson does this recursive negation to remind us that the things that happen in cyberspace have direct consequences on meatspace. What happens in cyberspace directly affects the non-space of our bodies, our lived realities and experiences.

Cyberspace and Everyday Life

It is important to begin with the definition that Gibson offered because it informs a lot of the debates that happened historically, around cyberspace and how we understand it. However, it also allows us to side-step these debates because they are not fruitful. They reinforce the idea that the internet and cyberspace are removed from our reality, that they are technological concerns rather than human, social and political concerns, and they insist that the internet and cyberspace are in opposition to being human. These ideas produce accounts of the internet and cyberspace which, for me, are fruitless. The leads from Gibson’s definition, instead, allow us to understand the internet and cyberspace as deeply implicated in our conditions of being human, being social and being political. They offer us a different way of rewriting the history of the Internet, not merely as a linear narrative of the technological advancements, but as a rich and complex account of how the internet and cyberspace have shaped and been shaped by the social, cultural and political milieu that they have emerged in.

And so, we approach the history of the internet in a different way. Instead of looking at the Internet as a technology, we deal with the Internet in its many forms, through cyberspace and our everyday engagement with it.  Or, rather, we formulate the history of Internet & Society, thus trying to look at the ways in which the emergence of digital technologies – Internet and cyberspace – have led to questioning the ways in which understand our personal, social and political lives, and how, in-turn they have been changed through the various contexts that we live in.

Why do we need the history of the Internet?

So here is the million dollar question. Why do we need to study the history of the Internet? And if we do, for what do we need to study the history of the internet? These are both important questions and this is where I am hoping we will be able to start a critical inquiry into our own engagement with the topic.

Let us begin by questioning the very structure of history writing. What does it mean to write the history of an particular object? If we were to write, let’s say, the history of a particular building. How far in time will we go? And in what minutiae shall we record it? Shall we begin by saying, how, once where the building stood, there was a tree. And on that trees, there were leaves. The first leaf fell. The second leaf fell. The third leaf fell. It could fill up pages documenting every leaf that fell, before we even come to the building. So we know that when we write the history of a particular object, person or phenomenon, there is a very clear notion of where the history began. But we also know that if, we had an interest in the ecological history of the building, we might have actually spent time looking at that tree and its falling leaves. Which means that what constitutes history also has to do with our intentions of writing it.

And then the last point about this brief capsule on history writing that I want to make, is that history of things does not mean that we focus only on the thing. If we were to look at the cultural significance of the building under question, for example, we would talk to the society that engages with it, the people who occupy it, and the ways in which it shapes the fabric of the space and time. So history is often a large canvas – it might keep one particular object in question, but it also weaves in the complex structure of processes and flows that surround that particular object of study.

There is a rich scholarship about the problems, structures and processes of history writing. But these three points are important for us to think through why we want to delve into the history of the internet. Where do we begin? What do we study? And why do we study what we study? The minute you put these questions out, you start realising that there can be no definitive history of the internet. There can definitely not be just one history of the internet. And that the history of the internet is as much about the world as it is about the technological, but the technological only becomes a lens or an entry point into unravelling the various questions that are a part of our personal and professional lives. So we are not looking at imparting the one authoritative history of the internet. Instead, I am proposing, for this module to introduce you to different ways of thinking about the history of the internet.

We are going to begin by looking at not the Internet – but cyberspace.

We are going to examine the intersections of cyberspace with three different objects and try and see how the debates at that intersection help us to define and entry point into the rich discourse around Internet & Society.

The body in cyberspace

Perhaps one of the most interesting histories of the cyberspace has been its relationship with the body. Beginning with the meatspace-cyberspace divide that Gibson introduces, the question of our bodies’ relationship with the internet has been hugely contested. There have been some very polarized debates around this question. Where are we when we are online? Are we the person in the chair behind an interface? Are we the avatar in a social networking site interacting with somebody else? Are we a set of data running through the atmosphere? Are we us? Are we dogs? These are tantalising and teasing questions.

Early debates around the body-technology questions were polarized. There were people who offered that the cyberspace is a virtual space. What happens in that make-believe, performative space does not have any direct connections with who we are and how we live. They insisted that the cyberspace is essentially a performance space, and just like acting in a movie does not make us the character, all our interactions on the internet are also performances. The idea of a virtual body or a digital self were proposed, thinking of the digital as an extension of who we are – as a space that we occupy to perform different identities and then get on with our real lives.

Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen, was the first one to question this binary between the body and the digital self. Working closely with the first users of the online virtual reality worlds called Multiple User Dungeons, Turkle notes how being online started producing a different way of thinking about who we are and how we relate to the world around us. She indicates three different ways in which this re-thinking happens. The first, is at the level of language. She noticed how the users were beginning to think of their lives and their social relationships through the metaphors that they were using in the online world. So, for instance, people often thought of life through the metaphor of windows – being able to open multiple windows, performing multiple tasks and identities and ‘recycling’ them in their everyday life. Similarly, people saying that they are ‘low on bandwidth’ when they don’t have enough time and attention to devote to something, or thinking about the need to ‘upgrade’ our senses. We also are quite used to the idea that memory is something that resides on a chip and that computing is what machines do. These slippages in language, where we start attributing the machine characteristics to human beings are the first sign of understanding the human-technological relationship and history.

The second slippage is when the user start thinking of the avatars as human. We are quite used to, in our deep web lives, to think of machines as having agency. Our avatars act. Things that we do on the internet perform more actions than we have control of – a hashtag that we start on twitter gets used and responded to by others and takes on a life of its own. We live with sapient technologies – machines that care, artificial intelligence algorithms that customise search results for us, scripts and bots that protect us from malware and viruses. We haven’t attributed these kinds of human agencies to machines and technologies in the past. However, within the digital world, there is a complex network of actors, where all the actors are not always human. Bruno Latour, a philosopher of science and technology, posits in his ‘Actor Network Theory’ that the emergence of these non-human actors has helped us understand that we are not only dependent on machines and technologies for our everyday survival, but that many tasks that we had thought of as ‘human’ are actually performed, and performed better by these technologies. Hence, we have come to care for our machines and we also think of them as companions and have intimate relationships with them. And the machines, even as they make themselves invisible, start becoming more personal.

The third slippage that Turkle points out is the way in which the boundaries between the interior and the exterior were dissolved in the accounts of the users’ narratives of their digital adventures. There is a very simplistic understanding that what is human is inside us, it is sacred and organic and emotional. Earlier representational technology products like cinema, books, TV etc. have emphasised this distinction between real life and reel life. No actor is punished for the crime they commit in the narrative of a film. It is not very often that an author claims to be the character in a book. We have always had a very strong sense of distinction between the real person and the fictional person. But within the virtual reality worlds, these distinctions seem to dematerialize. The users not only thought of their avatars as human but also experienced the emotions, frustrations, excitement and joy that their characters were simulating for them. And what is more important, they claimed these experiences for themselves.

Namita Malhotra, who is a legal scholar and a visual artist, in her monograph on Pleasure, Porn and the Law, looks at the way in which we are in a process of data-stripping – constant revelation of our deepest darkest secrets and desires, within the user generated content rubric. Looking at the low-res, grainy videos on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, which have almost no narrative content and are often empty of sexual content, produce all of us in a global orgiastic setting, where our bodies are being extended beyond ourselves. In the monograph, Malhotra argues that the Internet is not merely an extension but almost like a third skin that we wear around ourselves – it is a wrapper, but it is tied, through ligaments and tendons, to the flesh and bone of our being, and often things that we do online, even when they are not sexual in nature, can become pornographic. Conversely, the physical connections that we have are now being made photographically and visually available in byte sized morsels, turned into a twitpic, available to be shared virally, and disseminated using mobile applications, thus making our bodies escape the biological containers that we occupy but also simultaneously marks our bodies through all these adventures that we have on the digital infobahn.

Case Study: A Rape in Cyberspace
A contemporary of Sherry Turkle, Julian Dibbell, in his celebrated account of ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ [8] describes a case-study that corroborates many of the observations that Turkle posits. Dibbell analyses a particular incident that occurred one night in a special kind of MUD – LambdaMOO (MUD, Object-Oriented) – which was run by the Xerox Research Corporations. A MUD, is a text-based virtual reality space of fluid dimensions and purposes, where users could create avatars of themselves in textual representations. Actions and interactions within the MUD are also in long running scripts of texts. Of course, technically all this means that a specially designed database gives users the vivid impression of their own presence and the impression of moving through physical spaces that actually exists as descriptive data on some remotely located servers.

When users log into LambdaMoo, the program presents them with a brief textual description of one of the rooms (the coat closet) in the fictional database mansion. If the user wants to navigate, s/he can enter a command to move in a particular direction and the database replaces the original description with new ones, corresponding to the room located in the direction s/he chose. When the new description scrolls across the user’s screen, it lists not only the fixed features of the room but all its contents at that moment – including things (tools, toys, weapons), as well as other avatars (each character over which s/he has sole control). For the database program that powers the MOO, all of these entities are simply subprograms or data structures which are allowed to interact according to rules very roughly mimicking the laws of the physical world.

Characters may leave the rooms in particular directions. If a character says or does something (as directed by its user), then the other users who are located in the same ‘geographical’ region within the MOO, see the output describing the utterance or action. As the different players create their own fantasy worlds, interacting and socialising, a steady script of text scrolls up a computer screen and narratives are produced. The avatars, as in Second Life or even on Social Networking Sites like Orkut, have the full freedom to define themselves, often declining the usual referents of gender, sexuality, and context to produce fantastical apparitions. It is in such an environment of free-floating fantasy and role-playing, of gaming and social interaction mediated by digital text-based avatars, that a ‘crime’ happened.

Dibell goes on to give an account of events that unfolded that night. In the social lounge of LambdaMoo, which is generally the most populated of all the different nooks, corners, dimensions and rooms that users might have created for themselves, there appeared an avatar called Dr. Bungle. Dr. Bungle had created a particular program called Vodoo Doll, which allowed the creator to control avatars which were not his own, attributing to them involuntary actions for all the other players to watch, while the targeted avatars themselves remained helpless and unable to resist any of these moves. This Dr. Bungle, through his evil Vodoo Doll, took hold of two avatars – legba and Starsinger and started controlling them. He further proceeded to forcefully engage them in sexually violent, abusive, perverted and reluctant actions upon these two avatars. As the users behind both the avatars sent a series of invective and a desperate plea for help, even as other users in the room (# 17) watched, the Vodoo Doll made them enter into sexually degrading and extremely violent set of activities without their consent. The peals of his laughter were silenced only when a player with higher powers came and evicted Dr. Bungle from the Room # 17. As an eye-witness of the crime and a further interpolator with the different users then present, Dibbell affirms that most of the users were convinced that a crime had happened in the Virtual World of the digital Mansion. That a ‘virtual rape’ happened and was traumatic to the two users was not questioned. However, what this particular incident brought back into focus was the question of space.

Dibbell suggests that what we had was a set of conflicting approaches to understand the particular phenomenon:

Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that legba and Starsinger were brutally raped in their own living room, here was the victim legba scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach of *civility* … [R]eal life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any players life, limb, or material well-being…’

The meaning and the understanding of this particular incident and the responses that it elicited, lie in the ‘buzzing, dissonant gap’ between the perceived and experienced notion of Technosocial Space. The discussions that were initiated within the community asked many questions: If a crime had happened, where had the crime happened? Was the crime recognised by law? Are we responsible for our actions performed through a digital character on the cyberspaces? Is it an assault if it is just role playing?

The lack of ‘whereness’ of the crime, or rather the placelessness of the crime made it especially more difficult to pin it to a particular body. The users who termed the event as rape had necessarily inverted the expected notion of digital space as predicated upon and imitative of physical space; they had in fact done the exact opposite and exposed digital spaces as not only ‘bleeding into reality’ but also a constitutive part of the physical spaces. Their Technosocial Space was not the space of the LambdaMoo Room # 17 but the physical locations (and thus the bodies, rather than the avatars) of the players involved. However, this blurring was not to make an easy resolution of complex metaphysical questions. This blurring was to demonstrate, more than ever, that the actions and pseudonymous performances or narratives which are produced in the digital world are not as dissociated from the ‘Real’ as we had always imagined. More importantly, the notional simulation of place or a reference to the physical place is not just a symbolic gesture but has material ramifications and practices. As Dibell notes in his lyrical style,

‘Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face -- a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting. The precise tenor of that content, however, its mingling of murderous rage and eyeball-rolling annoyance, was a curious amalgam that neither the RL nor the VL facts alone can quite account for.’

The eventual decision to ‘toad’ Dr. Bungle – to condemn him to a digital death (a death only as notional as his crime) and his reappearance as another character take up the rest of Dibbell’s argument. Dibbell is more interested in looking at how a civil society emerged, formed its own ways of governance and established the space of LamdaMOO as more than just an emotional experience or extension; as a legitimate place which is almost as much, if not more real, than the physical places that we occupy in our daily material practices. Dibbell’s moving account of the entire incident and the following events leading the final ‘death’ and ‘reincarnation’ has now been extrapolated to make some very significant and insightful theorisations of the notions of the body and its representations online.

Exercise: Based on this case-study, break into small groups to determine whether a rape happened on cyberspace and how we can understand the relationship of our online personas with our bodies.

Cyberspace and the State
The history of body and technology is one way of approaching the history of the internet. However, as we realise, that more than the management of identity or the projection of our interiority, it is a narrative about governance. How does the body get regulated on the internet? How does it become the structure through which communities, networks, societies and collective can be imagined? The actions and transactions between the internet and the body can also help us to look at the larger questions of state, governance and technology which are such an integral part of our everyday experience of the internet. Questions of privacy, security, piracy, sharing, access etc. are all part of the way in which our practices of cultural production and social interaction are regulated, by the different intermediaries of the internet, of which the State is one.

Asha Achuthan, in her landmark work Re:Wiring Bodies[9] that looks at the history of science and technology in India, shows that these are not new concerns. In fact, as early as the 1930s and 1940s, when the architects of India’s Independence movements were thinking about shaping what the country is going to look like in the future, they were already discussing these questions. It is more popularly known that Jawaharlal Nehru was looking to build a ‘scientific temperament’ for the country and hoping to build it through scientific institutions as well as infrastructure – he is famously credited to having said that ‘dams are the temples of modern science.’ Apart from Nehru’s vision of a modern India, there was a particular conversation between M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, that Achuthan analyses in great detail. Achuthan argues that the dialogue between Gandhi and Tagore is so couched in ideology, poetry and spirituality that we often forget that these were actually conversations about a technology – specifically, the charkha or the spinning wheel.

For both Gandhi and Tagore, the process of nation building was centred around this one particular charkha. The charkha was the mobile, portable, wearable device (much like our smart phones) that was supposed to provide spiritual salvation and modern resources to overcome the evils of both traditional and conservative values as well as unemployment and production. The difference in Gandhi and Tagore was not whether the charkha – as a metaphor of production and socio-economic organisation – should be at the centre of our discourse. The difference was that Gandhi thought that the usage of charka, complete immersion in the activity, and the devotion to it would help us weave a modern nation For Gandhi, the citizen was not somebody who used the charkha, but the citizen was somebody who becomes a citizen in the process of using the charkha. Tagore, meanwhile, was more concerned about whether we are building a people-centred nation or a technology-centred device. He was of the opinion that building a nation with the technology at its core, might lead to an apocalyptic future where the ‘danava yantra’ or demonic machine might take over and undermine the very human values and ideals that we are hoping to structure the nation through.

If you even cursorily look at this debate, you will realise that the way Gandhi was talking about the charkha is in resonance with how contemporary politicians talk about the powers of the internet and the way in which, through building IT Cities, through foreign investment, through building a new class of workers for the IT industry, and through different confluences of economic and global urbanisation, we are going to Imagine India[10] of the future. Similarly, the caution that Tagore had, of the charkha as superseding the human, finds its echoes in the sceptics who have been afraid that the human is being forgotten[11] in the e-governance systems that are being set up, which concentrate more on management of data and information rather than the rights and the welfare of people.

This historical continuity between technology and governance, also finds theorisation in Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s book The Cultural Last Mile[12] that looks at the critical turns in India’s governance and policy history and how the technological paradigm has been established. Rajadhyaksha opens up the State-technology-governance triad to more concrete examples and looks at how through the setting up of community science centres, the building of India’s space and nuclear programmes, and through on-the-ground inventions like radio and chicken-mesh wire-loops, we have tried to reinforce a broadcast based model of governance. Rajadhyaksha proposes that the earlier technologies of governance which were at our disposal, helped us think of the nation state through the metaphor of broadcast. So we had the State at the Centre, receiving and transmitting information, and in fact managing all our conversation and communication by being the central broadcasting agency. And hence, because the state was responsible for the message of the state reaching every single person, but also responsible that every single person can hypothetically communicate with every other single person, the last mile became important. The ability to reach that last person became important. And the history of technology and governance has been a history of innovations to breach that last mile and make the message reach without noise, without disturbance, and in as clean and effective a way as possible.

With the emergence of the digital governance set up, especially with the building of the Unique Identity Project,[13] we now have the first time when the government is not concerned about breaching the last mile. The p2p networks that are supposed to manage the different flows of information mean that the State is not a central addressee of our communication but one of the actors. It produces new managers – internet service providers, telecom infrastructure, individual hubs and connectors, traditional media agencies – that help us think of governance in a new way. Which is why, for instance, with the UID authorities, we are no longer concerned about the relay of state information from the centre to the subject. Hence, we have many anecdotal stories of people enrolling for the Aadhaar card without actually knowing what benefits it might accrue them. We also have stories coming in about how there are people with Aadhaar numbers which have flawed information but these are not concerns. Because for once, the last mile has to reach the Government. The State is a collector but there are also other registrars. And there is a new regime here, where the government is now going to become one of the actors in the field of governance and it is more interested in managing data and information rather than directly governing the people.

This historical turn is interesting, because it means that we are being subjected to different kinds of governance structures and institutions, without necessarily realising how to negotiate with them to protect us. One of the most obvious examples, is the Terms of Services[14] that we almost blindly sign off when using online platforms and services and what happens when they violate rights that we think are constitutionally given. What happens when Facebook removes some content from your profile without your permission because it thinks that it is problematic? Who do you complain to? Are your rights as a user or a citizen? Which jurisdiction will it fall under? Conversely, what happens when you live in a country that does not grant you certain freedoms (of speech and expression, for instance) and you commit an infraction using a social media platform. What happens when your private utterances on your social networks make you vulnerable[15] to persecution and prosecution in your country?

These are all questions of the human, the technological, and the governmental which have been discussed differently and severally historically, in India and also at the global level. Asking these questions, unpacking the historical concerns and how they have leap-frogged in the contemporary governmental debates is important because it helps us realise that the focus of what is at stake, what it means to be human, what we recognise as fair, just and equal are also changing in the process. Instead of thinking of e-governance as just a digitization of state resources, we have to realise that there is a certain primacy that the technologies have had in the state’s formation and manifestation, and that the digital is reshaping these formulations in new and exciting, and sometimes, precarious ways.

Cyberspace and Criminality
The history of the internet in India, but also around the world, is bookended between pornography and terrorism. While there has been an incredible promise of equity, equality, fairness, and representation of alternative voices on the internet, there is no doubt that what the internet has essentially done is turn us all into criminals – pornographers, pirates, terrorists, hackers, lurkers… If you have been online, let us just take for granted that you have broken some law or the other, no matter how safe you have been online, and where you live. The ways in which the internet has facilitated peer-2-peer connections and the one-one access means that almost everything that was governed in the public has suddenly exploded in one large grey zone of illegality.

Ravi Sundaram calls this grey zone of illegal or semi-legal practices the new ‘cyberpublics’. For Sundaram, the new public sphere created by the internet is not only in the gentrified, middle-class, educated people who have access to the cyberspaces and are using social media and user generated content sites to bring about active social and political change. More often than not, the real interesting users of the internet are hidden. They access the internet from cybercafés, in shared names. They have limited access to the web through apps and services on their pirated phones. They share music, watch porn, gamble, engage in illicit and surreptitious social and sexual engagements and they are able to do this by circumventing the authority and the gaze of the law.

On the other side are the more tech savvy individuals who create alternative currencies like Bitcoin, trade for weapons, drugs and sex on SilkRoute, form guerrilla resistance groups like Anonymous, and create viruses and malware that can take over the world. These cyberpublics are not just digital in nature. They erupt regularly in the form of pirate bazaars, data swaps, and the promiscuous USB drive that moves around the machines, capturing information and passing it on further. These criminalities are often the defining point of internet policy and politics – they serve as the subjects that need to be governed, as well as the danger that lurks in the digital ether, from which we need to be protected. For Sundaram, the real contours and borders of the digital world are to be tested in an examination of these figures. Because, as Lawrence Liang suggests, the normative has already been assimilated in the system. The normative or the good subject is no longer a threat and has developed an ethical compass of what is desirable and not. However, this ethical subject also engages in illicit activities, while still producing itself as a good person. This contradiction makes for interesting stories.

DPS MMS: Case Study
One of the most fascinating cases of criminality that captured both public and legal  attention was the notoriously cases where the ideas of Access were complicated in the Indian context, was the legal and public furore over the distribution of an MMS (Multi-Media Message) video that captured two underage young adults in a sexual act. The clip, which was dubbed in popular media as ‘DPS Dhamaka’ became viral on the internet. The video clip was listed on an auction (peer-2-peer) website as an e-book and as ‘Item 27877408 – DPS Girl having fun!!! Full video + Bazee points’ for Rs. 125. This visibility of the clip on the auction site Bazee.com, brought it to the eyes of the State where its earlier circulation through private circuits and P2P networks had gone unnoticed. Indeed, the newspapers and TV channels had created frenzy around it, this video clip would have gone unnoticed. However, the attention that Bazee.com drew led to legal intervention.

Following the visibility of the video clip, there was an attempt to find somebody responsible for the crime and be held liable for the ‘crime’ that had happened. Originally, Ravi Raj, a student at IIT Kharagpur, who had put up the clip on Bazee was arrested for possessing and selling pornography. He was arrested and kept in police custody for at least three days and so was the male student who made the clip. They were both made to go through proceedings in juvenile court (though he was the last to be arrested). Both the students in the video were suspended from school after the incident. Eventually, the most high profile arrest and follow up from the DPS MMS incident was the arrest of the CEO of Bazee.com – Avnish Bajaj. However, Bajaj was released soon because as the host of the platform and not its content, he had no liability.

This is the beginning of a series of slippages where a punishable body in the face of public outcry had to be identified. We witnessed a witch-hunt that sought to hold the boy who made the video clip responsible, the student of IIT who attempted to circulate the clip and eventually the CEO of Bazee. The string of failed prosecutions seems to indicate that the pornographer-as-a-person was slipping through the cracks of the legal system. As Namita Malhotra argues, it is not the pornographic object which is ‘eluding the grasp of the court’ but that it seems to be an inescapable condition of the age of the internet - that the all transactions are the same transactions, and all users are pornographers.

We can see in the case that the earlier positions that were easily criminalised when it came to objects in mass media – producer, consumer, distributor of obscenity, were vacated rapidly in the DPS MMS case. We have a case where the bodies, when looked at through simplified ideas of Access, could not be regulated. The girl in the clip could not be punished because she was the victim in the case that could be read as statutory rape. In the case of the boy, a stranger argument was posed – ‘that in our fast urbanising societies where parents don’t have time for children, they buy off their love by giving them gadgets – which makes possible certain kinds of technological conditions...thus the blame if it is on the boy, is on the larger society’ (Malhotra, 2011).

Eventually, the court held that the description of the object and the context of its presence indicates that the said obscene object is just a click away and such a ‘listing which informed the potential buyer that such a video clip that is pornographic can be procured for a price’. There is a suggestion that there was nobody in particular that could be fixed with the blame. What was at blame was access to technology and conditions of technology within which the different actors in this case were embedded. Malhotra points out that in earlier cases around pornography, judgements have held pornography responsible for itself.

In the case of the DPS MMS, it seemed that technology – especially access to technology by unsupervised persons – has taken that role. The eventual directive that came out of this case was a blanket warning issued to the public that ‘anyone found in possession of the clip would be fined and prosecuted’. It is as if the attention of the court was on the ways in which the video clip was produced, circulated and disseminated, rather than the content. There was an anxiety around peoples’ unsupervised access to digital technologies, the networks that facilitated access to content without the permission of the state, and modes of circulation and dissemination that generated high access to audiences which cannot be controlled or regulated.

The State’s interest in this case, is not in the sexual content of the material but in the way it sidesteps the State’s authorial positions and produces mutable, transmittable, and transferable products as well as conditions of access. Such a focus on practices and behaviours around the obscene object, rather than the content itself, seems not to disrupt the law’s neat sidestepping of the force of the image itself. These different tropes of access to technology informed the State’ attempt at control and containment of technosocial practices in the country, giving rise to imaginations of the User as being in conditions of technology which make him/her a potential criminal. This idea of access as transgression or overriding the legal regulatory framework does not get accounted for in the larger technology discourse. However, it does shape and inform the Information Technology regulations which are made manifest in the IT Act. The DPS MMS case complicated the notion of access and posited a potentially criminal technosocial subject who, because of access to the digital, will be able to consume information and images beyond the sanction of the law.

The DPS MMS case shows how the ways in which public discourse can accuse, blame and literally hang technology seems to diverge from how the court attempts to pin down an offence or crime and prosecute by constructing a technosocial subject as the pervert, while also accusing pornography as a phenomenon. The court is unable to hold technology to blame but the accused is technology-at-large and modernity, which subsumes practices around technology and separates out the good and ethical ways in which a citizen should access and use technologies to rise from the potentially criminal conditions of technology within which their Technosocial identity is formed.

Summary

We started by making a distinction between Internet and Cyberspace to see how the two are separate objects of focus and have a relationship that needs to be examined in greater detail. It was argued that while the Internet – in material, infrastructural and technological forms – is important to understand the different policies and politics at the local, regional and global level, it has an account that is easier to follow. Cyberspace, on the other hand, because it deals with human interactions and experiences, allows for a more complex set of approaches into understanding our engagement with the digital domain. We began with the original definitions and imaginations of cyberspace and the ways in which it founded and resolved debates about the real-virtual, the physical-digital, and the brain-mind divides which have been historically part of the cybercultures discourse.

It was proposed, hence, that instead of looking at the history of the Internet, we will look at the history of cyberspace, and see if we can move away from a straight forward historical narrative of the Internet which focuses largely on the institutions, numbers, names and technological advances. The ambition was not to just produce a similar history of cyberspace but think of conceptual frameworks through which cyberspace can be studied. The proposition was that instead of just looking at history as a neutral and objective account of events and facts, we can examine how and why we need to create histories. Also, that it is fruitful to look at the aspirations and ambitions we have in creating historical narratives.

It was then suggested that instead of trying to create a definitive history, or even a personal history of the internet, it might be more fruitful to look at the intersections that cyberspace has with different questions and concerns that have historically defined the relationship between technologies and society. 3 different conceptual frameworks were introduced as methods or modes by which this historical mode of inquiry can be initiated.

The first framework examined how we can understand the boundaries and contours of the internet and cyberspace by looking at its relationship with our bodies. The ways in which we understand our bodies, the mediation by technologies, and the extensions and simulations that we live with, help us to understand the human-technology relationship in more nuanced fashions. Looking at the case-study of a rape that happened in cyberspace, we mapped out the different ways in which we can think of a technosocial relationship.

The second framework drew from historical debates around technology and governance to see how the current concerns of e-governance and digital subjectivity are informed by older debates about technology and nation building. Looking at the dialogues between Gandhi and Tagore, and then the imagination of a nation through the broadcast technologies, we further saw how the new modes of networked governance are creating new actors, new conditions and new contexts within which to locate and operate technologies.

The third framework showed how the technological is not merely at the service of the human. In fact, the presence of the technological creates new identities and modes of governance that create potential criminals of all of us. Through the case-study of the DPS MMS, and in an attempt to look at the grey zone of illegal cyberpublics, we saw how at new technosocial identities are created at the intersection of law, technology, governance and everyday practices of the web. The fact that the very condition of technology access can create us as potential criminals, in need to be governed and regulated, reflects in the development of internet policy and governance.

It was the intention of this module to complicate three sets of presumptions and common knowledge that exist in the discourse around Internet and Cyberspace. The first was to move away from thinking of the Internet merely as infrastructure and networks. The second was to suggest that entering the debates around human-technology everyday relationships would offer more interesting ways of looking at accounts of the technological. The third was to propose that the history of the internet does not begin only with the digital, but it needs larger geographical and techno-science contexts in order to understand how the contemporary landscape of internet policy and governance is shaped.

The module was not designed to give a comprehensive history and account of the internet. Instead, it built a methodological and conceptual framework that would allow us to examine the ways in which we approach Internet and Society questions – in the process, it would also help us reflect on our own engagement, intentions and expectations from the Internet and how we create the different narratives and accounts for it.


[1]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet

[2]. http:\www.sigcomm.org\sites\default\files\ccr\papers\2009\October\1629607-1629613.pdf

[3]. http://www.walthowe.com/navnet/history.html

[4]. http:\www.internetsociety.org\internet\what-internet\history-internet\brief-history-internet

[5]. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Governing_the_Internet/Introduction_to_Internet_Governance

[6]. Recommended reading: Internet Governance: Infrastructure and Institutions eds. Lee Bygrave and Jon Bing http://www.amazon.com/Internet-Governance-Infrastructure-Institutions-Bygrave/dp/0199561133

[7]. Recommended watching material to look at some of these questions: 1. The final flight of the Osiris -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueiBYxI6Eqg  2. The Second Renaissance - part 1 - http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/n5vpzw/the-second-renaissance-part-i 3. The Second Ranaissance - part 2 - http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/va807i/animatrix-second-renaissance-part2

[8]. http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/a-rape-in-cyberspace/

[9]. http://cis-india.org/raw/rewiringdoc/view

[10]. http://www.amazon.com/Imagining-India-Idea-Renewed-Nation/dp/0143116673

[11]. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/670950

[12]. http://cis-india.org/raw/histories-of-the-internet/last-cultural-mile.pdf

[13]. http://eprints.cscsarchive.org/532/

[14]. http://tosdr.org/

[15]. http://www.amazon.com/The-Googlization-Everything-Should-Worry/dp/0520258827

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