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IP: Internet Myths
From: Dave Farber <farber () cis upenn edu>
Date: Sat, 05 Dec 1998 15:52:05 -0500



Date: Sat, 05 Dec 1998 12:43:46 -0600
To: farber () cis upenn edu
From: Randy Sparkman <rsparkman () att net>
Subject: Internet Myths

Dave,

The following essay by writer Douglas Rushkoff was recently posted to Rushkoff's "Media Squat" mailing list. There was 
no information about where (or if) it's been published. I'm not sure about copyright considerations for its 
distribution, but the essay is certainly grist for the mill.

-- Randy Sparkman

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Breaking the Tech Myths (before they break us)
By Douglas Rushkoff


As millions in America sat down to their Thanksgiving turkey dinners last
week, we celebrated a shamelessly mythologized reconstruction of our
continent's history. According to the well-ingrained but now-disputed
legend, the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving was communal in spirit, a
demonstration of the debt they owed the native Americans who taught them how
to survive in a new and hostile environment. 

So much time has past since this myth was created that no one really knows
what happened -- only that the Native Americans were eventually slaughtered
both by the Pilgrims and those who followed shortly afterwards. In any
case, there was no one around at the time to correct the "bad" information
before it became accepted historical fact. 

We now embark on another pilgrimage to a New World -- cyberspace. Yet,
rather than learning from our previous mistakes, we have already instilled
ourselves with a set of myths about computers and technology that rival the
inaccuracies promulgated by our forefathers. Like myths of the past, most
of our Internet legends serve to revise history in a manner that makes the
conquerors look like natives, and reality appear like superstition or
paranoia. 

Here then, in the spirit of truth, are five of the most commonly believed
Internet myths as well as some of the reasons why they persist. See how
many you still believe, even after reading this column. 

1) The Internet was invented by the United States military in order to
create a communications network that could survive a nuclear war. 

Sorry, but this just ain't true. I believed this one myself until I read
journalist Katie Hafner's excellent book, *When Wizards Say Up Late,*
chronicling the real history of the Internet. As many suspected, the US
military was not capable of conceiving much less inventing an open,
interdependent network. Rather, a division of the Pentagon dedicated to
research offered grants to a loose consortium of University-based computer
scientists who were already developing protocols for processor sharing and
information exchange. 

This myth came into popularity after a report by the Rand Corporation, a
U.S. think tank that often works on military scenarios, was released onto
the Internet. The report -- written well after the Internet came into
existence -- did make the observation that a decentralized communications
infrastructure could potentially resist conventional attacks. It had
nothing to do with the development of the Internet itself. 

2) Free market competition has led to our greatest technological
innovations.

An offshoot of the military myth (above) the libertarian scenario promoted
by Silicon Valley and its advocates in the media is that individuals and
companies, competing for profits, developed the Internet as well as the
software we use to navigate it. In fact, the private sector only took
interest in the Internet after the creator of the Mosaic browser for the
World Wide Web formed a for-profit business in the mid-1990's based on the
same technology, called Netscape. 

A vast majority of the protocols and software we use to communicate through
the Internet are based on the work of scientists working collaboratively at
universities. Since those golden years, there have been no genuinely new
innovations for the Internet -- except, perhaps, Javascript and the Hotline
server system, both reactions to the debilitating effects of a series
profit-driven, closed, and proprietary protocols. 

3) Processor speed will double every 18 months (and this makes computers
cheaper).

Otherwise known as Moore's Law, the myth is true when taken in isolation. 
Chip speed does tend to double every year and a half. But the corollary to
this law is that every time chip speed increases, Microsoft will have
developed a new, fatter, and less efficient operating system that
effectively negates this acceleration in processor power. 

This myth has served to help us rationalize constant expenditures on new
computers and upgrades. But while a 300mhz computer costs less today than a
200mhz model did a year ago, we spend more total cash if we continually
replace our machines for little or no added benefits. In a flourish of
planned obsolescence bravado, computer companies and software writers create
chips that require more advanced operating systems, and operating systems
that require newer chips and more memory. Buying more computers, even if
progressively cheaper, costs more. 

4) Anyone who speaks this way is a conspiracy theorist or, worse, a Marxist.

According to many members of the business community, the shareware-based
"gift economy" we created through the Internet is dangerously un-American,
and a real threat to the health of the global economy. This is because
those of us who see the value of shareware and cooperation and who refuse to
participate in the endless cycle of upgrades, challenge the
Emperor-wears-no-clothes pyramid scheme known as the Long Boom. 

It is not the Internet or even the global economy that is put at risk by
clear thinking and honest reporting -- it is only the profits of a few
people who don't know how to make money honestly.

5) Interactivity means people interacting with machines.

The World Wide Web is no more interactive than a spring or a light switch. 
It's the people who make a medium interactive, not the technology. No
matter how many bells and whistles there are on a computer, how many cool
buttons on an interface, or dazzling streaming video clips on a Web site,
they are no substitute for interactions with people. The Internet is a
communications technology.

This myth got started because its much easier to make money by selling
technologies than it is to sell them one another. But, for my money anyway,
it's the living, breathing human beings we find online who are this ethereal
world's greatest resource. 

The myths used to obfuscate public perception of the true history and
functioning of the Internet have been designed to eliminate the culture and
irrevocably alter the habitat of its indigenous population. I wonder what
holiday they'll create to commemorate our cooperation. 


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