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The Wall Street Journal's Technology Bubble

The Wall Street Journal editorial page chooses to believe that government funding for research and development in technology has been largely irrelevant to the extraordinary successes of the American technology sector. This distortion of history constitutes another example of the bubble that so many conservative thinkers in the US walk around in. An example of this distortion of history can be seen in the op-ed "Who Really Invented the Internet" that former WSJ editorial board member Gordon Crovitz published July 22, 2012. That essay is so full of errors of fact and misconceptions about the history of computing that it deserves an in-depth analysis.  The point of this analysis is not to excoriate one particular author, but to shed light on conservative America's systematic, ideologically-driven underestimation of the value of government. The source of information for my analysis of Crovitz' article is "Funding a Revolution: Government support for Computing Research", a book created by the National Research Council and published by the National Academies Press. It is written by representatives of both industry and government, many of whom participated in the developments described. Page citations below are to that book.

  1. To begin with, the article asserts that the governement played only a "modest" role in the creation of the internet, and that "full credit goes to the company... Xerox" for their development of the Ethernet protocol. Unfortunately for Crovitz, Ethernet is not actually what the internet runs on. Ethernet is indeed a valuable protocol, but the internet runs on TCP/IP. And in any case, Ethernet was built on the ideas of Aloha, a project funded by the government DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects) program (p. 175). Additionally, it is worth noting that at first many believed that PCs lwere too limited to function as ethernet-connected network hosts, but a DARPA funded project built an efficient TCP/IP implementation for the Xerox Alto and then for the IBM PC (p. 176).
  2. Crovitz grossly misstates history when he asserts that, "The federal government was involved, modestly, [in the creation of the internet] via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network". As "Funding a Revolution" points out, the internet "is the result of numerous projects in computer networking, mostly funded by the federal government, carried out over the last 40 years" (p. 169). ARPA had a series of visionary leaders who understood what computers could become and drove the development of the modern computer age. They didn't just fund a few projects here and there, they conceived ideas fundamental to modern computing and found the people who could implement them, often bypassing the more rigid companies like IBM in favor of startups like Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, the actual creators of the internet.
  3. Crovitz's statement that the ARPANET was not an internet is a red herring. The ARPANET was the first packet-switched network in history, and the project led to the creation of the networking protocols that would make the internet possible. Along the way, it also created email, ftp, and telnet (pp. 173-4). The ARPANET used the NCP protocol, which was only useful within a single network, but it was ARPA's Robert Kahn in 1973 who worked with Vinton Cerf to create TCP/IP, which allows disparate networks to communicate (p. 174). The work to transform TCP/IP from concept to reality was also carried out under ARPA contract (p. 174).
  4. Crovitz conveniently (for his argument) glides over NSFNET, which was an internet, and did evolve directly into the internet of today. Using the technology that DARPA had created, various regional academic and special-purpose networks had been developed, again, mostly with federal funding. The National Science Foundation (NSF) created a single network to bind these regional networks together. The NSF provided seed funding for linking regional networks to NSFNET, with the express plan that the private sector would eventually take over management of the resulting network (p. 179). Already by the early 1990s management of the internet had shifted primarily from NSF to commercial providers (p. 179). What happened in 1995 was not, as Crovitz asserts, that the "remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed," it was that all remaining restrictions on commercialization were lifted (p. 179). The other thing that happened around that time was the invention of the world wide web -- HTML, HTTP and the first browsers. These developments (again, largely taxpayer-funded, though this time partly by European governments) catapulted the internet into popularity.
  5. Crovitz approvingly quotes a blogger saying that the technology for the internet had "languished" in government hands, and that it was only when private industry got involved that the full potential was reached. This is absurd. Long years of intensive research and the development of prototype networks had to take place before Cerf and Kahn's original idea for TCP/IP could support a network on an international scale. Rather than languishing, ARPANET and NSFNET had transformed scientific and academic research, as well as communications in the private sector, with the introduction of email and ftp.
  6. Crovitz's celebration of Xerox PARC and the Alto, with its mouse and windowing system, is great, but he overlooks the fact that the mouse and a windowing interface had already been created in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart at Stanford in an ARPA and NASA funded project (p. 109). To quote the Wikipedia article on J.C.R. Licklider, the seminal ARPA director: Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC's Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation's Systems Research Center, noted that "most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick's vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all."
  7. As a historical note, it is interesting to take a look at Crovitz' assertion that it is an "urban legend" that the government built the original ARPANET to maintain communications during a nuclear war. The grain of truth that led to this "myth"  is thought to derive from the fact that the first person who came up with the idea for a packet-switched network, Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation, was interested in the problem of how to create a network that would withstand nuclear attack, and some of his proposals are indeed characteristic of the current internet.

It is unfortunate that Crovitz has turned the history of computing into an ideological battleground, because I believe that the contributions of the government, industry, and academics over the last 70 years should be a point of pride for every American. But people should be able to look honestly at what was actually done. In the '40s and '50s, government  funding accounted for roughly three quarters of the total computer field (p. 86). The bulk of research in theoretical computer science to this day is funded by the government. In general, the government has done an admirable job of funding technological efforts that were too big and risky for the private sector to be willing to take on, but of stepping out of the way when industry realized the value of the technology.

The partnership between government, industry, and academics has been the greatest engine of wealth creation that the world has ever seen. Now is not the time to dismantle it.


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