Annie Galvin (AG): So the first question that we’re asking all our guests is, what does being on the internet in 2020 feel like to you? So this can be a description, a metaphor, a feeling, a word—anything that captures the experience of being online in your own experience. Fred, why don’t we start with you?
Fred Turner (FT): When I go on the internet today, it feels like I’m entering a shopping mall. Some of my friends are there, it’s a nice place to hang, out but the experience is really structured by commercial imperatives: the need to track and sell.
AG: Yeah, that’s great. How about you, Charlton?
Charlton McIlwain (CM): I would have to say that being on the internet today feels like work, work all the time. And so there was a day when this thing that we call the internet was a place to go to sort of escape certain things. Today, it feels a lot like the stuff that you have to do, day in and day out.
AG: Yeah, those are good answers that I’m sure people will be able to relate to. All right. So today we’ll definitely be drawing on your work across many different domains. But I think that we’ll mostly be focusing on two books that you’ve each written. And so Fred’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, which was published in 2006. And Charlton’s book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, which was published in 2019. So to give some context for our conversation today, I would love it if you could each just give kind of a brief summary or elevator speech about what your book is about. So let’s start with you, Fred. How do you synthesize your book in a couple sentences? The dreaded question.
FT: No problem. So my book was an attempt to solve a problem. I woke up in the late 1990s having written a book about how Americans remember the Vietnam War. And at that time in the Vietnam War, computers were the emblem of the Cold War military state. So I moved to California in the late 1990s and there’s Wired magazine. And all of a sudden there are these hippies, and they seem to be promoting the internet as a countercultural technology. This just made no sense to me at all, since I knew that in the 1960s computers had been so much the military industrial technology. And so I was trying to figure out what happened. And I ended up tracking Stewart Brand and a group of folks who got together in the mid-60s around the Whole Earth Catalog and stayed together all the way until the mid-90s in different contexts and brought us Wired magazine, the phrase “personal computer,” the phrase “electronic frontier,” and a lot of the ways that we came to think of the internet as a utopian, democratic, egalitarian technology.
AG: Great. And for those of us who might not be super familiar with the Whole Earth Catalog, could you tell us about it: what it was, and what role you think it played in the development of the internet?
FT: So the Whole Earth Catalog was first published in 1968 as a service to people who were heading back to the land as part of the commune movement. Stewart Brand and his then wife Lois visited a series of communes, and they wanted to find out what kinds of tools people needed to head back to the land. When they figured that out, they created a catalog. And you couldn’t buy things through the catalog. What you got was a list of tools and descriptions of the tools, and then you were shown how to get it for yourself. So Steve Jobs would later call the Whole Earth Catalog kind of an early Google. And it’s sort of correct. And Alan Kay, who went on to develop a lot of our laptop technologies, actually designed interfaces based on page designs that he saw in the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs who lived for a year on a commune read it religiously. So it was a very visible kind of print technology for folks in the tech world. Amazon’s first designer originally worked for the catalog.
AG: Awesome, thank you. And so, Charlton, what is Black Software about?
CM: Black Software began as a way to try to answer the question: Where did Black Lives Matter come from, and what were its digital roots? What it turned into was really much more of a history of Black people’s relationship to computing technology and to the internet more specifically.
AG: All right, great. So let’s get into it. And I’m first going to ask a pretty basic question that I’m almost embarrassed that I have to ask. But I spend a ton of time online, like I think a lot of people, basically every day, and when I think about it, I realize that I actually have basically no idea what this place is where I am when I’m spending time online. So when I send an email for instance where does it go? We’re talking on Zoom; what are we actually talking on? And I’m really hoping that you two, having written books ostensibly about the internet, can kind of help me out there. So quite literally: What is the internet? Who wants to—how do you explain it to a child?
CL: As I was preparing this I thought, “It sounds like a simple question, but not a simple answer.” And I think one way to describe it is simply as a network of computers that’s connected by hardware and uses software to facilitate the messages that we send to and from those computers. And maybe I’ll tee it up for the later part of our discussion, but I think this is no small question to ask, what is the internet, and to think about it either in terms of that hardware and software structure, or to think about something more aligned with people and users and content. And I think there’s a fundamental difference in framing that question, what the internet is, depending on those two ways that we could go about it.
FT: I really agree with Charlton on that one. And I want to add a third term, which is “institutions.” When we think of the internet as a technology, it’s a lot like a massive train network. You have a whole series of packages of information, each like a train car that can be coupled and decoupled and recoupled and ultimately sent down a complex network of tracks to another computer. And as a sort of technological system, it’s very open—sort of beautiful. But layered on top of that are, just like with a train system, there are cities, there are institutions, there are companies, there are governments, there are states—all of whom have interests at stake in how the trains run. And all of whom come to the train line with longstanding complex, cultural, political, commercial agendas. And one of the deepest mistakes that I think scholars have made around the internet, especially in the ’90s and early aughts, is reading it as open simply because the technology was open. And I think that’s just, as Charleton’s book shows, very clearly not the case.
AG: Absolutely. I’m really interested in how, even just at this early question, you’re bringing up this almost existential question of what the internet is. Is it the hardware, the software, or is it the people, the institutions, the other stuff that happens through and on it. So both of your books tell stories that start during World War II basically and go all the way up into the present day. And as you’ve already pointed out, they’re just as much social histories as they are histories of technology. And I want to kind of just start by focusing on the technology itself. And I’m wondering: at what point would you say that there actually was a technology that was invented that counts as an internet? A kind of prototype of what we’re talking on right now on Zoom.
FT: Yeah, that’s a really tricky question. And it’s much trickier than maybe it seems. If you sort of just did it on the basis of machines, you might look at the late 1960s and to Doug Engelbart’s famous “mother of all demonstrations” in Silicon Valley, in which he demonstrated the possibility of connecting computers over telephone lines with images and text transported back and forth. And you might look at the DARPA-funded, Defense Department–funded internet of the late 1960s, and you might think that was it. I think that the sort of intellectual framework that the early internet developers are working with (and that also, just parenthetically, shapes a lot of AI today) emerges much earlier. It emerges in the first few years before digital computing even appears. So the first digital computer comes into being in 1948. In the mid-’40s you have a series of technologists, engineers, social scientists all coming together and they formulate the pseudo discipline of cybernetics. And cybernetics contains within it a vision of a world of linked information systems, information systems that ostensibly have no place, no institutional connection, no race, no history—just patterns circulating. And I think that vision dramatically informs what the thing we’re going to call the internet becomes and how we think about it, as well as what the American counterculture thinks it’s doing with technology.
AG: That’s fascinating. Yeah, Charlton, how would you answer that?
CL: Again, complex set of answers. And I think there is that thread that goes way back into the time that Fred was discussing through that period in the ’60s with the actual demonstration of these technologies early on. My mind goes toward around the late ’70s, early ’80s—kind of that transition moment where places like IBM were building and putting into place what would become sort of commercialized internet. Meaning, exploiting this ability for computers to connect and then to connect to ways of us solving problems. And so by the late ’70s, early ’80s, IBM had begun to utilize this kind of internet that was still sort of an intranet, but it was a way that technicians out in the field could communicate with folks back in the office and do that in real time. And so that’s part of the internet that I’m thinking of, in that transition space between sort of defense institutions and on its way into more commercial uses.
FT: I think this is a really important point and I want to double down on it. The story that we tell about the origin of the internet often involves just focusing on the Defense Department and the DARPA research of the late 1960s. But the internet that ultimately went online publicly in the early ’90s was composed of a variety of networks, many of which were in fact commercial and corporate-sponsored, just as Charlton’s pointing out. And we can think of the first public internet, when the NSF backbone goes online in the early ’90s, as a fusion of an early government initiative and a series of corporate initiatives to take advantage of that early government-funded research.
AG: Yeah, that actually kind of anticipates the next question I was going to ask. As I mentioned early on, I think a lot of us use the internet but are really not very aware of where this technology comes from. And I think that a lot of us have heard rumblings of different narratives, like the DARPANET, which gestated in the Department of Defense. I remember when I was growing up, Al Gore had claimed to have invented the internet, so for a long time I thought that Al Gore had just sort of thrown the internet together one day. And so I’m wondering: Before you started writing your books, which I think are both sort of counterhistories to those dominant narratives, what were some of the main stories or understandings that were widely accepted about the origins of the internet?
CL: I think my dominant sort of framing came and sort of hit me very abruptly as I was just sort of peeking around here and there about sort of origin stories, if you will, or varying histories. And I remember one day picking up a Handbook of Black Inventors I think it was called. [Note: Our fact-checker could not confirm this title specifically, though there are a number of similar titles viewable on Amazon.] It’s a big thick book that goes through Black folks that were part of inventing all kinds of things. Some of them technological, some other. And I remember looking up the internet. And I remember this book, which was authored by a number of African American scholars, it said something like this: that nowhere in our research have we found that any Black person has been instrumental in the founding or invention of the internet. And I remember thinking at that moment, you know, wow, that is a profound statement to make. Number two, I don’t believe it. And, number three, and this gets back to where we began, I thought, there’s only one way of construing that kind of a statement, meaning a very narrow description and definition of what the internet is, to be able to come away and say that Black folks had no way of contributing. So I think, like most folks, the dominant narrative was about the internet as a technical thing. As a hardware, as software—therefore its inventors were largely white male figures from leading tech institutions and engineering institutions. And that left out most others that were or had a role in that.
AG: Fred, how would you answer that? What were some of the dominant frameworks that you sort of wrote in—
FT: I’ll get right to that. But I want to point to something that Charlton’s pointing to, too, that I think is really important. Which is our understanding of what the internet is has been constructed over time. The internet isn’t just a natural thing in the world that is what it is no matter what. On the contrary, a variety of intellectual communities, advertising communities, commercial communities have sought for their own purposes to define this thing called the internet in ways that privilege their own advantage. And that’s part of what we’re both, I think, chronicling here. I ran into the internet in the mid-’90s. I had come west. I had been a journalist for 10 years in Boston and I’d written a book on how Americans remember the Vietnam War, and I went back to grad school and I was fully intending to continue to study, you know, masculinity gone wrong and combat violence. And I got to California, San Diego, and the internet was all over it. And I didn’t know what the internet was and I began to engage it. And I ended up seeing two distinct stories. One story was that it’s a new technology, it’s computers being interlinked, it’s technologically intersecting, it’s sophisticated. The other story I kept seeing was, wow, the internet is really cool. Finally we can have a one-to-one society. Finally the hierarchical mass society of mid-twentieth-century America can go away. Everybody can contribute, everybody can collaborate: finally, we’re going to be a free society of individuals. And so course that’s as old an American dream as there is. And so I got really curious about how those things had come together. And that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out, is sort of how the story of the internet became the utopian story that’s still very much alive in Silicon Valley today.
AG: Yeah, that’s great thank you. As I mentioned, both your books start basically kind of during and right after World War II, which of course was an extraordinarily historically, globally traumatic event, and then the Cold War begins shortly thereafter. What were some of the ways people were thinking about computers and technology in that moment? Were people scared, were they excited?
FT: I think it depends a lot on who you were. If you were a corporate leader in the late ’40s and early ’50s, you were pretty excited that you seemed to have this new technology, large mainframes, room-sized mainframes that could process enormous amounts of data to help you keep track of your business better. There’s an historian named JoAnne Yates whose work I very much admire at MIT, and she’s written a lot about the insurance industry and how they took up computing early on.
So one way to think about computing in that period was as a kind of new centralization of institutional power in corporations, in governments. A lot of Americans in the ’50s especially were worried that large centralized computers would suck up pictures of themselves and become a kind of authoritarian force in society. Now we may be headed there now, but that’s a second question.
AG: Sounds familiar, yes.
FT: But we weren’t there in the ’50s. There’s another story about the computers in the ’50s though, which runs right alongside that sort of fear of centralization. And that’s the dream of a decentralized information environment. And that’s the dream that emerges with cybernetics, the work of Norbert Wiener at MIT, and these folks who really think that the world itself is a probabilistic system. It’s nothing but signals, information signals signaling back and forth. And you see this line of thinking in Wiener’s work, in the politic science of Karl Deutsch, in the economics of Friedrich Hayek. You see this idea of the world as a bounded system in which information is circulating back and forth, and all we have to do to make the world a better place is to give every person the ability to signal authentically and sincerely to someone else, receive feedback from that person, and move on in the world. Now that’s a vision that’s associated with information theory, not explicitly with computers as devices yet. That association’s going to happen later as computers become networks. But those two visions, the visions of the distributed information system and a centralized computing technology, are to some extent in tension with each other in the years after World War II.
AG: That’s great. And, Charlton, among the communities that you are studying in your book, what kind of sense did you get about perceptions about computing in the days of the early Cold War?
CM: Well, I think there, you know like Fred said, that’s sort of dual, and dual depending on the communities that you’re talking to and the individuals within those communities. But I think there was a sense of folks, that were particularly African American folks, who were also working in the defense industry, working with computers in that sort of command-and-control defense era and began to see computers in the ways that folks like Tom Watson Jr., head of IBM at the time, really started to define them, which is as problem-solving machines. Just sort of ubiquitous machinery that could help us solve problems, any kind of problem and had that sort of computational ability to reduce those problems to actionable things that we could do to remedy those. And so I think even in, and I’m thinking of the late ’50s, early ’60s, mid-’60s, you start to have two sort of concerns and questions. And that is a) how will this new form of power be used against us in the ways that all previous ones have been, if we’re thinking about Black communities and so forth? But the other that starts to emerge, and I think it’s important that it begins to emerge at this time even if it’s just as a sort of an imaginary, which is: Could this be, and to what degree might this be, a road toward economic opportunity for Black folks? So I think to have that kernel of both sort of history and caution that comes up, but then that kernel about what is future possibility, I think, is important in thinking about the early days of computing.
AG: Definitely. Thanks. And that kind of takes us into the scenes of your book and books. And I would say part of what makes both of them so enjoyable to read is that they’re histories but they’re really stories about people; they’re populated by these fascinating characters who traversed many domains of American life from art to politics, technology. And I would love it if you could each highlight a character or two whose stories you tell in your book. So maybe we can start with Charlton. In Black Software you’re kind of telling this collective history of a group that you call the Vanguard. And I’m wondering if you could first explain what you mean by that term or that grouping. And then maybe highlight one or two members of the Vanguard: how they got into computing and maybe what their lasting impact was on the field.
CM: Thank you for that. So I term this group of people, this large group of folks, the Vanguard to really signal that they were part of that wave of building what we would come to call the internet or the web but doing so before the web itself came online. So folks who were largely in the late-’70s, ’80s, et cetera, preparing and paving the way for what would ultimately become the web. Some transitioned into that moment sort of seamlessly, some sort of went by the wayside fairly abruptly. But two people really come to mind. One is a guy named Kamal Al Mansour, who just tells this vivid story of being a young kid going to college at UCLA then going up to San Francisco to go to law school, ends up back in Southern California at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And this is the beginning of sort of a new way of thinking about and building software. He was doing tech transfer work for JPL, essentially writing the underlying legal agreements that would buy new technologies that were being bought and then sold either to companies or governments or what have you. And he tells this story about looking around one day and saying, “Wow, in all of this new work around computers and software that’s developing, I don’t see anyone like me. I don’t see any of us being a part of it. I don’t see any of us benefiting from it.” [Most quotes in this interview are summaries, not direct quotes.] And he ultimately sees that as a bankrupt place to be both personally and professionally. Ultimately he went on from there, moved to Boston, ultimately moved out to the Seattle area and on the way built what was called Afro Link Software, which came up in the late-’80s and in the early ’90s. And really what it was was building and digitizing images and information and putting those largely on CD-ROMs that circulated and sold, that told stories about Black folks that were absent in the sort of software narratives of the time. And so it’s a very vivid story of just one man who said, “Look, this cannot be. And we cannot have this software explosion without us,” and took it on themselves to build a lucrative commercial company to counter that.
The other person I’d mention really quickly is a woman named Anita Brown and Anita’s story was also one that was very vivid. She was 50 or so before she even picked up and turned to the web. She had nothing but a high school education, was a legal secretary but got online, found herself immersed and connected in a social web and network that she built called Black Geeks Online. And her really her importance, her significance came in that she mediated varying factions of early Black cyberculture, which were really kind of cut into two large areas I would say, which is: Black folks who at the time, in the early-to-mid-’90s, were saying, “Here is a new technology that we could use for social, communal uplift.” And those who quite frankly saw it as a way and means for economic opportunity and simply said, “I want to make money.” And those two sides were frequently at odds. Anita was the one to bring those folks together and say, “Look, this thing is for all of us and can be for all of our betterment.”
AG: Yeah, that’s great. And you mentioned that Afro Link software that Kamal Al-Mansour built, and I was really struck in reading it that, if I’m correct, it began as basically a database of clipart. I mean I hadn’t heard the term clipart since I was in grade school trying to put together little book reports. But it struck me as a really similar project to I think a lot of what is happening on contemporary social media, where it’s really an effort to expand representation and visibility. I mean it seemed like Kamal basically realized, if you wanted to make a flier or a newspaper, there were just like no digital images that weren’t of white people. So let’s invent this database. And to me that really resonated with movements like #OscarsSoWhite that are happening now, which are really about bringing into visibility people who unjustly are not as visible in the culture. So that was just a thought that I had.
CM: Yeah. And it’s very much on point in Kamal’s first product that was called CPTime Online, and it was just a collection of clipart, but clipart that featured Black people, Black images. And so his project was very much a project about representation and bringing that into the new digital environment.
AG: Yeah, that’s great. And so, Fred, so Charlton was talking about this group the Vanguard and in your book you trace a group that you call the New Communalists, so kind of back-to-the-land hippies in the 1960s, and I think that to a lot of us, myself included, the notion that a book about the development of the internet would sort of be about communes is a little bit surprising. So I’m wondering if you could briefly talk about: what do you mean by that new term the New Communalists, and what the hell did they have to do with the internet?
FT: Sure I can absolutely walk us through that. I do want to respond to something Charlton’s saying because I think it’s really important. It was fascinating to me in reading your book, Charlton, to see how important individual actors were. And I was really struck that that was one of the things that made the internet the internet. Unlike television when it comes along, or radio when it comes along, those are mass media, and almost immediately the government is involved in regulating who is appearing on these things, who is not. There’s a kind of legislative battle very early on in these mass media to make sure that either there is or isn’t equality and engagement. And depending on what side of the battle you’re on. With the internet a lot of the fights that were fought were fought by individuals. And individual networks, because it is a sort of many-to-many medium. And I just think that makes it really different. And one of the things that I think we’re trying to recover from now is that individualism. And when we have massive systems like Facebook or Google, those are systems that have been built on the backs of all these individual efforts but it ended up in the kind of place where they’ve become almost a mass medium like radio and television before. And I think one of the things we’re really struggling with is how do we legislate these now mass media, coming from a place where we’ve all been working kind of individually for a very long time? I just wanted to get that off my chest.
CM: Yeah, very much so.
FT: I think it’s a really important feature that the internet is distinct from other media. The new communalists were really fun, you know, they were different. So okay so I have to tell this a little bit more personally. I went back to grad school, I was 35, I had a family. And I wanted to study the counterculture. And my friends just thought I had lost my mind. It was like, “Look, Fred, there’s this thing called the internet happening and you want to read about hippies? Like what is your problem?” And honestly I really thought I was blowing my career, and my friends certainly did too. And so I started rebuilding this sort of ESL business that I had, and I thought I was just gonna do that and to heck with it, but I’d at least write the book. One of the things that was most challenging is I was sitting in these back offices reading the Whole Earth Catalog, was starting to notice that the folks I was studying, these communalists, were really different than the New Left. And I had grown up on a story that said, “Ah, you know, the counterculture it was all one big technicolored thing, it happened in the 60s and, there was Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and the Panthers, and everybody was friends and they all marched against the war during the day and then they all dropped acid at night, and it was just one big movement.” And it became very clear to me very quickly that that wasn’t true. And the consensus view was so strong that I didn’t say anything to anyone about what I was finding in my own stuff for a year. And what I found in my own stuff was that, no, actually there was the New Left very much centered in Berkeley, near Oakland, where the Panthers were much more political, and there were these commune-based folks who really didn’t have a name who were much more centered in San Francisco, much more oriented toward taking things like LSD and using them to get their heads together. And so I had to give them a name just because they were such a distinct movement, and I called them New Communalists. They believed that politics was bankrupt and that the way that you could change the world was by taking up the technologies that were produced by the military-industrial complex, everything from automobiles to stereos to electric guitars to LSD, and take it into your personal life, use it to reform yourself and the community immediately around you, change your consciousness. And once your consciousness had been changed individually and in the small group of friends, you would create a model for the world at large and the world at large would begin to live as you lived. And that was the function of the communes. Between 1966 and 1973 we had the largest wave of commune building in all of American history. Conservative estimates say 750,000 Americans went to live on the land. Less conservative estimates say it’s over a million. In many cities today, the fact that you can live with roommates of the opposite sex to whom you’re not related was a function of the commune movement and the ways they changed the laws. So it’s a huge movement but it’s a movement that’s in many ways a kind of retreat from politics. And when that retreat happens, technology gets embraced as a site and source of cultural change, particularly information technologies. I mean one of the things that shocked me was reading the Whole Earth Catalog, which is a kind of guide to tools for people heading back to the land first published in 1968, and there on page four or five was Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics. And I’m thinking, if I’m going to build a farm in the countryside, why am I carrying a book about information theory? And the answer turned out to be that, for the new communalists and not the New Left, but for the New Communalists information theory, information technology, the ability to imagine the world as a sort of mystical signal system was their politics. If we could just get the technology right and get our consciousness shaped so that we can collaborate together, we aren’t going to need bureaucracy, institutions, governments, states, or any of it. Now from where we’re sitting today, you can hear how those ideas feed fairly directly into the libertarianism and neoliberalism of the 1990s. And those ideas are the ideas that drive Wired magazine. And I don’t think it’s that surprising, though it is quite painful, that Wired magazine featured positive stories about Newt Gingrich.
AG: Right. Yeah, I mean again, I think the fact that your book contains extensive—you know, Ken Kesey and Newt Gingrich are in the same book—not necessarily as antagonists or polar opposites, but as kind of two plot points in a common history.
FT: Can I address that? I think that another myth that I had always been told about the counterculture was that it was in fact counter to mainstream American culture. And the more I dug into it, the more I began to think that wasn’t actually true. Especially the New Communalist wing embraced catalogs as their technology of change. You know I asked Stewart Brand about that he said, “Yeah, I modeled it on the L. L. Bean catalog and a little bit on the Sears catalog”—those are central elements in the American commerce. The folks associated with New Communalism absolutely believed in technology and commerce as engines of benevolent cultural change. Well, that’s the same kind of thing that a lot of folks on the right believe today.
CM: You see some of those same fissures come into play in the early Black cyberculture, where you have folks that are Black conservatives who are really embracing this sort of road to economic independence and layering that on the sort of bootstrapping and so forth that comes out of the conservative community. And so all those I think play out in varying dimensions here.
AG: Yes. I think a term that’s come up from time to time in the conversation so far is “institutions,” and I think as Fred was just saying a lot of the groups that you talk about were sort of—at least they saw themselves as trying to kind of drop out of institutions. But, Charlton, especially in the early part of your book, you spend a fair amount of time kind of exploring what was happening within these incredibly powerful institutions like the Department of Defense, universities like MIT and Clemson, and certainly the corporation IBM. And so, Charlton, I’d be curious if you could tell us a little bit about kind of what was happening in say an institution like MIT in the 1950s and 60s: what was the culture like, and what was it like for young Black engineers to try to try to move in and through a space like that?
CM: MIT emerges as one of the elite science and engineering institutions. This is a place where new technologies are being imagined, conceived of, and built. Part of the story is about representation or, better yet, the lack thereof in each of those groups whether you’re talking about commercial spaces like an IBM or educational institutions like MIT. And so, for one, when you’re thinking about the late ’50s, early ’60s, there were very few—and in terms of year-by-year enrollments, often counting folks on two hands—the number of African Americans that were enrolling at places like MIT. And I think that had very real consequence because there was this sense of sort of depoliticization of this new technological environment. And so I found it fascinating, really, thinking about this moment in 1961 where you have this group spring up at MIT, a very dedicated group of folks who want to help and aid the Southern civil rights movement, who are vociferous in speaking out about inequality and about racial segregation both on campus at MIT but also in a broader network. And then to see how that all sort of dissipates, and in part dissipates I think because there was no other conversation in the broader institution that connected that level of activism to what was going on in the university, in the labs, in the connections between the university and industry. So there was that disconnect that then ends up simply as disappearing in an institution that says, “Look, our one and only job is to build elite institutions of engineering, and politics is not really a part of that.” And I think that opens the door to think about technology as simply this tool that could be used to do anything, irrespective of what that means or what its outcome is. And I think that’s what opens the door for 1965, ’66, ’67 when these new problem-solving machines take their focal point or make their focal point Black people as the nation’s enduring “problem.” And what that turns into, ultimately, in terms of the rise of the carceral state, the rise in the massive ways in which we profile, arrest, and imprison Black and brown folks, and the technological foundations that made that happen there in the mid-’60s.
FT: I think this is one of the most exciting parts of your book, Charlton, and especially your part on MIT, where I used to teach and where I experienced some of the things that you described. The fantasy that has animated so much of the computer-development world I think is a fantasy of making a technology, computation, information systems that are beyond politics. And ready for the next step? Better than politics. Something that we can implement technocratically instead of politics. And one of the things that I think your work has done, and that Mar Hicks’s work has done and Nathan Ensmenger’s work has done, is remind us that the actual places in which these technologies were developed were sites of gendered and racial struggle. They were not neutral. They were places in which the ethos of kind of a, for lack of a better term, sort of universal whiteness and maleness were struggled for and actively attached to computational technologies that in themselves, as device technologies, might have had more egalitarian purposes and uses. And I just think that calling that out and saying “no, no, no this didn’t just happen—it was produced” is really important.
CM: Yeah, indeed. And as you say, the fact that it wasn’t as if there were no politics at MIT. And part of the narrative that gets told and it’s, you know, especially palpable when you read as I did through the student newspaper, through The Tech, you see it there. And you see the few Black faculty that are at MIT, the Black students that are doing everything they can to say, “We’re here, we’re being ignored, we want our share of the pie, we want our ability to contribute.” And it’s a knock-down, drag-out battle in many ways amongst both faculty and students. Which then makes it even more egregious, I think, to say, look when we come into the lab, to building these new technologies, the idea that folks were not aware, folks were not a part of, people were not connected to outside of their windows what was going on and think about what that meant for the technologies that were being built, I think says a lot in terms of deliberate choices that were made to say what this was going to be about and for whom and so forth.
AG: Yeah. I mean you say a few times throughout the book, yes, Black Americans were ultimately able to access and penetrate and contribute to these spaces, but it was so late, right, the train has kind of already left the station to some extent. And I think similarly, Fred, you pointed out how the communalists were so white, middle-upper class, kind of gender hierarchized in different ways. And I guess I’m curious about what you think the effect of those exclusions actually might have been on the technology. Like Charlton, you used this really interesting phrase very early in your book where you say, you’re talking about “two versions of Black software: the kind that positively impacts Black people and the kind that destroys them.” So I guess, maybe we can hear from Charlton and then Fred, do you have a sense that these social exclusions ended up actually contributing to like the tech being kind of bad, you know, or harmful or not adequate, not representative of people?
CM: Yeah. And I think what it does come through is both in the actual technology, but in a closely associated idea, which is the motivation for building the technology, right?
AG: Right, sure, yes.
CM: And so that’s where that circumstance that I spoke to, where you have Lyndon Johnson who comes and in part this is a push by white America, in part it’s a political push by others in his cabinet to say, “Look, you really gotta think about and do something about this so-called crime problem in America.” Johnson wasn’t particularly convinced that there was a crime problem, but politically folks were saying that there was. And he very much spoke explicitly, as did others, about this problem of crime being an urban problem, a Black problem, a problem of the ghettos. And so when you then call together a science-and-technology commission and say, “Our number-one animating problem here is to try to figure out how do we mobilize computational tools to solve our problem of crime”—that’s a crime of Blackness, that’s a crime of poverty, that’s a crime of urban areas. Then you have a technology that gets fashioned with that in mind and for those purposes. And that’s where you get of course the outgrowth of what we started to call “criminal-justice information systems” that were focused very much on: How do we find the likely perpetrators of crime, and how do we ultimately try to both mitigate what they do ideally before that happens? But to start in with a racialized technology that comes about as a racialized, motivating, animating problem: I think that’s where we set ourselves on a track that has been difficult if not impossible to come back from. And I always think about some of the things that are in those early moments of technology where we very could have asked ourselves a very different question. We could have asked how this new technology could be used to promote varying forms of equity.
FT: Yeah, I think this is exactly right. And I think that in our line of work, we sometimes overestimate the power of technology and the design of technology to shape cultural and public life. And I think that the story in Charlton’s book and in mine—these are stories of how cultural and political imperatives that long predate internet technology per se come to be brought to bear on the technology and on its use. I just wanted to add to what Charlton was saying that, in addition to the internal American management of the quote “problem of Black America and poverty,” we had an international effort underway at exactly the same moment that was equally racialized and that was in Vietnam. We had Operation Igloo White in Vietnam, in which we dropped sensors along the Ho Chi Min Trail, fed the data from those sensors back into servers in Saigon, and then ultimately back to the United States and then dropped bombs based on what those sensors were telling us. And as you might imagine, the Vietnamese figured out fairly quickly that these were gameable. And it was a fiasco, and it was a very bloody fiasco. And I think that we often mistake the internet as a technology of communication, but I think it’s always been from the get-go, as both our books show, also if not even more primarily a technology of management. And management technologies get used by people in power to stay in power and to maintain their power. And they get used in ways that mask the targets of those powers so that, you know, “Oh, you know the internet—it’s not a racialized technology; it’s just bits and bytes circulating through space.” And meantime it’s being applied in a racist manner. And I think that’s one of the challenges for folks like us is to unpack the social and cultural forces that are shaping these devices such that we can push back where we should properly push back. Which may not actually be in improving our communication online, but might in fact be in pushing back on racism in our society.
AG: Yes. That’s all really well said. Well, I think that took us to sort of a dark place so maybe we can go to a happier place for a moment.
FT: We’re in America—it’s all dark places right now, there is no happy place!
AG: I know, yeah. Well I think on a more kind of positive level, I think in both of your books you show how creative figures, artists, musicians were really attracted to computers and to the burgeoning internet. And, Charlton, some of the figures in the Vanguard were DJs, or you write about Lee Bailey, who was a big kind of radio personality. And so I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about similarly what attracted those figures to these early network technologies and maybe what impact they had?
CM: Yeah. And I really, as you were talking, I was thinking about Lee Bailey, thinking about E. David Ellington, and Malcolm CasSelle and just how this moment happened where—you know, and I think this best comes across in that story about E. David Ellington and Malcolm CasSellle who ultimately built Net Noir. And on the one hand you have this MIT- and Stanford-trained computer scientist who really knows about the technology, who is sitting up there at Stanford and working on the first browsers and so forth. And then you have this guy E. David Ellington who is an entertainment lawyer, but what he knows really is about Black culture and Black art and the ways that it connects to people—both Black people and people across the racial divide. You know I love to hear sort of David telling that particular part of the story where he’s like, “Look, I loosely understand what this technology is just enough to know that what is really going to power it is not something technological. You know, you guys up there are thinking about taking the phone book and reproducing it, and that’s going to be the end all and be all of your new internet, your new web. But I know that Black culture animates the world and connects the world.” That really goes back to the question where we began, which is: What is the internet? And for these folks who say, “Look, the internet isn’t those pipes and cables and so forth that we’ve been talking about and the Defense Department and so forth, it’s about content.” And that’s what Lee Bailey and all these other folks really started to recognize: that it’s about stuff that people will be connected to and find interesting and want to connect to. And when they recognize that, they recognize, “Hey, we have a role to play here.” Because Black people have really always been at the center of cultural artistic production.
AG: Yeah, that’s a great point. Man, I mean I feel like we could—I have so many other questions—we could just keep talking for a while.
CM: We could continue for a while.
AG: Yeah. But one question I definitely want to make sure that we get to is, you know, a question about the early idealism around the invention of the internet essentially. I think we’ve touched on that in different ways, you know, the New Communalists, this very kind of “we are the world, we’re all a system; these networks have the potential to kind of topple hierarchies and level everyone out.” And there is certainly I think a degree of utopianism among the figures that Charlton writes about. But I think where we find ourselves in 2020 is definitely kind of a darker place. It’s not really a day on Twitter unless you see someone referring to Twitter as a garbage fire, a dystopian landscape. And we’re all very familiar with the racism, misogyny, misinformation—all these terrible things that swirl through the internet. And I’m just kind of curious about: How do you reconcile some of the excitement around the early internet with some of the dread I think around the contemporary internet?
CM: Yeah. I mean I think a lot of this goes back to, as Fred brought up earlier, the ways in which that early idealism was sort of a fantasy in some real ways. Meaning that it was an idealism that was premised on a kind of depoliticization of this new medium in many respects, and so was really sort of rampantly calling out the idea that this was a raceless space, a genderless space, et cetera, completely free for all comers to participate in equally and egalitarianly. And so I think part of this is going back and saying, “Look, that idealism was not realistic in the first place.” And revisiting some of the folks like Lisa Nakamura and so forth who very early on start to really write about this and say, “Look, this idea about a sort of race-neutral space is a fantasy and one that never really was.” But I think a large part of what we have to do is really think a lot more about history. And the more that we think about history, involve ourselves in history, the more that our present and the possibility of our future don’t look like such dire, out-of-the-blue kind of dystopian fantasy. Meaning: we should be able to go back in our history and see, having seen this coming all along really. And so a lot of times I spend my time these days telling folks, I’d say, spend a lot less time thinking of new ways to try to solve this problem go back to our history and the answer is already there. Think about what we should have been doing and the battles we’ve been waging since the ’50s and the ’60s that are in that political terrain and I think that’s where we have at least an opening and a window to think about where we move this thing forward in terms of this internet environment, this digital environment and what it looks like in the next 10–50 years.
FT: I very much agree. And I think that the—I love what you said about not trying to solve all the problems of the moment, as if those were all the problems that ever were. I think that’s right. I think the virtue of history in this context is that we can see the trajectories and the forces that have brought us to this moment, and they may not in fact be the technology. They may in fact be the fracturing processes of modernism. They may be racial tensions that are hundreds of years old. So these are the kinds of connections that we need to make. And I think we need to, in some ways, as historians in some sense get off the internet and get back to the books. I’m not as pessimistic I think as other folks are. I feel very mixed. On the one hand, yeah, I mean you know Russia is bombing Facebook. I was online yesterday with the church I belong in San Francisco, and we were watching a service and we were Zoom bombed. You know, the people are still people. And I think one of the fantasies of the early internet was that once we were all connected, we would cease to be the complex, sometimes evil beings that all of us are. And I think that was something that is demonstrably false. But there’s a flip side. And the flip side is something that I’ve thought about for a long time with media. Media I think and new media technologies are a little bit like cityscapes, they might seem very imprisoning, they might seem like, oh my gosh we’ve built these giant apartment blocks and we’re all living in our little boxes. But in those apartment blocks, as we walk down the street, is the possibility of becoming a more cosmopolitan world. And I think a lot of the tension that we’re seeing now, a lot of the polarization comes from collisions between peoples who never had to see each other before and never had to engage with each other before. It’s going to be hard, you know. Imagine if you’re a very conservative southern Christian who suddenly sees Qawwali music, Pakistani religious music, and your child is playing it in their bedroom. Like what does that mean to you? And by the same token, if you’re an extraordinarily conservative Muslim in a part of Afghanistan, and suddenly your child is accessing the internet and watching hip hop: What do you do with that? And I think that’s a kind of cultural collision that the entire planet is undergoing almost simultaneously. And I’m kind of encouraged about it. There are lots of ways of being a person in this world that were completely off limits in the world that I grew up in just 50 years ago that are now normal, active. One of the things that I think I hold out great hope for in the media world that we’re in is an increase in this kind of cosmopolitan energy, cosmopolitan encounters with one another. It will be extraordinarily difficult. This is not tourism; this is the real deal. We have to figure out how to live together. But we have that opportunity. It’s a difficult opportunity, but it’s an opportunity that the internet, like television and radio before it, have brought us.
CM: Yeah, and I think I similarly, you know, I oscillate between the pessimism and optimism. But where I see the optimism, you know, I think back to the Black Lives Matter Movement and I think a lot about the sort of just generational shift. And there’s a lot of complex politics in with Black Lives Matter, and part of that was due to young folks that simply said, “Look, you had your chance, you messed it up; get the hell out of the way. It’s our time and we’ll figure things out in new and creative ways and not within the same frameworks that others have imposed on us.” And I think that’s in part where I see that optimism: that is, new generations who are eager to push back and make a way for themselves that is theirs, punching holes in the walls that we have built around them. I feel the impulse, and a lot of that impulse comes from folks that are at the Facebooks and Twitters and so forth, and when they’re outside of that environment saying, “Look, I know what the hell’s going on and I know the things that are going wrong and I really want to try to find a way around it and solution through it, either in the place I’m at or in another venue.” I think their recognition and willingness to push back gives me hope.
FT: I get hope there too. And I want to—one of the things—one of our challenges is to not get caught in the user/producer zone of political change that these large corporations would like us to be trapped in. I think the problem actually is in us and in our society far more than in our devices, and I think that since Silicon Valley bubbled up into the world, it has marketed the user/consumer space as the place in which to make change. You know: if we treat you badly, well, just change your settlings. You know? No, that doesn’t work. And so I think our challenge as analysts and scholars and citizens is to say: What are the things that we can do outside the individual space, outside the space of individual expression, outside the space of changing our user settings to change this world? And, you know, could we turn Facebook into a utility? Could we cooperatively own these forces? Why not?
AG: Right. Yeah, I mean, this is making me feel better. Part of where we can find the optimism is seeing what’s happening in the digital spaces then being taken offline. You know, Charlton, you’ve written about the way that the Black Lives Matter Movement online actually facilitates in-person activism. And I think I saw this a lot when I was teaching undergrads in just the degree of acceptance that they have for gender and sexuality and racial diversity—it’s almost like they’ve grown up on another planet.
FT: Oh, boy.
AG: Than even I did, you know?
FT: Yeah, and let me go one generation back farther than you and say, oh, my gosh, like trying to keep up—I walk in and the first thing I do is apologize. It’s like, “Look, I’m sorry I’m from another time and place.” You know?
AG: Yeah. And I think the internet is an environment, and kind of growing up in that environment and then taking that out into face-to-face interactions. So maybe we can find some comfort with that.
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