The Internet Imaginary: Between Technology and Technique

Nicole Pepperell, Duncan Law


Since the 1990s, the Internet has rapidly become an essential utility for commerce, a pervasive medium of everyday social interaction, and a charged site of political contestation.  As the technology has spread, it has also provided tools to destabilise earlier understandings of legal rights to private property, personal privacy, organisational and governmental transparency, freedom of expression and freedom of association.  These tools have been used in conflicting ways: by governments seeking more encompassing means to monitor the activities of perceived enemies, dissidents, or everyday citizens; private corporations seeking to create new forms of private property or secure older property rights claims; individuals or movements seeking new forms of political association, new forms of freedom of expression - or new forms of criminal activity (Benkler; Berners-Lee Weaving; Biegel; Horten; Lessig Code; Mueller).

These conflicts mark out the Internet’s divergent technological potentials.  Political contestation over which of these potentials will be realised is ongoing and by no means finally decided.  The recent trend, however, has been toward the realisation of potentials favoured by powerful social actors - governments and large corporations - at the expense of potentials favoured by less powerful agents (Anderson and Rainie; Bauman et al.; Kelly et al.). 

While this outcome is not surprising in the abstract, it is nevertheless striking for one key reason: many analysts during the early days of Internet commercialisation regarded this outcome as technologically impossible.  As we explore below, such analysts took for granted that the technology would drive its own social and political appropriation and, moreover, viewed the technology as intrinsically opposed to many of the private property, surveillance, and policing functions it has since come to serve.  These analysts attended, in other words, to a very specific subset of the potentials the technology has since been demonstrated to offer, and assumed that the realisation of these specific potentials was inevitable, for purely technical reasons (Curran). 

To such analysts, the key technique for achieving substantial social and political change was a technological one.  Other social institutions - political, legal, cultural - were understood primarily as hindrances to an essentially technological revolution - as obstacles that the technology would, in time, burst through or route around.  The tacit theory here is very similar to a crass base-superstructure understanding of technological determinism, updated for the online age.  A technological base - the Internet - is assumed to be the engine of historical progress.  Other kinds of social practice - existing legal relations, older state institutions, and inherited understandings of private property, association, and expression - are understood as a regressive superstructure that can, at most, temporarily hold back the inevitable revolutionary transformation driven by technological development.  Ultimately, this superstructure will be blasted away, and a new regime of law, government, and civil society will emerge that is compatible with the progressive potentials of the technology.

Ironically, this faith in the power of the Internet as a technology helped obscure the need to develop other kinds of techniques - rhetorical, social and political - to ensure that the desired technological potentials were in fact realised.  Over the longer run, these alternative techniques have proven decisive for selecting which technological potentials would be developed, and which would be suppressed. Individuals and movements captivated by faith in the technology, found themselves blindsided when the technological “base” proved more adaptable to the existing “superstructure” than expected. 

In the sections below, we explore how this process unfolded.  We first examine the rhetorical techniques that primed early analysts to perceive the Internet as an intrinsically progressive technology.  Next, we explore how the research and development of Internet technologies shifted in response to dramatic social transformations in later decades of the 20th century.  These shifts illustrate the plasticity of technological potentials, and suggest how a network of social techniques help determine which technological potentials are primed for further development.  Finally, we examine the role of political techniques in selecting the technological potentials that are successfully realised in practice, and we suggest that faith in technological determinism helped discourage the development of effective political techniques oriented to achieving more progressive technological potentials.

I. Rhetorical Techniques: Framing Expectations of the Internet

Rhetorical techniques that prime or frame our understandings of new technologies can operate both deliberately, as part of a conscious political strategy to shape how we make sense of our experiences (Bacchi; Lakoff Moral), and more nonconsciously, as part of a collective sense-making process that extends and applies existing metaphors to new experiences (Lakoff and Johnson; Lakoff Women).

In the present period, we are all familiar with deliberate, conscious interventions that attempt to frame, for example, non-commercial downloading and sharing of electronic files as “theft of private property”, or interventions that frame new electronic surveillance techniques as positive contributions to community safety, by analogy to longstanding forms of policing or military defence. Counter-frames suggest that recent attempts to enforce intellectual property rights amount to a modern enclosure movement, privatising resources that should belong instead to a global commons, or that new forms of surveillance should be understood negatively, as threats to personal privacy or political rights by entities analogous to Orwell’s “Big Brother” (Boyle; Mell; Runge and  Defrancesco).

Early discussions of the Internet feature an array of competing metaphors, both political and sense-making.  The Clinton administration privileged the information superhighway - a metaphor that framed the Internet as transportation infrastructure for international commerce (Elmer-Dewitt; McQuillan).  Web metaphors - inspired by Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web hypertext environment – framed the Internet as something that could bind everyone together peacefully in a complex network.  Cyberspace provided a politicised counter-frame in circles opposed to commercialisation, and asserted the coalescence of a self-organising political community into a new form of electronic public sphere (Barlow Declaration; but cf. Barlow Censorship).  Two powerful sense-making metaphors, however, soon dominated attempts to understand the implications of the Internet:  the revolution; and the frontier (cf.  Allman; Biegel; Conhaim; Earle; Sampson).

The metaphor of the revolution framed the Internet as a radical break with what had come before – and implied, by extension, that old rules did not apply to the new technology.  This metaphor suggested that the technology was transformative – reacting back on the broader society to emancipate it from old constraints and bring forth new and unprecedented freedoms.  The metaphor of the frontier framed the Internet as a technological wild west, a vast pristine territory open to colonisation by mavericks and pioneers, a realm of limitless resources, free of the restrictions of established society – including restrictions imposed by the economy and the law.  Both metaphors operated in tandem to suggest that the technology could operate independently of other social forces, determining its own social and political appropriation.

Many people heard these metaphors before they encountered the Internet itself.  The metaphors shaped expectations of the technology, particularly in the United States, where the image of the revolution, the frontier - and the gold rush - could draw on longstanding popular cultural traditions (contrast Kessler).  Even in the US, however, such metaphors did not operate in a vacuum.  A one-sided analysis of rhetorical techniques cannot explain why specific metaphors outcompete others and succeed in shaping social practice. 

In the next section, we therefore explore how receptiveness to specific metaphors was overdetermined by the experience of broader sociological transformations:  the globalisation of the market; the transformation away from a manufacturing economy; the move from hierarchical, assembly-line driven mass production to more decentralised “just in time” production and distribution systems (cf. Drucker Age; Beyond; Dyson et al.; Piore and Sabel).  Such transformations constituted a nonconscious, collective social technique that primed the sense that a revolution was underway, encouraging old models of government, business, and labour to be interpreted as a regressive superstructure that impeded the innovation required to traverse the new frontier of the international market. It was widely perceived that these transformations called for a new organisation of government and industry – a reorganisation whose exact outlines were unclear, but whose essential elements seemed to be greater privatisation, globalisation, decentralisation, and flexibility.  These qualities were then projected onto the relatively unknown Internet technologies, as we explore below.

II. Social Techniques: Priming Responsiveness to Metaphors

A quick review of the early development of Internet technologies will help cast into relief how social transformation shaped the technological potentials selected for further development - and how this process of social selection could come to be perceived as its inverse: that technology was driving social transformation.

The Cold War provided the political and military context that shaped how Internet technologies were initially funded and deployed.  The concept of a packet-switching network was developed independently by researchers driven by diverse motivations, only some of whom were directly engaged with military goals (cf. Streeter 23-7).  Nevertheless, the potential military application - the capacity to route around nuclear damage to a network - proved pivotal for funding the development of the new technologies (Ryan 11-30; cf. Baran; Bollier; Lago; McCormick).  From a military standpoint, the proposed technologies offered a means to “future proof” a network through protocols that were each capable of carrying out their own tasks and passing data along to the next protocol - whatever that protocol might be now or in the future - without any knowledge of the inner workings of other protocols. The design concepts underlying both the protocol stack and the packet-switching network offered redundancy and fault tolerance in a “global” network environment, where no part of the global network could be trusted. The initial development work was thus not aimed at the development of a network robust enough for broad multipurpose use, but was instead oriented to a relatively narrow set of national strategic concerns (cf. Heiden; Kozel).

The core technologies were, moreover, developed in a period in which international relations were organised in distinct and relatively closed nation states, aligned to one of the two dominant superpowers in a polarised world (cf. Hardt and Negri).  Implementation of the technology was viable largely due to centralised government funding, and often took place within academic communities unconcerned with its economic potential – a model for R&D much at odds with the rhetoric of privatisation and the glorification of the entrepreneur that would become dominant in the period when the Internet would be commercialised (cf. Bollier).

Looking solely at the institutional environment that enabled its development, it would have been difficult to predict that the Internet would be so broadly embraced – and that it would generate such excitement and capture so much of the imagination – in a period in which the environment that incubated the technology was being broadly rejected.  Indeed, if the Internet had continued to be perceived largely as a vehicle for US government and academia, as a military tool to ensure US security in the event of a nuclear attack, or as a system purpose-designed to mistrust the global environment, it is questionable whether it would have been as widely embraced.

There were, of course, other options:  various private networks offered Internet-like capacities and, moreover, featured simplified graphical user interfaces and installation utilities (Campbell-Kelly et. al.)  Early comparisons of the private networks to the Internet stress the Internet’s comparative disadvantages: difficulty of use; chaotic state of information; technical complexity.  From end users’ perspectives, the Internet was not the superior technology at the time (cf. Catching Business Information; Eagan; Earle; Elmer-Dewitt; McQuillan; Press; Taylor; Whole Internet).  Yet the Internet effectively out-competed the private networks, and forced them to open portals onto it (and, eventually, become Internet Service Providers) in order to survive.  In the next section, we suggest that some part in this success came down to key political decisions that helped the Internet “resonate” - exhibit a metaphoric “fit” - with a wide range of social experiences with which social actors were grappling at the time.  On this front, the Internet was clearly a phenomenal success – so successful that users were willing to navigate a host of technical frustrations, until the technology matured to the point that it was adequate to its conception.

Similar choices between competing technologies are common in periods of social transformation - and present another factor that potentially reinforces the belief in technological determination.  This belief can appear validated by the experience of improvements made to the winning technology, after the competitors have been selected against by a more complex social process.  Those competitors – permanently frozen in a less developed state because they lost out in the competitive battle – come to appear technologically deficient when compared to the winning technology's subsequent development. 

This retrospective fallacy helps bolster an illusion that technologies can be independent drivers of historical outcomes that, at the time, were much more contingent, uncertain, and dependent on a broad range of social causes.  The development and dissemination of Internet technologies enabled this perception of technological superiority to unfold at a particularly rapid pace, reinforcing the perception that the Internet was an autonomous driver of the social transformations in which it was caught up. 

III. Political Techniques: Selecting from Available Technological Potentials

Several key political decisions conditioned the rapid uptake of Internet technologies, and enabled the Internet to transcend the social context in which it was conceived, and emerge as the poster-child technology for the new globalised economy.  The decisions to open the Internet to commercial traffic and to privatise key governing institutions of the Internet – decisions that were themselves influenced by dramatic shifts in the broader political and cultural climate – were key enablers, opening the way for a reinterpretation and broader adoption of Internet technologies (cf.  Bollier; Hafner; Hoover; McCormick).  By divorcing the Internet from the US government, these decisions also made it easier to interpret the Internet as a “universal” technology – as a global, in the sense of international, infrastructure – well before this claim had a clear technical basis.

The way that the Internet was opened to commercialisation – with several different telecommunications companies involved in developing key infrastructure – also paved the way for one of the most often-repeated early observations about the Internet:  that “no one owns it” (cf. Biegel; Hafner; Hitch-Hiker).  The statement was true in the narrow sense that no single company could be said to possess sole ownership.  The claim was often, however, hyperbolically extended to portray the Internet as an independent force intrinsically free from outside constraints. 

The absence of either direct government control or a clear corporate owner seemed to leave analysts at a loss to explain how the Internet “worked” as a social institution.  The statement “no one owns it” was therefore often juxtaposed to fairly radical interpretations of what this lack of ownership and government control might mean.  Various commentators concluded (often approvingly) that the Internet was anarchistic, that it offered total anonymity (with a presumed total lack of accountability),  that it was lawless, that it was open for the mavericks and pioneers who were ready to stake their own claims to the new territory – that it was, in short, something akin to a “World Wide West” (cf. Biegel).

In this context, the same aspects of Internet technologies that appealed to Cold War distrust of the global environment – the redundancy of the packet-switching network and the independence of the various protocols in the TCP/IP protocol stack – came to be reinterpreted for the era of globalisation.  If the need to re-route packets around damage caused by nuclear conflict no longer resonated widely, the need for flexibility and for agile adaptation to the changing circumstances of the global economy were now keenly desired (cf. Daly; Drucker Beyond). 

In this period in which businesses came to be organised more like networks, and experienced themselves to be operating within a less predictable, less controllable environment (cf. Castells; Piore and Sabel), it was a short leap for businesses to recognise an elective affinity between their own organisational philosophies and what they took to be the intrinsic properties of Internet technologies.  The concept of the packet-switching network, which lacked a fixed map of network boundaries, and which enabled rapid changes in the flow of information without the need for centralised coordination, resonated with a business culture in which Taylorist assembly lines and factory mass production were being phased out in favour of decentralised production and distribution of goods, with a heavy reliance on outsourcing and just-in-time delivery to enable rapid response to unpredictable demand (Duguay et al.; Sayer). 

Internet technologies would eventually evolve into useful tools to help businesses confront many of the problems generated by this new economic environment.  In the early days of commercialisation, however, the technologies fell well short of their eventual potential – a fact recognised by many commentators at the time (Kozel; Locke; Stewart).  Even before Internet technologies were useful, however, they could appear compatible in spirit with emerging organisational structures and with the sorts of challenges businesses were anticipating from globalisation.

The experience of “revolution” - of the overturning of an old organisation of government, industry, and social life – which had been incubated within the broader process of social transformation, meshed with the experience of rapid technological development.  Both processes reinforced one another.  Lay and expert observers alike drew the conclusion that technology was the driving force of the broader sociological shift, and that the cultural values bound together with the sociological transformation derived necessarily and inseparably from the technology (cf. Keen and Mackintosh; Magaziner).  In a distinctively capitalist twist on theories of technological determination, many observers spoke as though the revolution was inevitable – that “bricks and mortar” businesses, and the social, political, and industrial organisations associated with them, would necessarily be washed away by the transcendent Internet technologies and the values that appeared intrinsic to them.

With the benefit of hindsight, it has become much easier to see how the technology itself was not the determining factor in its own social and political appropriation.  While the new technologies indeed opened up fresh possibilities for social innovation, they also proved highly responsive and adaptable to social, economic and political trends that pointed in radically different directions.  Technical solutions were quickly developed to curtail the “intrinsic” anarchism of the original technology, and legal restrictions also proved to be more easily imposed than early observers had predicted.  A very different subset of technological potentials was thus achieved than many early analysts had expected.  The faith in technological determinism - the belief that purely technological techniques were sufficient to achieve desired social and political outcomes - proved both inaccurate and also politically debilitating.  While other agents were mobilising consciously for rhetorical, social and political battles to ensure the development of specific technological potentials, those who believed the technology itself would route around social, economic and political constraints were slow to recognise the necessity for techniques beyond the purely technological.

The history of Internet technologies thus provides an exemplar for how the social and political implications of our technologies cannot be said to reside intrinsically within the technologies themselves, but must instead be seen as existing in the complex relationships between technologies and the broader social, economic and political environment within which those technologies are deployed.  There is no simple base-superstructure relationship between progressive technologies and regressive social forces: technological potentials are implicated in both “progressive” and “regressive” trends, and depend on the complex interplay of contestations that play out in a diverse social, economic and political field.  The techniques that matter most, in the end, are less technological than they are rhetorical, social and political.  Ironically, recognising this limitation of technological potentials may actually improve our chances of realising their emancipatory possibilities.


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Internet; Metaphor; Technique; Technology; Innovation; Rhetoric; Base/Superstructure

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