UNIT TWO: What in the World Is AOL Anyway?
Chapter One–The Scientific, Technical, and Social Roots of Online America
Today’s text introduces Unit Two of this five part series. This initial chapter leads on to three sibling sections that will, in as thorough and incisive a fashion as this humble correspondent can manage in a relatively short space, explicate what constitutes the corporate entity that has ‘branded’ itself AOL and considers itself the epitome of America in its online guise.
Where we left off, media was mushrooming up from the cow paddies of routine politics. How exactly did America Online, as of now not yet done with its third decade, emanate from the historical and political economic background of modern times? The purpose of this quite lengthy section is to manage a tale-of-the-tape that offers an intelligible, and relatively complete, response to this inquiry.
Like so much of what citizens now consider this virtual age, the roots of AOL lie in the way that the conflagrations of the 1940’s responded to the deflationary death spiral of the 1930’s. In 1945, at the dawn of a new epoch that shined with a nuclear glow, as the Cold War heated up, and nearly everyone still breathing wondered where to bury a hundred million or so corpses and how to avoid the next tally from being higher still, the captains of capital looked forward to an unstoppable ‘thousand-year-reich’ of commodities and markets that only lasted a “glorious thirty” years, with everything antithetical hidden behind ‘iron curtains’ of one sort or another.
These leading lights of the ruling class foresaw an age of ubiquitous convergence. Communication and computation and observation would yield, in every sector of the economy, times when markets would work as their proponents had always promised, even as they continued to seek the institutional succor of government instead. This new age would not eschew governance so much as it would make the public sphere subservient to corporate, which is to say commercial and imperial, mastery.
ANTEDILUVIAN BEGINNINGS ON THE ‘ENDLESS FRONTIER’
The observer might not easily see the connection between AOL and a project named the ‘Manhattan Engineering District,’ but Vannevar Bush joins the two like a rivet connects discrete plates on an aircraft carrier. Not only did this MIT wizard unite the industrial and financial powers-that-be behind publicly-funded science, but he also insisted on the durability of this formula after the war. In the event, he also succeeded in promulgating institutionalized funding and management models that followed corporate guidelines and priorities.
In essence, Bush is the technical and intellectual father of the Military Industrial Complex. His Science: the Endless Frontier links markets and profits and prosperity and power-politics and empire and innovation as a set of relationships that nations sunder at their peril.
What is more, he both, on the one hand, very precisely conceived of the world wide web and many of its technical attributes as an aspect of this industrial militarization of politics and, on the other hand, proffered a guidebook–almost a recipe–for their initiation and growth. In “As We May Think,” also written just after WWII ended, Bush envisions personal computing, Wikipedia, hands-free 24/7 virtual connectivity, and a swirling constant interchange that many feel is still a possibility if the World Wide Web survives a corporate takeover.
Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
No wonder entire symposia keep flowering that orbit around Bush’s now long-ago article in Atlantic Magazine .
Equally applicable as connective tissue between such trendy(or declasse, as the case may be) eventualities as today’s AOL and the inception of the war machine is the fashion in which Bush’s ideas have become almost biblical in their expression of the current canon. The American empire, American well-being, the very essence of the American way, in such thinking, are inseparable from the uninterrupted perpetuation of an ever expanding plethora of the hot new way, an endless frontier of endless frontiers.
Needless to say, whether one appreciates the artfulness with which its principals have undertaken the task, America Online–with former Secretary of Defense and general corporate booster Alexander Haig leading the charge to invest–has depicted itself as the quick-and-easy path to such innovativeness. When that way of conceiving things began to seem positively fuddy-duddy, AOL, driven by the relentless necessity of monetizing something , cast around for ways of reinventing itself as ‘trendier-than-thou.’
That such an evolution, in a society under the sway of finance and industrial monopoly, inherently revolves around opportunistic cash-outs and market wedges, not to mention a tendency to sweep up the competition and the newest confabulation simultaneously, should come as no surprise. Indeed, all manner of analysis recognizes such ineluctable expressions of capital’s conceptualization of virtuality.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington very recently confirmed this contemporary relevance of dear Uncle Vannevar. In a brief essay entitled, “An Endless Frontier Postponed,” the author warns that a lack of consciousness about the union of academia, capital, and government makes possible an ideological commitment to sundering this troika, which in this SOP POV threatens any hope of continuing political-economic predominance by the United States.
And indeed, this is now one popular trope. A much less common thread is that the collective financing and support for the internet means that it should actually operate according to common goals, and under democratic guidance. This is what Michael Zweig means when he suggests that “being charitable to the poor” means far less that “arranging that they have power, one obvious element of which is media potency. Whatever the unfolding of this dialectic, that the taxes of working people funded the creation and evolution of the World-Wide-Web is incontrovertible fact.
MA-&-PA KETTLE FINANCE THE INFRASTRUCTURE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE AND PROTOCOLS OF THE WORLD-WIDE-WEB
Multiple intersecting timelines play key parts in the manifestation of virtual life that so characterizes the present pass that many people can no longer conceive an ‘unwired’ existence. Computers, military and academic laboratories, telecommunications, printing and publishing all have an arc of expansion that, as one, has yielded the montage of interfaces and devices and distracted human beings who meander over the earth today, both actually and electronically, both as flesh-and-blood and as avatars.
The recognition of this interrelated interdependence is critical to any rational understanding of a phenomenon such as AOL, or its swallowing of Arianna Huffington’s self-styled bastion of progressivism. Neither could have been more than a foggy, opiated pipe-dream but for the work performed on the public dime, as it were. NASA, the nuclear-weapons-lab complexes, major research universities, and the corporate vanguard, without exception either were direct chain-of-command elements of the State, or, in any event, they would have withered and blown-away without government dollars.
Thus, MIT researchers came up with the first video game while doing missile and other military research; Bell labs invented push-button telecommunication techniques in part as a result of decades of walkie-talkie military deals; the Advanced Research Project Agency(ARPA) was a Department of Defense response to Sputnik–soon yielding the first generation WWW through ARPANet; under the purview of government contracts, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange(ASCII) grew out of Bell labs and American National Standards Institute efforts–and still underlies the basic coding on which AOL, et al. depend to this day.
Almost without exception, the nodes and methods of the web, of being an American online, as it were, only happened because tax-dollars financed them. Even in such ‘venture-capital’-worshipping materials as Piero Scaruffi’s A History of Silicon Valley , again and and again and again, over and over, “almost without exception,” the hand of the government appears as central to this amazing transformation toward virtuality that typifies life today.
Immediately prior to the assumption of an institutional form more or less recognizable as the direct predecessor of America Online, additional important developments took place on the nascent internet, as of 1972 controlled by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency . The first e-mail, for instance, sallied forth in 1971 as a result of one investigator’s efforts that sought to make military research communication more efficient. Though it did not modulate in chipper tones, “You’ve got mail!,” that cheery quip emanated from State-funded efforts.
Shortly thereafter, big improvements in FORTRAN, the machine language developed for military and scientific purposes, happened, followed shortly by Bell Lab’s first issuing of the much more intuitive C-programming language . Soon afterward, Xerox’s DOD-funded Palo Alto Research Center, on its way to inventing “the office of the future,” created the Ethernet, many standards of which continue in force to the present moment.
Throughout the mid 1970’s, with the formation of Apple Computer and Microsoft and more, many of AOL’s predecessors availed themselves of the possibilities for private gain from public investment, even as the general economy reeled from one stagflationary whipping post to another. In 1978, the first Bulletin Board System came into being; the BBS model was important in various early attempts to cash-in on what social support for computing and networks had created, not to mention underpinning AOL’s ultimate success.
As with the rest, these BBS outgrowths trace their roots back to public inputs. File serving, downloading, the very protocols that allow a network to engage and remain operational, are the result of socialized inputs and relationships.
Due to its prominent role, the history of TCP is impossible to describe without going back to the early days of the protocol suite as a whole. In the early 1970s, what we know of today as the global Internet was a small research internetwork called the ARPAnet, named for the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA or ARPA). This network used a technology called the Network Control Protocol (NCP) to allow hosts to connect to each other. …Due to limitations in the NCP, development began on a new protocol that would be better suited to a growing internetwork. … called the Internet Transmission Control Program (TCP). Like its predecessor NCP, TCP was responsible for basically everything that was needed to allow applications to run on an internetwork.
In other words, America Online did not emerge randomly. Nor did it occur as a result of individuals, rugged or colorful or otherwise, working separately and ‘individually.’ Nor was it in any way a primary result of ‘natural’ bourgeois inventiveness.
On the contrary, the growth stemmed from fields prepared by social stewards, using common treasure. The concrete components uniformly resulted from or depended on government-financed research. Every single stop on the ultimate information highway was only possible because of collective efforts that invoked federal financing.
John Hopkins’ Stuart Leslie, in his article, “The Biggest ‘Angel’ of Them All: the Military in the Making of Silicon Valley,” makes this argument dispositively. The ‘marketplace’ is no freer than a Soviet Five Year Plan, or, at the least, it is ‘freer’ in a different way; moreover, we might imagine other ways to ‘free’ things up.
This can lead to some interesting conclusions. They are factual, no more a ‘matter of opinion’ than the determination that United States Treasury dollars are necessary to run the Department of Defense.
Here’s one such deduction. Not only would the astounding wealth ‘created’ by the ‘free-market’-touting boosters at AOL have been inconceivable without social backing of the most extensive sort, but also, the smaller but still substantial sums that now line Arianna Huffington’s purses are only available for her accountants to count because of the taxes of everyday Americans, such as the bloggers on the site who will never make a dime from the deal.