Of late, the internet seems to be facing a credibility challenge. The ease with which shadowy figures have been able to gain access to our data and use it to shape our thoughts has taken us by surprise. The big data technologies that we thought would help ease our lives have, instead, opened backdoors into our minds, allowing nefarious elements to manipulate us to their advantage. Around the world, governments and courts have expressed consternation and outrage at how we’ve gotten to where we are.
But none of this is new. The internet has always been designed to understand and track us. From its inception, it was meant to be a tool of control, aimed at obtaining greater insights into the human condition. For as long as it has been around, concerns have been voiced about its structure, design and purpose. The fact that these questions are being asked again should come as no surprise.
Modern computers trace their origins to Herman Hollerith who, in the 1880s, developed a punch card tabulation machine designed to speed up the process of counting people. At the time, the US government was struggling with its annual census, a process that had become so tedious that it took a decade to complete. Hollerith tabulators converted citizen data into a series of holes punched in a piece of paper that corresponded to census information. Each person’s card encoded their personal attributes—age, sex, religion, occupation, place of birth, marital status—in a format that could subsequently be read by a machine that used a number of electrical pins to sort the punch cards based on the position and arrangement of the holes.
From the moment they were deployed in the 1890 census, these machines proved tremendously useful, cutting the time it took to complete the census from years to months. It gave the US administration the ability to slice and dice citizen information in ways that were previously impossible, providing the government with its first surveillance tool.
Hollerith’s tabulation technology was acquired by International Business Machines, a company that went on to base its entire business model on these machines. Over the years, they sold this technology to governments across the world. The US military used them to track troop numbers during World War II and to process the internment of Japanese Americans. Nazi Germany used it to run its labour camps and to comb through genealogical records in order to identify people along racial lines. When US president F.D. Roosevelt created the social security system, it was IBM tabulators that carried out all the processing for the new pension programme.
But it was not until the Vietnam War that computers achieved their true potential—when they were networked with each other, significantly multiplying their productivity.
The department of the US government that invented the internet began its life as a high-tech counter-insurgency unit in the jungles of Far East Asia. At the time, ARPA (standing for Advanced Research Projects Agency) was tasked with figuring out how to combat a guerrilla army so that the war effort could identify insurgencies before they occurred. In order to do this, it resorted to large-scale information gathering, deploying a number of technologies to collect information about militants and political movements in the region.
This was the first large-scale, data-driven war effort ever attempted. In short order, ARPA became so inundated with data that it far exceeded its capacity to deal with and make sense of it all. If it was to have any chance of processing this fire hose of data, it needed to find a way to connect the various far-flung computer projects of the department to leverage its combined utility. The network it conceptualized and deployed was called ARPANET, and it is the direct ancestor of the modern internet.
Even before the very first node of the ARPANET went live, there were protests on college campuses against “computerized people manipulation" and “the blatant prostitution of social science for the aims of the war machine". Students had gotten their hands on confidential documents relating to Project Cambridge—a project to build a massive computer network using which intelligence officials could upload vast dossiers of data (financial records, criminal histories, and social service data). This was for analysis and generating predictive models, mapping out social relationships, and running simulations to predict human behaviour.
The student protests in America in the 1960s and 1970s are an eerie reflection of the headlines of today. They have been repeated many times in the intervening years. And yet, despite concerted opposition, including some very public congressional challenges to its design and purpose, the internet has survived, virtually unchanged, to this day. One of the principal reasons for this is its undeniable utility. ARPANET was originally designed to be a military network, but thanks to pioneers like Vint Cerf who designed the TCP/IP protocol, it was repurposed for general use so that academics and private parties could run a wide variety of applications on it. So universally beneficial was the network that, on balance, its harmful side-effects were never viewed as wholly unacceptable.
Today, the internet is truly indispensable. As outraged as we are by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, we will once again evaluate the network through a utilitarian lens. Chances are that just as before, we will vote to leave things as they are.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between. His Twitter handle is @matthan.
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