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Al Gore says he invented the Internet. What does he mean?

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It was a gaffe worthy of Dan Quayle, but with Clinton-style grandiosity. In a March 10 interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN, Al Gore bragged about his record. "During my service in the United States Congress," he said, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

Wow. Al not only writes turgid environmentalist tomes, he also writes computer code. He created the Internet. What a 21st-century guy!

By the next day, the ridicule was flying–mostly through Gore's supposed brainchild. Declan McCullagh broke the story in the online Wired News and his Politech e-mail news service, pointing out that Gore was just 21 years old when the Defense Department commissioned the original ARPANET in 1969. By the time Gore got to Congress in 1977, wrote McCullagh, "Email was flourishing. The culture of the Internet was starting to develop through the Jargon File and the SF-Lovers mailing list."

Republicans jumped to mock the veep. "If the Vice President created the Internet, then I created the Interstate highway system," said Dick Armey, the House majority leader. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a notorious neatnik, claimed to have invented the paper clip. Lott's press release included his supposed early designs and a final version dated April Fool's Day, 1973.

But Al Gore was not lying to Blitzer. The vice president almost certainly believes that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." His claim reflects a particular understanding of the world and of recent technological history. As such, it reveals more than mere grandiosity and spin.

To understand Gore's bizarre boast, you have to know a lot of details about the history of the Internet. It's not enough to say that ARPANET started in 1969. A self-contained network for Defense Department researchers would be of interest only to military historians and a few techno-geeks. The Internet grew beyond ARPANET because of two related developments.

First, the Internet community developed the underlying programs–the "protocols" known as TCP/IP–that allow wildly different computers to communicate with each other. This programming infrastructure was what let "the Internet" evolve to encompass a bunch of independent networks, both public and private. TCP/IP's creators wisely left those protocols very generic, enabling future innovators to build other structures, including those that made the World Wide Web possible, on top of them. ARPANET itself converted to TCP/IP in 1983.

Second, in 1985 the National Science Foundation agreed to fund a "backbone" network among five supercomputer sites. Academic institutions could connect to the backbone if they organized regional networks of their own; the NSF provided two-year grants to cover the regional networks' startup expenses, after which universities paid their own way. Combined with the communications power of TCP/IP, this NSFNet boosted the number of interconnected computers to critical mass. It displaced ARPANET as the driving force in the development of a worldwide network of interlinked computers.

In this important sense, "the Internet" dates not to 1969 but to the early 1980s. Gore enters the picture a bit later–in 1987, when he supported a drive by universities to expand funding for NSFNet. That drive became law in the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, which gave about $1 billion to high-performance networks and computers; about $150 million of the funding was new money, with the rest consolidated from other programs.

"Gore gets credit for cheerleading on networking from '87 on, and for getting the agencies to get off their behinds and coordinate things a bit," says Mike Roberts, who lobbied for NSFNet funding as vice president of networking at Educom, an association of universities. "But [he's] not exactly the father of the Internet."

So Gore was there in 1987, long before most politicians had any notion that the Net existed. But the basics–the software and hardware infrastructure on which the Internet grew–were already in place. His "initiative" (which wasn't actually his idea) may have speeded its development a tad, but Gore's work did not create the Internet.

Yet the vice president thinks it did, and Blitzer, a top political reporter, saw no reason to question his boast. It's as though an important technological development does not really exist until it has been ratified by lavish subsidies and an act of Congress–until it has come to the official attention of people like Sen. Albert Gore Jr. "Creating" the Internet from Capitol Hill means ignoring the incremental, relatively small-scale way it really evolved, as well as the unsung people who developed it.

The Internet unquestionably began as a government program, a tool first for Defense Department researchers and then for scientists elsewhere. Its early development was paid for with tax dollars (in much more modest sums than Gore's later largess). But the Internet's gradual, open-ended development bears little resemblance to the grand schemes that move the vice president's technocratic imagination.

The Net worked because it fit into the technological ecology. It began modestly, as a way of connecting specific researchers, not a vehicle to remake the economy. It did not, therefore, create big distortions in science, business, or technology, or suck huge portions of the total funds available into one giant project–à la the Superconducting Supercollider or the space shuttle. The people involved knew each other and the problems at hand, and they proceeded incrementally.

They also had the wisdom to interpret the charge to "communicate" in an open-ended way. They adopted technical standards that enabled ideas no one had yet thought of–from e-mail to the Web–to be added to the network later. And they let different standards compete for dominance, rather than picking a winner in advance.

The Internet thus evolved from the bottom up. It was not designed by a committee of experts as a perfect system whose every use was anticipated in advance. Rather, it was improved over time, through trial and error, collaboration and competition. As a result, the Net became a model of spontaneous order and decentralized governance–of the way simple, underlying rules can permit enormous creativity and complexity. This dynamic, open-ended vision does not fit easily with the technocratic models that dominate the political world.

The history of the Net thus captures a tension in contemporary American life: Government is so pervasive that almost every development, positive or negative, can be tied in some way to government–to subsidies, to tax-code distortions, to regulations. Politicians can claim credit for innovations they did little to create; people who want an even more activist government can point to those same inventions as evidence that government is just dandy; and pork-seeking industries can claim that subsidies and tax credits will make America rich. (Silicon Valley is now demanding that the federal government double spending on research and development.)

The history of the Internet is not, as some people have tried to make it, a libertarian just-so story. It is a messy tale in which the government played a significant role. That role was, however, far more subtle than the plans of industrial policy gurus or techno-boosting politicians.

In fact, we have a pretty good example of what sort of Internet we would have gotten if Al Gore, or someone like him, had created an "information superhighway" on his own initiative. It's called Minitel–the French state phone company's system of terminals. In true French fashion, Minitel was grand, comprehensive, and carefully planned. It was state-of-the-art in the mid-1980s. And it has barely changed since then.

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