Gordon Crovitz, Government, and the Internet

30 07 2012

In the past week, the blogosphere has witnessed an ideologically-charged debate about the role of the State in the creation of the Internet. The debate was prompted by President Obama’s recent statement that “Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.” Obama’s point was that successful entrepreneurs, including those who make their money online, owe the State a portion of their profits because they function in an environment created by the State.
The historical accuracy of Obama’s statement about the creation of the Internet was then challenged in a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz. Crovitz argued that the idea that the internet had been created by government employees was myth and that many of the real technological breakthroughs were achieved by employees of Xerox’s PARC research lab in Silicon Valley. Crovitz also credits Vinton Cerf with developing the TCP/IP protocol and Sir Tim Berners-Lee for inventing hyperlinks. Crovitz cited “Dealers of Lightning” by Michael Hiltzik as his source. Crovitz concluded:

It’s important to understand the history of the Internet because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It’s also important to recognize that building great technology businesses requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do—not the government—deserve the credit for making it happen.

Crovitz’s piece has been mercilessly attacked by a number of commentators (see here and here), as well as by Vinton Cerf himself. Vint Cerf, who now works for Google, was asked to comment on Crovitz’s argument.
Q: In his Wall Street Journal column, Gordon Crovitz writes that the federal government’s involvement in the creation of the Internet was modest. Does that jibe with your recollection?
Vint Cerf: No. The United States government via ARPA started the project. (Bob Kahn initiated the Internetting project when he joined ARPA in late 1972. He had been principal architect of the ARPANET IMP (packet switch) while at BBN. Bob invited me to work with him on open networking in the spring of 1973. We also both worked on the ARPANET project starting in 1968. ARPANET was funded through 1990 by ARPA and other USG agencies. The Internet work was funded from 1973 to about 1995 (and beyond) by ARPA, NSF, DOE, NASA among others. It took 10 years of work to get from the original paper published in May 1974 to the rollout of the Internet operationally on January 1, 1983. It combined the ARPANET, MILNET, some number of Ethernets, two Packet Radio networks, the Packet Satellite network, and other local networks in England and Norway. Note that University College London and the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment were involved in the implementation and testing of TCP/IP as was Stanford and BBN.
Michael Hiltzik, who was cited by Crovitz as an authority on the history of the Internet, had this to say about Crovitz’s opinion piece in the WSJ:
And while I’m gratified in a sense that he cites my book about Xerox PARC, “Dealers of Lightning,” to support his case, it’s my duty to point out that he’s wrong. My book bolsters, not contradicts, the argument that the Internet had its roots in the ARPANet.

Perhaps the best of the many responses to Crovitz’s piece was by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who wrote:

Crovitz’s entire yarn is almost hysterically false. He gets basic history wrong, he gets the Internet’s defining technologies wrong, and, most importantly, he misses the important interplay between public and private funds that has been necessary for all great modern technological advances.

In my eyes, this is the key issue—the interplay between government and the private sector in advancing technology. You are more likely to get rapid technological growth in a mixed economy. A society without a private sector would likely be technologically stagnant—consider the old eastern bloc countries, which generated vanishingly view genuine technological advances, notwithstanding a publicity stunts involving captured German rocket scientists. I also believe that there would be problems with the opposite socio-economic model, a pure free-market economy in which all economic activity took place in the private sector. It is true that many of the technological advances that drove the First and Second Industrial Revolutions were made without the active involvement of the State (e.g., Watt’s steam engine), but some of the other key technologies of those eras were indeed funded by the government, such as the precise chronometers that allowed us to determine longitude. Many of the technologies we have today came about because of the advent of Big Science in the United States during and after the Second World War: the Internet, nuclear power, jet aviation, all of these exist because of cooperation between researchers in the private sector and researchers in the public sector.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that we are living in an age in which the rate of technological progress is slowing in many fields: by many statistical measures, progress was faster in the forty years before 1970 than in the forty years after. The pre-1970 period saw the advent of products ranging from dishwashers to antibiotics to intercontinental jet aviation that transformed everyday life. Since then, there have been relatively few breakthroughs, a state of affairs Tyler Cowen calls the Great Stagnation. The economic, political, and social impact of the Great Stagnation has been massive. For instance, the standard of living of the median American family hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, even though it increased dramatically in the generation before that. It is therefore very important that we think clearly about how technological progress comes about. Perhaps this is the greatest intellectual challenge facing the social scientists of our generation. I certainly don’t have the answers to this question, which lies well outside my research, as opposed to teaching area. However, I do know that simplistic ideological narratives such as that of Crovitz are untrue and thus cannot aid us in designing national innovation systems.

It is disturbing that the Wall Street Journal, which is read by many people who invest in technology companies, would allow such a low-quality piece to appear in its pages. The investing public deserve better.



One response

30 07 2012
You didn't build that, Internet, redux - Conservative News and Views

[…] D. Smith cites that as the best that the “You didn’t build that” defenders can come up with? To […]

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