Critical Retrospective of Bruce Sterling’s “A Short History of the Internet”

Bruce Sterlings’s piece, A Short History of the Internet is an interesting snapshot of the state of the Internet, circa 1992.


The stack referenced in the article–email, newsgroups, ftp–were all text-based. That interactions were command-based and not graphical goes unmentioned. So, there’s some specter of the techno-determinism of the age.

Janet Asteroff’s case study of paralanguage in electronic mail ( (Links to an external site.)) had already made a splash, describing the emerging use of character constructions and abbreviations, like 🙂 and LOL to convey emotion. The Chicago Manual of Style even threw in the towel, admitting the use of emoticons as acceptable usage.

Another reflection of the text-based mindset of the times was the emergence of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC found traction with Dungeons and Dragons players. Many remember that the type-written nature of their interactions forced use of one’s imagination much in the way our Depression Era grandparents recall the sociability of sitting around the family radio–listening to sitcoms and ball games–and needing mental imagery to recreate a scene.

Here’s an example of an IRC snippet from back in the day that stuck with me:

Amanda enters the room wearing a red polka-dot dress carrying a basket of fragrant fresh-baked apple turnovers.

Imagine that.

Shortly thereafter, the use of text-based chat was seen as an educational killer app of sorts. Online courses emerged touting the value of thoughtful text-based interactions over traditional onsite lecture-oriented delivery. Dialogs could be synchronous or asynchronous. There was even a claim that the lag-time required to typewrite promoted higher levels of synthesis. Written elaboration was in the limelight as a metacognitive narrative strategy and pedagogical “best practice.”

There was also a claim that the anonymity of textual interactions leveled the playing field, allowing introverts–the wallflowers of the class–to extrovert.

In the 1980s, the primacy of text even shaped prevailing notions of cognition, just as Skinnerian conditioned action-response ruled in psychology a decade earlier.

For example, Shank modeled understanding as akin to the process of storytelling. He created “slot-and-filler” representations of archetypal scenarios, such as “the restaurant script” or “the bedtime script.” The contention was that a computer could demonstrate interpretation of written accounts using an algorithm that matched textual inputs to fill-in-the-blank textual narratives (akin to doing Madlibs and equally ridiculous).

Berners-Lee had just invented the World Wide Web, but it hadn’t yet gained traction. Mozilla would take it to the masses.

As mentioned, dial-up was the primary mode of access.

It struck me that many of the applications cited have prevailed and expanded. The Internet is still perceived to be a fungible medium. The emergence of “free” municipal access has only been achieved in a few places. Access costs, remarkably, haven’t changed that much.

While its decentralized designed provided guaranteed uninterrupted service in the event of a nuclear attack, the emergence of cyber warfare–the next big battleground–was unanticipated by the author.

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