That Al Gore once claimed to have "invented the Internet" is now part of electoral folklore -- one item in a litany of Gore "exaggerations" or "lies" that his opponents trot out to discredit him. At Tuesday's debate the line became the basis for a flatfooted one-liner George W. Bush lobbed to deflect Gore's onslaught of statistics: "This is a man who has great numbers -- I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, he invented the calculator."
The sheer cheek of Gore's purported claim invites mockery. Everybody knows the Internet is an extraordinarily complex piece of engineering that only incredibly smart scientists could have "invented." Politicians need not apply.
But things that "everybody knows" are always worth examining for defects. And the "Gore claims he invented the Net" trope is so full of holes that it makes you wish there were product recalls for bad information.
Gore never claimed to have "invented" the Internet. What he said was:
During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.
As my colleague Jake Tapper carefully reported here last year, at worst that statement is a minor exaggeration of Gore's legislative record -- and miles away from the "I built it from scratch!" lie into which it has been twisted.
The life trajectory of the "I invented the Internet" Gore meme has been well traced by Phil Agre back to the original coverage of Gore's comment by Wired News' Declan McCullagh. McCullagh's first report, while never using the word "invent," interpreted Gore's statement as an outrageously false boast, and supported that view with one quotation from a conservative foundation spokesman. (That quote -- "Gore played no positive role in the decisions that led to the creation of the Internet as it now exists -- that is, in the opening of the Internet to commercial traffic" -- offers its own wildly distorted view of Internet history, narrowing its focus to "the opening of the Internet to commercial traffic" as the only significant milestone to shape today's Net.)
From McCullagh, the tidbit got picked up by the TV pundits and became the butt of late-night political jokes. The word "invent" practically leaped into Gore's mouth. News outlets across the board -- including Salon -- have now burned the distortion of the vice president's words into the public mind.
If that were the end of the tale, we could just dismiss it as one more round of election-year spin and counter-spin in which the lies won out over the truth. But this particular snow job springs from a deeper ideological well, and that makes it more interesting.
Several of the people who could claim to have "invented" the Internet, or key pieces of its protocols -- in particular, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn -- are out there on the Net today defending Gore, asserting that he was the politician in Washington who took the "initiative" to support the Net in its early days.
Implicit in their argument is a broader awareness of what it took to create the Internet. Anything as successful as the Net is not and cannot be successful as technology alone; technology does not exist in a vacuum. And just as the Internet required the services of brains like Kahn and Cerf and all the others who contributed code to its foundations, it also needed bureaucratic and legislative patrons.
It took social engineers as well as software engineers to build the Net. And that may be why the response to Gore's original statement was so savage: Not because his claim was a lie, but because it was a truth that a lot of people today are trying to forget or bury.
The Internet didn't spring full-blown out of some scientists' heads, nor did it just grow, like some techno-Topsy powered by the mysterious magic of the marketplace. It emerged from the world of government-subsidized university research, and every step of the way along its passage from academic network to global information infrastructure was shepherded by the state. As the Net's parent, the government didn't do everything right; but it managed to nurture the network through its youth -- then get out of the way once it was mature enough to move out of its parents' digs and shack up with private industry.
Libertarians and conservatives are uncomfortable admitting this. Their vision of Net history is a stirring saga of markets overwhelming states, technological imperatives vanquishing stifling bureaucracies and free information "routing around" government blockages. There's some truth in this vision -- but it's only part of the story.
The other part of the Net's history is a complex, and sometimes dull, chronicle of federal research grants, bureaucratic infighting and legislative initiatives that stitched together a messy but functional patchwork quilt of linked computers -- the famous "network of networks" that arose primarily in the 1980s, when the term "Internet" first came into play, and that remained a dark horse in the race to connect the public until around 1994.
Government alone couldn't have built today's Internet, but private industry, left to its own devices, wouldn't have, either. Without the critical spark of government-funded research lighting a fire of networked inventiveness, we'd probably have been stuck with the morass of competing proprietary online spaces that vied for the consumer's dollars in the early 1990s -- when AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, the prototypical MSN and other long-forgotten entrants like AT&T's Interchange and Apple's E-world all stared at each other across unbridgeable technological and business divides.
In those days the Internet was, we were told, too complex and geeky to ever reach the masses. That piece of conventional wisdom died a fast death as, one by one, the proprietary spaces folded or took down their walls and accepted that Internet connections were what people wanted.
Libertarians typically believe that the government can't do anything right, and they prefer to forget or ignore the part government has played in the Net's triumph. Giving Gore credit means admitting the government's role; distorting and mocking his claims helps deny it.
McCullagh, who is outspoken in his libertarian views, argues that, though he didn't use the word "invent," it is "a not entirely unreasonable paraphrase of the vice president's remarks," and suggests that the pro-Gore comments from Cerf may have a partisan basis: "I'm a big fan of Vint Cerf, and I think he's an able defender of the vice president, but let's put his defense of the vice president in context. Cerf is an executive at a large telecommunications company, and I suspect he acts more like a Washingtonian than a technologist nowadays. For instance, Cerf was a guest of honor at the White House's New Year's Eve gala, appeared with the president and first lady at an October 1999 White House 'Millennium Evening' lecture, and joined the president and vice president at a July 1997 event to introduce administration policy proposals."
Well, technologists do have a right to their political leanings, don't they? But the defense of Gore currently underway feels to me less like a party-line effort than like the repayment of a debt of gratitude by Internet pioneers who feel that Gore is being unfairly smeared.
That's what you'll hear from Phillip Hallam-Baker, a former member of the CERN Web development team that created the basic structure of the World Wide Web. Hallam-Baker calls the campaign to tar Gore as a delusional Internet inventor "a calculated piece of political propaganda to deny Gore credit for what is probably his biggest achievement."
"In the early days of the Web," says Hallam-Baker, who was there, "he was a believer, not after the fact when our success was already established -- he gave us help when it counted. He got us the funding to set up at MIT after we got kicked out of CERN for being too successful. He also personally saw to it that the entire federal government set up Web sites. Before the White House site went online, he would show the prototype to each agency director who came into his office. At the end he would click on the link to their agency site. If it returned 'Not Found' the said director got a powerful message that he better have a Web site before he next saw the veep."
That sounds like a pretty good description of the kind of "initiative" Gore claimed credit for in the first place. So the next time you hear an "Al Gore, Internet inventor" joke, think about the strange twisted path a politician's words can take in other people's hands -- and be glad we can use the Internet to try to straighten it out.