Splinternet

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Malcolmson’s history of the development of the computer and the internet, going as far back as the abacus and punched cards for weaving looms, is readable and informative.

But the text keeps jumping out at you with bald assertions such as, “Industrialisation did not lead to war, which had always existed” and “most human activities including war were steadily taken out of the animal world into the countable, machine world”.

Actually, in the earliest epochs of humanity, before surpluses in food or other goods existed, there was no war.

While discussing the development of the computer and the two world wars he writes, “In the most obvious way, war focuses the resources of society to a degree that is really unique to conflict and can be fantastically creative.”

War is destructive, the exact opposite of creative. It is the mechanised destruction of life and property.

The first computer network was formed in 1958 in the US, by the Advanced Research Projects Agency. “Defense” was added later, making it the DARPA. It was proclaimed by president Eisenhower as a response to the surprise technological advance from Russia, the successful launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.

DARPA’s missions are to prevent such technological surprises happening again and to create ones of their own through innovation.

Apparently the DARPA managers “are willing to pursue high-risk technical ideas even if there is a good chance the idea will fail”.

The CIA have had contracts with companies like Amazon to collect data on people, but Malcomson finds this “unremarkable”. He mentions whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that data-hungry programs like PRISM are in operation on the internet.

He continues:

“What are spy agencies for, if not to spy? America’s allies and enemies spy on America, too. Most of them spy on their own citizens. The NSA and Britain’s version of it, GCHQ, had been undermining cryptography and implanting ‘back doors’ for at least a decade, often though not always with the knowledge of the companies affected. The general idea that computers and information systems in the hands of the state pose a threat to privacy and civil liberties was likewise well established.”

In conclusion he argues that while some nation states like Iran and China have tried to seal off the internet, the public internet is safe while “major players” are competing on it against each other.

The first internet was the ARPANET. The US military’s prime interest in it was as a secure communications device in warfare. Malcomson tries to make this sound like a stable situation but the world and everything in it remains, as SWP founder Tony Cliff would say, balanced on the nose cone of a missile.