The Internet is a product of the post-industrial age

The Internet is on fire with this question: who invented the Internet?

A couple of weeks ago, the president of the USA said:

Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Crovitz replied in the Wall Street Journal:

It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks.

Manjoo replied in Slate:

Researchers working directly for the government and at university labs funded by the government were some of the first people on the planet to think up a worldwide network, (…)

Did Xerox or the US government invent the Internet?


The Internet is not an industrial product or service. It lacks the uniformity and consistency. Instead, the Internet is one of the first product of the post-industrial age.

Industrial products, like the iPad, can be neatly attributed to a single individual (e.g., Steve Jobs). They are produced within a regulated and somewhat hierarchical environment. The Internet is of a higher order: it could simply not be invented in this setting.

Governments and corporations supported specific technologies, like the transistor and TCP/IP. They made money, collected taxes and created jobs. But it is simply not possible to get venture capital to build something like the Internet that nobody can control. Likewise, no government agency would build something it can’t easily regulate like the Internet. The Internet is not a highway.

Some of us are worrying, instead, that governments and corporations are trying to kill the Internet. After all, the US government specifically wants to install a kill switch on the Internet. Many corporations are complaining that the Internet is a threat to their intellectual property. It is a bit disingenuous that they would also claim credit for it.

Further reading: The Government Did Too Invent the Internet

Daniel Lemire, "The Internet is a product of the post-industrial age," in Daniel Lemire's blog, July 30, 2012.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “The Internet is a product of the post-industrial age”

  1. The Internet’s ad hoc creation is also apparent in its reliance on existing telephone infrastructure. If anyone had actually planned the Internet of today back when it was first coalescing, they would have planned a better infrastructure as well. As it is, we are racing to keep up with the demand for bandwidth.

    CBC’s Spark had a good interview with Vint Cerf, in which I believe the above point comes up:

  2. No one “invented” the Internet. The Internet is essentially a coalescence of a variety of concepts and enabling technologies that just sort of happened to come together in response to a popular need for communications. No one in the early days of the DARPA net envisioned the current Internet. More direct antecedents of today’s Internet would be the electronic bulletin boards of yore- people with specific interests coming together to share non-mainstream concepts over their 300 baud modems, and fax machines that could move documents faster than the Pony Express or UPS.
    No government is going to actively pursue a program that enables their opponents or facilitates the exchange of information that is contrary to the officially sanctioned “conventional wisdom”. Nor is a government going to promote any system over which they can not insure adequate “control” during “times of crisis” (one had to have the appropriate credentials to access the DARPA net).
    Of course, the government will eventually take credit for creating the Internet- they are, afterall, the ones who write the history books…

  3. The distinction between industrial and post-industrial age fascinated me.
    Has it already been theorised by someone before?


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