Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet, Part IV: Al Gore and the Internet

Posted on | March 23, 2017 | No Comments

This is the fourth part of my argument about how the Internet changed from a military network to a wide scale global network of interconnected networks. Part I discussed the impact of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” on funding for the National Science Foundation’s adoption of the ARPANET. In Part II I looked at how the fears about nuclear war and Japan’s artificial intelligence (AI) propelled early funding on the Internet. In Part III, I introduced the “Atari Democrats” and their early role in crafting the legislation in creating the Internet. This is a followup to make a some points about Al Gore’s role in the success of the Internet.

This story should probably have been laid to rest awhile ago, but I was always intrigued by it. The issue says a lot about way election campaigns operate, about role of science and technology in the economy, and especially about the impact of governance and statecraft in economic and technological development.

I’m talking about the famous story about Al Gore and the “invention of the Internet” meme. The story started after the Vice-President was interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 1999 and gained traction during the 2000 Presidential Campaign against George W. Bush. The accusation circulated that Gore claimed he “invented the Internet” and the phrase was used to tag the Vietnam Vet and Vice President as a “liar” and someone who couldn’t be trusted. Here is what he actually said.

Of course, the most controversial part of this interview about Vice President Gore’s plans to announce his candidacy was this statement, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” That was turned into “inventing the Internet” and was used against him in the 2000 elections.

The meanings are quite different. Inventing suggests a combination of technical imagination and manipulation usually reserved for engineers. To “create” has a much more flexible meaning, indicating more of an art or a craft. There was no reason to say he “invented” the Internet except to frame it in a way that suggested he designed it technically and had patents to prove it, which does sound implausible. Gore would win the popular vote in 2000 but failed in his bid for the Presidency. The Supreme Court ruled he had lost Florida’s electoral votes in a close and controversial election.

The controversy probably says more about how little we understand technological development and how impoverished our conversation was about network infrastructure and information technologies. The history of information technologies, particularly communications networking, has been one of the interplay between technical innovation, market dynamics, and intellectual leadership guiding policy actions. The communications infrastructure, probably the world’s most giant machine, required a set of political skills to manifest. In addition to the engineering skills that created the famed data packets and their TCP/IP protocols, political skills were needed for the funding, regulatory changes, and the power needed to guide the international frameworks.

Al Gore got support from somebody generally considered to be the “real” inventor of the Internet. While Republicans continued to ridicule (or “swiftboat” Gore for trying to claim he “invented the Internet”, many in the scientific community including the engineers who designed the Internet, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf verified Gore’s role.

    As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship. Though easily forgotten, now, at the time this was an unproven and controversial concept. Our work on the Internet started in 1973 and was based on even earlier work that took place in the mid-late 1960s. But the Internet, as we know it today, was not deployed until 1983. When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication. As an example, he sponsored hearings on how advanced technologies might be put to use in areas like coordinating the response of government agencies to natural disasters and other crises. – Vint Cerf

Gore is a wealthy man with considerable economic and political success. He can defend himself and has probably come to terms with what happened. He is interesting because he has been a successful legislator and a mover of public opinion. He can also take much credit for bringing global warming or climate change to the public’s attention and mobilizing action on markets for carbon credits and the acceleration of developments in alternative energy. His actions and tactics are worth studying. We need more leaders who can create a positive future rather than obsessing over tearing down what we have.

In the 1980s, Congressman and then Senator Gore was heavily involved in sponsoring legislation to research and connect supercomputers. Gore, who had served in Vietnam as a military journalist, was an important member of the “Atari Democrats.” Along with Senator Gary Hart, Robert Reich, and other Democrats, they pushed forward “high tech” ideas and legislation for funding and research. The meaning of the term varied but “Atari Democrat” generally referred to a pro-technology and pro free trade social liberal Democrat. The term emerged around 1982 and generally linked them to the Democrats’ Greens and an emerging “neo-liberal” wing. It also suggested that they were “young moderates who saw investment and high technology as the contemporary answer to the New Deal.”

The New York Times also discussed the tensions that emerged during the 1980s between the traditional Democratic liberals and the Atari Democrats who attempted to find a middle ground. High-speed processors and new software systems were recognized at the time as a crucial components in developing a number of new military armaments, especially any space-based “Star Wars” technologies.

So what happened? In the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986 to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (the Office) to study critical issues and options regarding communications networks for supercomputers at universities and Federal research facilities in the United States and required the Office to report the results to the Congress within a year. The bill was not voted on but got attached to the Senate Bill S. 2184: National Science Foundation Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1987. Still, the report was produced and pointed to the potential role of the NSF. It also lead to an agreement for the NSFNET backbone to be managed with Merit and IBM.

In October 1988, Gore sponsored additional legislation for “data superhighways” in the 100th Congress. S.2918 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act of 1988 The Act was to fund a 3 Gigabit network:

(1) work for the development of a three gigabit per second national research computer network to link government, industry, and education communities to;
(2) convene a committee to advise on network user needs; and
(3) determine the most efficient mechanism for assuring operating funds for the long-term maintenance and use of such a network.

It also directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to evaluate current telecommunications regulations and how it influences private industry participation in the data transmission field. Although no legislative action was taken on the bill,

In April 1993, the Supercomputing Act supported the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications where the first browser was invented. Called Mosaic, it drew on the developments by Tim Berners-Lee work at CERN on hypertext protocols and the first Web server. Tim Berners-Lee is generally credited with developing the World Wide Web.

Notes

[1] From the Introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor at the State University of New York in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in the 1990s.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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