Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Qualtrics Conundrum

Posted on | December 9, 2012 | No Comments

While tech giants Facebook and Google get most of the public’s consideration, another upcoming company called Qualtrics deserves a slice of our attention. This company has developed an online platform for research that makes it much easier to conceptualize, construct, distribute, analyze and visualize projects. Qualtrics is moving quickly ahead of competitors Intellisurvey and SurveyMonkey and is having a dramatic and disruptive effect on the commercial and academic state of gathering “unstructured” external data for various types of research.

Qualtrics was founded in 2002 in Utah by the Smith family, who have already rejected one $500 million dollar buyout offer for their privately held company.[1] Scott, the father, was a professor of marketing at Brig­ham Young University for 30 years. He developed his ideas for an online research platform while on an extended sick leave. When his sons Ryan (now the CEO) and Jared developed an interest, they built the company into one of the top 40 companies on Business Insider’s top 100 list of private tech companies.[2]

Their mantra, ‘Sophisticated enough for a PhD, easy enough for an intern,’ points to the trend to make research easier and quicker. This allows companies to “insource” the production of vital information on customers, employees, B2B partners and suppliers. Previously, they hired outside firms to conduct this research, which can get pricey. Now companies are enabled by Qualtrics and other survey companies that provide research and analytics software to increasingly do their research work in-house. Now nearly 5000 paying customers systematically collect “unstructured external data” using these online tools. The list includes Chevron, eBay, ESPN, FedEx, Gieco, Microsoft, Neiman Marcus, Prudential, Thomson Reuters, Royal Caribbean, and Southwest Airlines, as well as some 600 universities and a large number of state and federal agencies.

CEO Ryan Smith returned to his alma mater at BYU to give a talk on Qualtrics at the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.

I started to develop a working familiarity with Qualtrics while I was the chair of a program at New York University offering a MS in Management and Systems. They had a strong thesis program and many students conducted empirical and highly quantitative research. Besides actually supervising thesis students I also distributed surveys for the students to the larger student body and noticed that many of the students started to adopt the Qualtrics software for their data collection.

It’s beyond my scope here to go into a lot of detail about the characteristics and workings of Qualtrics, but below is a list of some of the features it provides.

– over 100 different types of questions (i.e. multiple choice, T/F);
– a choice of Likert scales (i.e. Very Unlikely to Very Likely);
– easily embed video and audio clips;
– choose images from a computer or download from the web;
– use questions by professionals from previously designed surveys;
– make surveys quickly using templates;
– personalize surveys with a respondent’s name and other characteristic information;
– randomize the order of choices and questions;
– create a library of questions, letters, surveys, and media for future use.[4]

Although the capabilities of the Qualtrics platform are quite extraordinary, they also raise a number of issues. One concern is that the facility of Qualtrics is no guarantee for the quality of the research. Drawing questions from a theoretical base, articulating research hypoteses and identifying dependent and independent variables can take incisive minds sharpened by years of education and immersion in the area to do well. The IT mantra “Garbage In, Garbage out” is applicable here as a poorly designed research survey can produce incomplete or misleading results.

Also, the Qualtrics solution raises questions about the value of quantitative methodologies that rely on a decontextualizing process that ignores more meaningful frameworks such as business outcomes in the commercial world and social context in academia. The writings of web analytics experts such as Avinash Kaushik and John Lovett, who both have spent the last decade using these metrics produced by social media and other Internet activities confirm the dire need to separate the clicks that matter from those that don’t and also how to tie them into an organization’s objectives and purpose.

Much of this research leaves decision-makers and policy-formulators hungry for the perspectives that make this type of information more significant. The challenge of this new age of research will be the articulation and visualization of the meanings these metrics produce that address and inform higher levels of purpose and understanding.


[1] Victoria Barret wrote an extensive piece, “Qualtrics: Tech’s Hidden Gem in Utah.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 15 May 2012. Web. Accessed 06 Dec. 2012. <>.
[2] “The Next 25 Big Enterprise Startups.” Business Insider. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 08 Dec. 2012. <>.
[3] “Qualtrics Raises $70M From Accel And Sequoia: The Biggest Software Company You Haven’t Heard Of?” TechCrunch RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 09 Dec. 2012. <>.
[4] This list was composed in part from information from “Building Surveys.” Qualtrics. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012. .




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.

Lincoln and the Telegraphic Civil War

Posted on | November 18, 2012 | No Comments

I’m looking forward to seeing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) about the 16th president’s efforts to end slavery and win the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a complex and troubled corporate lawyer and state senator who found his voice and purpose as he confronted the economic, political, and humanitarian challenges of this time. As his drive led him to the White House, he summoned the technological resources of his time to aid his purpose.

Lincoln was the first president to understand the railroad and telegraph as strategic tools to wage both politics and war. As a railroad lawyer in the 1850s, Lincoln became aware of the powerful communication and economic changes brought on by these two converging technologies, particularly as they pushed outward to expand trade and political influence into the western frontier. As president and commander-in-chief, he studied the use of these young technologies by Napoleon III in the 1859 campaign to support the unification of Italy. Lincoln aggressively executed the war and worked with his generals to use the telegraph and railroads to mobilize troops and supplies effectively and conduct successful wartime operations.

Despite its promise, technological infrastructure lagged in the US until the Civil War and Lincoln’s resolve to secure the West. He was elected president in the fall of 1860 and took office the next spring with the southern states threatening to secede. He saw the preservation of the Union not only in North-South terms but also in incorporating the vast expanses of the West. The 1859 discovery of silver in Nevada and the gold rush’s expansion to Colorado’s Pike’s Peak provided additional motivation. He supported the completion of the cross-country telegraphic link that had to traverse hostile Indian territory and rugged mountain ranges. Finally, cables from two private telegraph companies met at Salt Lake City, and President Lincoln received the first message in Washington DC from Sacramento, California on October 24, 1861.[1]

A telegraph room was set up in the War Department next to the White House as one of the first command and control centers using electric technology. Lincoln would often linger there for long periods during the war, awaiting reports from various battlefields and writing memos to be transmitted. The US Military Telegraph (USMT) was created in 1862, taking over from the Union’s Signal Corps. They took over the emerging long distance lines, but rather than militarize all aspects of the telegraphy system, they chose to supervise the private sector’s telegraph operators and required them to make military messages their priority. They also helped subsidize the construction of new lines.[2]

The Union proved more successful with the telegraph than the Confederate South. The telegraph served to coordinate troop movements and critical logistical supply in conjunction with railroads. General Herman Haupt designed the responsibilities of the North’s Department of Military Railroads: inventory the railroads and their distances, assess their condition, and determine the availability and prices of materials and labor for building and maintaining the lines. The railroads were used as crucial supply lines for ammunition, other equipment, and food. They were also used to move and to move large numbers of troops quickly to the battlefield. General Sherman, notorious for the destructive “Sherman’s March” through the south, estimated that to keep an army of 100,000 men and their animals supplied it would take 160 railroad cars of supplies a day or over 36,000 wagons drawn by team of six mules each.[3] The South never garnered the technological sophistication or supply to adequately coordinate its railroads and thus its troops suffered severe strategy and supply problems.


[1] I highly recommend Lubrano’s (1997) book, The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change. NY: Garland Publishing. p. 10.
[2] Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War is a very old book by David Homer Bates.
[3] Information on the transcontinental link from Eicher, D.J. (2002) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. NY: Simon and Schuster. This is one of the few accounts of the Civil War that addresses the issues of communications and transportation.
[4] Eicher, D.J. (2002) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. NY: Simon and Schuster. One of the few accounts of the Civil War that addresses the issues of communications and transportation.




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.

Markets Fail

Posted on | November 16, 2012 | No Comments

Markets fail
That is why we have Government
Governments fail
That is why we have Democracy
Democracy fails
That is why we have Journalism
Journalism fails
That is why we have Education
Education fails
That is why we have Intellectuals
Intellectuals fail
That is why we have Research
Research fails
That is why we have Markets…




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.

Google You Can Drive My Car

Posted on | November 8, 2012 | No Comments

One of Steve Jobs’ unfulfilled dreams was to design and market the iCar. Although the details of his vision have not been released, we can be sure it would be sleek, expensive, and innovative. It’s a shame we no longer have his energy, intelligence, and promotional charisma because transportation in America and around the world is experiencing a number of economic and public safety issues that make it ripe for a radical transformation in the next few decades.


Apple is working with a few of the major car companies to integrate Siri as part of its “Eyes Free” program. The strategy is to integrate the Siri into the car so that it allows drivers to access it for directions and other search functions. Most likely it will work with basic touch controls embedded into steering wheels while natural language processing will provide a more extensive user interface. Unfortunately for Apple, its mobile advertising platform, iAd, has performed poorly and its Apple Maps even more so, causing heads to roll at one of the world’s most heavily capitalized companies.

It is Google that is currently leading this “automatrix” transition with its work on the driverless car, drawing on Google Maps and integrating them into their highly successful advertising programs. Adding cars to this already $40 billion business model lends itself to a potentially central role in the new transportation system and gives a new definition to the term “mobile.” It’s not that Google is likely to become the new “GM,” but that it’s looking to that other “mobile” for its new revenues.

I’ve written before about Google’s vision of monetizing the road and the importance they put on the driverless car. More than anyone they seem to realize that the information superhighway may, in fact, be the highway. Driving itself creates a data stream of personal consumption habits, route preferences, and roadside memorabilia. As I previously wrote, “Google, who wants to organize the world’s information, clearly sees your car as a major generator of that data and the car occupants as major traffic generators – the good kind of traffic – on the web, not the road.” The bet is that the allure of driving your car is second to jacking into your informational and social networks and that the vectors of data-rich trails can be monetized. Less driving means more surfing and more searching.[1]

The current trend toward more mobile phoning and texting raises the issue of driving safety.[2] It seems like every day I see more and more people talking on the phone or even keying into their smartphone while driving. A recent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) calls for a ban on cellphone and texting while driving. Add driving while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, putting on makeup, road rage, eating, and other distractions, and it’s clear that human driving is becoming a major public health issue. While this may not be a new issue, having an alternative is new, and tests are showing that they might be safer than your human driver.

Sure, the driverless car sounds like a fanciful scenario, but there are technological and personal signals that suggest such a change might be coming. I’ve mentioned some of the technological developments above as well as the increasing concern over safety with texting and other distractions. On the personal side, I would point to what economists call opportunity costs. What are people giving up by having to drive? Do people feel that they would rather spend their time in the car doing other things? How much productivity or even “down time” do people give up while driving their cars?

On the other hand, are people willing to give up the control that comes with driving? Would they trust the Automatrix to deliver them safely, accurately, and on time? Moreover, what are the other psychological factors that would keep people glued to their steering wheels?


[1] For a history of the driverless car by Sebastian Thrun and Chris Urmson.
[2] Statistics on driving while distracted.
[3] Introductory video on solar painting.
[4] The Economist had an interesting article on the trajectory and implications of the driverless car.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Barry Obama and the Hawaii’s Multi-Ethnic Economic Transformation

Posted on | November 4, 2012 | No Comments

I use President Obama’s high school name “Barry” to mark the specific time period I want to refer to in this post. He returned from Indonesia in 1971 and lived in Honolulu until he graduated from Punahou High School in 1979. During that time he would have been exposed to an extraordinary political transformation in the 50th state, the election of the first Asian-American to the position of a US Governor and the socio-economic elevation of several ethnic groups from migrant workers to middle class.

Often overlooked in discussions about the President, his operational temperament, and his political agenda are the news and current events that occurred during Obama’s time in Hawaii and particularly the rise of the Democratic Party and how it empowered several ethnic groups to elevate their socio-economic standing.

Barry Obama would have come to political consciousness during the service of George Ariyoshi, who Govenor Ariyoshiserved from 1974 to 1986 as the third Governor of Hawaii. Ariyoshi’s “Quiet but Effective” campaign theme hit the appropriate passive-aggressive tone needed to work the complex ethnic coalitions that characterized Hawaii’s political sphere. Obama would have witnessed a social revolution where Asian-Americans, most of whom came from families of immigrants who worked the pineapple and sugar plantations, strove to improve their class status and well-being through hard work, personal savings and education.[1]

I wouldn’t presume to provide a comprehensive account for the President’s worldview and what motivates his actions; I can however speak to some of his environmental influences, having lived in Anthony J. PenningsHawaii during his senior year and a block away from his high school and within walking distance to his grandmother’s house. I also got my PhD through the same scholarship program at the East-West Center as his mother, although it was some 15 years after her. I even developed my distaste for a certain brand of ice cream at the store where Barry worked scooping out cones.

In 1962, the Democratic Party in Hawaii took power from the Republicans, whose political lineage traces back to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Territorial Governor William F. Quinn won the first election after the Hawaiian Islands achieved US statehood on March 12, 1959. But by 1964 the Democrats had two Japanese-American Senators in Washington DC and obtained solid control over the political machinations of Hawaii under the direction of policeman turned politician Gov. John A. Burns.

Originally more focused on Hawaiian affairs, the Democratic Party turned its attention towards the Asian populations, particularly courting the affections of the Japanese-American World War daninouyeII veterans, including the late Senator Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga and the recently deceased Senator Daniel Inouye. Both had been injured in the European theater fighting with the highly decorated 442nd Regiment of the US Army and both later received the Medal of Honor for bravery in the battlefield. Asian-Americans were initially blocked from many of the corporate jobs occupied mainly by Caucasians, so Japanese-Americans. in particular, began to move into government positions, especially education.

The Hawaiian economy grew rapidly with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the transpacific telegraph and telephone cables, communication satellites, and the use of jet aircraft for transportation and tourism. Tourism fueled construction as hotels sprung up on all the major islands. It also meant a lot of small businesses to cater to tourists. As the economic pie expanded, it opened up new opportunities throughout the state economy for the second and third generations of the workers who had tilled the plantation farms.[2]

Hawaii’s Democratic party developed a fairly conservative approach to politics characterized by respect for education and government. It wasn’t afraid to use bureaucracy to achieve its goals but it recognized the importance of fiscal restraint, in part to mimic the Asian strategy of development that was working so effectively in places like Japan and Singapore. Also, because it was a “fragile” and geographically isolated set of islands with a rapidly growing population.

While I can only conjecture about the connections and decisions he made, by the time he graduated from high school in the late 1970s, Barack Obama would have witnessed an extraordinarily American social movement. It advanced a coalition of Chinese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Korean, and Japanese-Americans into a multi-ethnic power structure that propelled itself into middle class legitimacy through political action.[3]


[1] Political scientist Michael Haas has edited Barack Obama, The Aloha Zen President: How a Son of the 50th State May … and written Mr. Calm and Effective: Evaluating the Presidency of Barack Obama.
[2] The Economic History of Hawai‘i: A Short Introduction by Sumner LaCroix.
[3] The Democratic Party kept its hold on the reigns of Hawaii’s governorship until Linda Lingle, a Jewish-American woman from Maui won election in 2002.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Diffusion and the Five Characteristics of Innovation Adoption

Posted on | October 23, 2012 | No Comments

I recently supervised a Master of Science thesis at New York University that dealt with the adoption of social media technologies in a B2B sector.[1] I recommended the student start with the theories of Everett Rogers whose work on the “diffusion of innovations” has been increasingly applied to the marketing of technological innovations, including digital media.

In particular, Rogers was concerned that for individuals to adopt an innovation, they must make a conscious decision that overcomes their uncertainty about the product or process. He wrote that the innovation was not in itself enough to convert people. They may need to be convinced through a communication process that provides some evidence of future value, that ensures them that the innovation fits their value system, and that it does so without severely disrupting their established habits and practices.

I’ve been following Rogers since I did an undergraduate internship at the East-West Center’s Communication Institute in Hawaii. He spent a lot of time there with Wilbur Schramm and other founders of the Communication Studies area.[2] Later, Amy Shuen’s (2008) Web 2.0 reminded me of the relevance of Rogers’ identification of five characteristics of an innovation and how they may influence whether someone adopts a product or service:

  • relative advantage;
  • compatibility;
  • complexity;
  • trialability;
  • and; observability.

Relative advantage is an observation of the advantages and benefits of adopting a specific innovation. An innovation is by definition an improvement over something already existing, so Rogers points out that the potential adopter must first calculate its relative strengths. What is the advantage of the iPad over a MacBook? What improvements does it hold? What other benefits in terms of mobility, ease-of-use, additional software packages, etc. does the innovation present? If someone finds an advantage in this new technology, the individual will be more likely to adopt it.

Another issue is compatibility. How well does the innovation fit into a person’s needs, usage patterns and/or current value system? Adoption may have more to do with potential adopter than the characteristics of the innovation. An innovation that is more compatible with a person’s lifestyle and cognitive characteristics is more likely to be assimilated into an individual’s life.

A third characteristic is complexity and refers to the level of difficulty that the potential adopters encounter with the innovation. It is likely that the more complex or the more difficult an innovation is to understand, the less likely it will be adopted, and its diffusion will occur more slowly.

Trialability is another characteristic that determines the rate of diffusion. Being able to test an innovation or try it out will facilitate the rate of adoption. If it can be experimented with or taken out for a ‘test drive,” it is more likely to be utilized.

Observability completes our list of important characteristics identified by Rogers. An innovation will likely spread through the target population faster if the benefits are visible. “The Demo” by Douglas C. Engelbart was a 90-minute live demonstration of the interface technologies that highly influenced the trajectory of computer design that ultimately came out in the Apple Macintosh, including the first use of a mouse. The easier it is to see the advantages of an innovation, the faster it will diffuse throughout society.

Rogers was influenced by an experience during his childhood when his father did not utilize a new drought-resistant hybrid grain while their neighbor did. When a drought hit, his father’s crops withered and died while the neighbor’s crops persevered.

Rogers’ scholarly work originated in the study of rural sociology and focused on how innovations were adopted in areas such as agriculture and public health. He initiated an approach to the diffusion of innovation that utilized a scientific and meaningful way that emphasized the communicative and psychological aspects of adoption. He defined diffusion as the communication process by which innovations are accepted by individuals and their benefits spread to others.


[1] Mariandrea Rodriguez graduated this summer after completing her thesis on LATE ADOPTERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA: BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS COMPANIES IN THE FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRY.
[2]The East West Center had a multiplier or diffusion effect on Roger’ ideas. It helped spread the topic by bringing in scholars from around the world to research and discuss this area. Although the Communications Institute was replaced by the Institute of Culture and Communications and later disbanded, relevant research such as that on the communication of climate change information continues at the East-West Center.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University 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. His first faculty position was at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.


Posted on | October 18, 2012 | No Comments

Here is a list of the top social media websites for October 2012 as compiled by eBizMBA [1]. Next to their name is an estimate of Unique Monthly Visitors (EUMVs).

I have added links in case you are not familiar with the individual sites but I also highly recommend that you visit the eBizMBA site for their extraordinary lists and articles such as the Top 15 Most Popular File Sharing Websites and the Top 15 Most Popular Music Websites.[2]

1. Facebook – 750,000,000 EUMVs
2. Twitter – 250,000,000
3. LinkedIn – 110,000,000
4. MySpace – 70,500,000
5. Google Plus+ – 65,000,000
6. DeviantArt – 25,500,000
7. LiveJournal – 20,500,000
8. Tagged – 19,500,000
9. Orkut – 17,500,000
10. Pinterest – 15,500,000
11. CafeMom – 12,500,000
12. Ning – 12,000,000
13. Meetup – 7,500,000
14. myLife – 5,400,000
15. Badoo – 2,500,000

I’m not quite sure why Youtube is not on this list. I do see it on their top video websites with 450,000,000 EUMVs which would put it second on this list. Likewise Wikipedia with 350,000,000 Estimated Unique Monthly Visitors would rank very high as well. It is listed under Top 15 Most Popular Reference Websites.

I like this infographic by Fred Cavazza for providing a taxonomy of social media sites.[3]


[1] eBizMBA Rank gathers information from Alexa Global Traffic Rank, and U.S. Traffic Rank to compile an average for each website.
[2] Statistics from Compete and Quantcast.
[3] Fred lives in Paris but also keeps a blog for Forbes called Welcome to the 21st Century.



Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University. © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

WSJ in the Ether about the Internet

Posted on | July 31, 2012 | No Comments

The privatization and commercialization of Cold War technology, a central part of the Reagan Revolution, entered the limelight during the 2012 presidential election with the attention given to the role of government in the economy.

Controversy emerged recently with Gordon Crovitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Who Really Invented the Internet?” Crovitz’s article is part of the backlash to President Obama’s somewhat poorly phrased speech but nonetheless accurate assertion, “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.”

Crovitz covers a number of points about the Internet but manages to avoid Al Gore’s “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet” CNN quote from the Vice-President.

Instead his major focus is on Xerox and the creation of Ethernet networking technologies at their research and development facilities in Silicon Valley. The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was made famous when its technology was picked over by Steve Jobs for the Macintosh computer. Crovitz’s focus on the importance of Ethernet is an interesting contribution to the study of the evolving Internet but a more in-depth look at this technology does more to illuminate the government’s startup role in the Internet rather than its disprove its participation.

PARC was sent up by Xerox in 1970 to establish leadership in the “architecture of information”, a sufficiently vague but enticing term coined by Xerox CEO Peter McColough. To do that, Xerox itself picked over the expertise and technology created and funded by the government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was created by President Eisenhower in reaction to the USSR’s Sputnik satellite success. One of its major accomplishments was that it literally created the computer science field by funding departments throughout the US university system. It also guided the development of the ARPANET, the first implementation of packet-switched data communications technology, and generally considered the original precursor to the Internet.

Drawing on Xerox’s great wealth surplus, harvested during the 1960s, in part from the Great Society’s new bureaucracies; PARC recruited the brightest of ARPA’s brain trust. Starting with Robert Taylor, the director of ARPA’s main computer division, PARC recruited some of the best people in the emerging computer science field including those with expertise in personal computing and timesharing. Taylor had worked under the famous J.C.R Licklider, the first director of information processing at ARPA and had funded many seminal projects including Doug Engelbart’s NLS project which had invented the mouse. He even hired Larry Roberts who coordinated the ARPANET project and went on to create the ITU’s X.25 protocols that allowed government telcos around the world to offer packet-switching networks for banking and other commercial organizations.

By recruiting some of computer science’s top researchers, Xerox developed the Alto and the Star, two of the first personal computers with a GUI interface, hypertext, and the mouse. But it didn’t have a way of networking them.

So Xerox PARC hired Robert Metcalfe, a Harvard PhD who worked closely with the ARPANET, to develop networking technology to connect its personal computers. Harvard had initially rejected Metcalfe’s proposal to write his dissertation on the ARPANET, so he left to spend some time at the University of Hawaii with the ALOHANET project so he could study their innovative work on data networking. The ALOHANET was a government funded project that experimented with using radio broadcasts between Hawaiian islands to transfer data. There Metcalfe picked up crucial ideas on packet-switching and collision detection from Engineering Professor Norm Abramson that would provide the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation and later for networking innovations at PARC.

Robert X. Cringely interviews Abramson and Metcalfe on how Ethernet was created as part of this hour-long documentary.

Concepts emerging from the ALOHA project led to Xerox’s Ethernet local area networking products. While the ARPANET had solved certain issues related to long distance data communications, Ethernet tackled short-range communications needed in an office or campus environment. It is now not only widely used in wired local area networks but is prevalent in the IEEE 802 series wireless “WiFi” technology used today as well as emergent 4G mobile services used for smartphones and tablets such as the iPad.

Anyone examining the state of modern computer and web technologies has to marvel at the role of human ingenuity, capital markets, and the organizational capabilities. Start-ups and the modern corporation have done an amazing job refining the basic technologies developed by the military and government-funded contractors into the modern Internet. Unfortunately,trying to rewrite government’s role out of its history is not only misleading, but obfuscates important components of the national system of innovation. World War II, the Cold War, and the Space Race were all crucial for the development of the satellites, computers, and microprocessors that help make up the global Internet. Capital markets and enterprise are crucial for important refinements in energy, health, and further developments in information technology and media, but it would foolish to ignore the basic research and practical that emanate from public monies.

PARC was an important intermediary that helped transform years of government investment into workable products. It was part of the inventive complex that captured the imagination of consumers and showed companies how to become more productive. It spawned people like Bob Metcalfe, who went on to start the 3Com company (now part of HP). Several other researchers from PARC such as Charles Simonyi went over to Microsoft to help create Windows and the suite of Office products based on the ARPA/PARC/Apple graphical user interface (GUI). And, of course, Apple is currently the world’s most pivotal economic engine.

Metcalfe, Jobs, along with Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are a few of the main “supply-siders” who drew on the technological and scientific legacy of the Cold War and the associated “Space Race“, as well as other government investments; to create the products and services that propel the global economy and create our modern digital world. The term “Reagan Revolution” has been applied to an extraordinary transfer of wealth from the “public” sector to the private sector, but one that paid off substantially as microprocessors, satellites, and data networks among many other innovations developed by the government were refined for economic consumption and utilization.

Full Disclosure: I took a Satellite Communications class with Norm Abramson at the University of Hawaii when I was working on my PhD with the East-West Center. If one follows on Crovitz’s contention that the Ethernet was the seminal technology creating the Internet, I guess I would have argue that Abramson and the University of Hawaii invented the Internet. 🙂


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University 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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