Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet, Part III: NSFNET and the Atari Democrats

Posted on | January 2, 2011 | Comments Off on How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet, Part III: NSFNET and the Atari Democrats

This is the third part of my argument about how the Internet changed from a military network to a wide scale global network of interconnected networks. In Part II I explained how the Japanese plan to create Artificial Intelligence (AI) struck fear into US policy-makers. While Part I discussed the impact of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars.” These two events invoked a policy response had propelled the development of the Internet.

Trade Deficits and Cold War II

Recapping the argument in this series, two strategic concerns sparked the transformation of the Internet from an obscure military network to a national academic/research network and ultimately a global system of communication and commerce.

In the early 1980s, the Japanese announcement of their intention to build computers capable of artificial intelligence (AI) raised concerns among the US Congress about its impact on rising trade deficits and international competitiveness. This was also a time when President Reagan was denouncing Star Wars Simulacrathe policy of détente which had characterized the US foreign policy stance during the 1970s starting with Nixon’s trip to China and the signing of the SALT I treaty in 1972. After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and amidst calls for a nuclear freeze, President Reagan instead made a dramatic and controversial announcement that the US was unilaterally pursuing an attempt to build a space-based defensive “shield” against nuclear attack called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more popularly known as “Star Wars”. These two concerns mobilized the U.S. government to take action during the 1980s to ensure that the technological edge in computerization and data communications stayed with American interests.

Taking the Initiative

Congressman and later Senator Gore was heavily involved in the 1980s sponsoring legislation to research and connect supercomputers. High-speed processors and new software systems were recognized at the time as competitive trade advantages as well as crucial components in developing a number of new military armaments, including any space-based “Star Wars” technologies. Gore, who had served in Vietnam as a military journalist, was an important member of the “Atari Democrats” and along with Senators Gary Hart, Ernest Hollings, and others; he pushed forward “high tech” ideas and legislation for funding and research. Robert Reich was also a rising star and would go to become Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.

The meaning of the term varied but Atari Democrat generally referred to a pro-technology and pro-free trade “neo-liberal” Democrats. The term emerged in the early 1980s with the rise of Atari as a major video game producer and appeared in a number of major newspapers which linked them to the Democrats’ Greens and “neoliberals” as they discussed the tensions that emerged during the 1980s between the traditional Democratic liberals and the Atari Democrats who attempted to find a middle ground. The New York Times suggested they were “young moderates who saw investment and high technology as the contemporary answer to the New Deal.”


Five centers were funded by the NSF by 1985 but it soon became apparent that they would not adequately serve the scientific community. Led by the Atari Democrats, Congress instructed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue to fund these developments so that U.S. researchers could at least maintain parity with the Japanese.

Gore produced the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986 to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy 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 got attached to the Senate Bill S. 2184: National Science Foundation Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1987 but it was never passed. However, the task got the attention of “The Office” and the study was conducted anyway.

The NSF took two steps to make supercomputing more accessible and in the process established the foundation for the Internet. First it convinced DARPA to expand its packet-switched network to the new centers leading to what soon was to be called the Internet. Second, it funded universities which had interests in connecting with the supercomputing facilities. In this, it also mandated the TCP/IP communications protocols and specialized routing equipment configurations. This action solidified TCP/IP as the dominant networking protocol and incidentally led to a small company coming out of Stanford University that began supplying the router equipment to universities and research centers. That company was called Cisco Systems.



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.


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