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How We Misremember the Internet’s Origins

50 years after the first ARPANET message, pop culture still views connectivity as disconnected from the political worldview that produced it.

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock poses beside the processor in the UCLA lab where the first ARPANET message was sent on October 29, 1969. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

The first message transmitted over ARPANET, the pioneering Pentagon-funded data-sharing network, late in the evening on October 29, 1969, was incomplete due to a technical error. UCLA graduate student Charley Kline was testing a “host to host” connection across the nascent network to a machine at SRI in Menlo Park, California, and things seemed to be going well–until SRI’s machine, operated by Bill Duvall, crashed partway through the transmission, meaning the only letters received from the attempted “login” were “lo.”

Kline thought little of the event at the time, but it’s since become the stuff of legend and poetic reinterpretation. “As in, lo and behold!” ARPANET developer and early internet icon Leonard Kleinrock says, grinning as he recounts the story in the 2016 Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Others have interpreted the truncated transmission as “a stuttered hello”; one camp argues it was a prescient “LOL.”

It’s a staple of tech hagiography to inject history’s banal realities with monumental foresight and noble intentions; Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated as much recently, when he claimed Facebook was founded in response to the Iraq War, rather than to rate the attractiveness of Harvard women. It’s understandable to wish that ARPANET’s inaugural message, too, had offered a bit more gravity, given all that the network and its eventual successor, the internet, hath wrought upon the world. But perhaps the most enduring truth of the internet is that so many of its foundational moments and decisive turning points—from Kline’s “lo” to Zuckerberg’s late-night coding sessions producing a service for “dumb fucks” at Harvard—emerged from ad hoc actions and experiments undertaken with little sense of foresight or posterity. In this respect, the inaugural “lo” was entirely apt.

It was also entirely suited to the mythologies of California—“a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” Joan Didion wrote, four years before the first ARPANET transmission. The precise route of the dedicated 50KB/second long-distance telephone lines connecting UCLA and SRI’s ARPANET nodes isn’t well-documented, but it’s possible the first transmission traveled north in cables along California’s Highway 101, over parts of the eighteenth-century path that connected Spanish Catholic missions transmitting the Gospels to the native Ohlone. At some point, the cables must have passed the former site of the New Almaden mines south of San Jose, where cinnabar deposits provided 1849 gold-rushers with the mercury they needed to physically separate gold and silver from crushed ore. Surely that unceremonious “lo” snaked through the bustling region that would soon be called Silicon Valley, which was about to experience massive growth in accordance with Moore’s Law. While the ARPANET’s originating crew of graduate students may not have consciously seen their efforts as intertwined with a landscape defined by evangelism, speculation, and the so-called pioneer spirit, much of tech today is animated by the same ethos underlying California’s many turns as promised land of plenty–for better and for worse.

In practice, California’s trailblazing spirit came with environmental destruction, racism, and the rending of existing social fabrics. The Spanish missions enslaved and decimated the populations of California Indians in the name of salvation. The mercury of New Almaden poisoned immigrant miners and polluted the Guadalupe River and south San Francisco Bay, just as the Gold Rush left a toxic legacy elsewhere in the region’s water supplies. Silicon Valley personifies this spirit, too: Its chip fabrication plants contaminated groundwater aquifers, adding 19 federal Superfund sites to Santa Clara county and leaving countless workers—mostly women, mostly immigrant, very deliberately not unionized—with severe health problems and little recourse or compensation.

Of course, the seeds of the internet’s contemporary toxicity were not germinated by a single “lo” traveling 400 miles up the California coast, any more than Silicon Valley’s Superfund sites exist because of the invention of silicon transistors. In popular culture and industry circles, the story of the ARPANET, like most of the story of the internet, is told in a political vacuum, because that’s how most of the people involved in its creation treated the project. At best, it’s told as a story of a Department of Defense research project benevolently turned into a public good, operated entirely by the private sector. It’s the politics of government getting out of the way of market’s invisible hand and inevitable good judgment.

But the ARPANET’s emergence coincided with a volatile and politically intense period of American history—and, in particular, UCLA history. Ten months before that first ARPANET transmission, UCLA students and Black Panther Party members John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were killed on campus in a conflict believed to have been stoked by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. A month before the first ARPANET transmission, UCLA’s board of regents tried to fire activist and theorist Angela Davis for her affiliation with the Communist Party. None of these events, of course, directly influenced Charley Kline’s “lo” into the void. Reminiscences of the transmission are light on political context, and Kline’s own reflections suggest a somewhat myopic younger self. “I was 21 and a programmer who liked to program all hours of the day and night,” Kline told NPR in 2009.

But this is another recurring theme seen in the many moments of ad hoc internet history: By emphasizing the technical innovations (and obsessive dedication to them) as more important than the political and economic contexts in which they were germinated, the graybeards of internet history and PR machines of the tech industry perpetuate the illusion that technology magically exists outside of politics, rather than existing in a constant dialogue with it. The internet emerged in a region heavily shaped by libertarian conservatism and environmental racism, and it was easily instrumentalized toward both—and, in a now-familiar feedback loop, the internet’s ability to amplify specific ideologies further reinforced such polarization. What media critics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron dubbed “The Californian Ideology” in 1995 certainly already existed in some form before the internet, and the internet certainly did not have to inherit its ideals. But when the publicly funded open protocols and infrastructure built by ARPANET entered the Californian crucible of nascent ex-hippie neoliberalism, the windows of possibility narrow.

Fifty years after the first successful (or, successful enough) transmission across the ARPANET, we’ve effectively terraformed the planet into a giant computer founded on the ARPANET’s architecture. The messages transmitted across it have certainly become more complex, but the illusion that its ad-hoc infrastructure developed in a political vacuum has become harder and harder to maintain. That illusion has been pierced since 2016, but the myth that seems poised to replace it—that technology can in fact automate away bias and politics itself—is no less insidious.

The vapidity of the first ARPANET message is a reminder of the fallacy of this kind of apolitical, monumental storytelling about technology’s harms and benefits. Few isolated events in the development of the internet were as heroic as we may imagine, or as nefarious as we may fear. But even the most ad hoc of these events occurred in a particular ideological context. What is the result of ignoring or blithely denying that context? Lo and behold: It looks a lot like 2019.