Once upon a time there wasn’t an internet. Or at least not one we knew about. Malcolmson’s book is an introduction to the process whereby something whose non-existence now seems unimaginable came to be. It’s a book which is split into three sections. The first part outlines the rise of the notion and development of the computer. The book touches anecdotally on a number of themes; the origins of IBM; the original computers, humans who made mathematical calculations for a living, many of them employed by the US military; the role of the US navy in making the advances necessary for the beast to become what it has. The second section of the book examines the way in which the private sector began to take a more active involvement, a path that leads to California, Jobs, Wozniack, Gates and Allen. It’s here that the internet comes into existence, although it’s fascinating to see how little interest there was in it for so long, even from the likes of Microsoft. Finally the book looks at the future of the internet, analysing its capacity to survive in spite of those that would prefer to see its scope diminished. (Principally national governments.)
Splinternet is a handy introductory guide, filled with plenty of nuggets. It feels as though there’s probably a more detailed book waiting to be written; more often than not Malcolmson touches on historical moments which leave you wanting more, such as the maverick world of the military-hippy crossover which was a key axis in the development process: idealism bumper to bumper with military pragmatism. This section reads like something out of a novel Pynchon should have written. (Maybe he’s in the process of writing it right now.) There’s something about the posthorn from The Crying of Lot 49 underneath all this: the need to communicate across frontiers, an extension of the frontier spirit, which is recycled by zeitgeist fringe visionaries or lunatics who somehow or other end up changing the world, for better or for worse. Sketchy though the book might be, it’s nevertheless fascinating to gain a glimpse into the process which created the internet. It is astonishing to contemplate how the material world is capable of being transformed by forces of which democracy, governments, experts, know nothing; who knows which processes are being developed even now which, in 30 years or so, will feel so integral to daily life that we shall scarcely be able to imagine this world without them.