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[techbooks] "Inventing the Internet", Janet Abbate

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKINVINT.RVW 990709 Inventing the Internet , Janet Abbate, 1999, 0-262-01172-7, U$27.50 %A Janet Abbate %C 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 1999
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      BKINVINT.RVW 990709

      "Inventing the Internet", Janet Abbate, 1999, 0-262-01172-7, U$27.50
      %A Janet Abbate
      %C 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399
      %D 1999
      %G 0-262-01172-7
      %I MIT Press
      %O U$27.50 800-356-0343 fax: 617-625-6660 www-mitpress.mit.edu
      %P 264 p.
      %T "Inventing the Internet"

      Buried midway through the introduction comes the statement that the
      author has chosen to focus on a select group of topics in order to
      support her own view of the most important social and cultural factors
      of the Internet. The intent of the book, therefore, is complex. The
      text must examine a technical development, identify social hypotheses,
      and present arguments from the historical record to buttress those

      Chapter one starts out by asserting that the most celebrated of the
      ARPANET's technical innovations was packet switching. Certainly
      packet switching is a core concept in all discussions of modern data
      communications. Unfortunately, Abbate does not display the merits of
      the idea with sufficient clarity, never dealing with issues of traffic
      differences between voice and data, only tangentially mentioning
      circuit switching, and clouding the deliberation with factors more
      properly related to routing. There is also an evident lack of
      familiarity with basic technical processes. In addition, the author
      states that the ARPANET was the proving ground for packet switching,
      ignoring the contribution of demonstrably much more widely used
      networks such as Datapac and Transpac. Furthermore, looking back to
      the introduction we find that the social aspect we, as readers, are
      supposed to note is how technologies are socially constructed. Other
      than the fact that technical people talk to each other, nothing
      significant seems to be presented along this line. Finally, the
      extensive citations of works in the bibliography appeared to support
      the scholarship of the work, until I noted that the most interesting
      points tended to be those referring to private interviews and
      materials written relatively long after the fact.

      The content of chapter two alternates between descriptions of
      political and managerial machinations of those involved in the early
      development of the ARPANET and mentions of layered protocol modeling.
      Early users and usages are discussed in chapter three, but the text
      swings between acknowledging and denying user development.
      Internetworking is introduced in chapter four, but protocol layering
      is not re-examined even though it is at this point that the concept
      becomes important. Chapter five starts with a generic debate about
      the need for, and interests against, standards, but then spends most
      of the time reviewing X.25 and the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection)
      model, with little relevance to the Internet. Having meandered
      through about ten years in the first five chapters, chapter six
      leapfrogs twenty, racing from the military ARPANET into the academic
      Internet and finally into the present commercial Internet. The
      trailblazing work of BITNET, Usenet, and even Fidonet is given only
      token mention, and the description of the World Wide Web seems to
      completely misunderstand how hypertext contributed to the use and
      popularity of the net, stressing colour images rather than integration
      of function.

      Despite the collation of a wide variety of source materials, and the
      presentation of a number of events not commonly cited, this book fails
      as both history and social commentary. Too many major occurrences are
      dismissed too quickly to confer a full understanding of the
      development of the Internet. The cultural points Abbate tries to make
      are either too subtle to come across to this uncultivated geek or are
      unremarkable and trite. (The closing statement that the net's
      strengths lie in adaptability and participatory design is surely not
      news to anyone with the slightest knowledge of Internet history.)
      Mostly, though, it appears that Abbate's lack of comprehension of the
      technical aspects of the net ensures a failure to understand
      significant historical and social factors as well.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKINVINT.RVW 990709

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