Creative destruction meets destructive creation in this economic-historical study of the Internet and its privatization.
The libertarian dream may be to privatize all government services, but that ignores the fact that in many instances, it is government funding that underlies the invention of useful technologies—home-scaled air conditioners, for instance, or aluminum cookware. Greenstein (Chair, Information Technology/Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern Univ.; co-editor: Economic Analysis of the Digital Economy, 2015, etc.) distinguishes invention from innovation as separate processes, innovation, as he writes, being “the act of turning invention into something useful.” It was government initiative that brought a network of computers into being, a mix of private and public innovation that made it into the Internet, thanks in part to the work of government engineer Stephen Wolff, who “made an educated guess that the costs for universities and researchers could be lower if private providers supplied services” that helped the backbone network talk to individual machines, sharing the infrastructure among potentially innumerable constituents. Greenstein concentrates on the 1990s, looking closely at such issues as the browser wars—he concludes that Bill Gates was right to worry about the rise of non-Microsoft Internet gateways—and the origins of the dot-com bubble at the end of the decade. Though he conveys much information through the vehicle of carefully developed case studies on matters such as the divestiture of AT&T and its relationship to the birth of the Internet and the role of federal funding of the research that would give rise to Google, the author is a resolutely academic writer (“accommodating heterogeneous deployment overlapped with the economic benefit” is a characteristic formulation); it helps to have some background in both communications and economics to fully appreciate his arguments. General readers will prefer books such as John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said (2005) and Stephen Levy’s Hackers (1985), though Greenstein notes that his focus—on innovation, not invention—is different from theirs.
A welcome, well-conceived contribution to the history of technology.