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Review of “The Net Effect” by Tom Streeter

This is a dialogue I helped organize between myself, Mary Gray, Laura Miller, and Tom Streeter about his new book, The Net Effect.  This is my review.

 

Bruno Latour famously appealed to scholars to investigate the “socio-technical assemblages” that comprise our contemporary technologies. He is also famously vague about how to do that, and that’s precisely what Tom Streeter teaches us in The Net Effect.

The Net Effect covers a broad span of the things, procedures, ideas and cultures that make up what we call “the internet”–microcomputing, technical standards development, and open software, yes. But also ideologies, cultural beliefs, and historical antecedents. As a result, the history of things plays second fiddle here relative to the history of ideas. This is too bad, because that’s really where Streeter shines and adds a refreshing new lens on our ability to think through communication media.

The Net Effect is reminiscent other great social histories of communication media such as Claude Fischer’s America Calling and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Streeter’s history is just as impressive in its cultural scope as these two, but surpasses them in his reach for a much bigger and unbounded object, “the internet.”

The Net Effect is almost – I stress almost—too broad in scope, and at several points as a reader I wanted more from the book on all of these topics. The ambition of this book is both its key strength along with one of its few shortcomings. There are the roots of three different histories in this book, and I can only hope that Tom will decide to take those up for his next projects to produce a three volume set on the histories of the internet.
The strength of this broad scope of The Net Effect is that it allows Tom to draw connections across the “assemblage” of what we call internet. It reminds me of the project that Thomas Hughes, the comparative historian of technology, sets out for himself in Human-Built World: that technology development in the US and German traditions can be understood as culturally rooted in relationship to our competing desires to control our world and to let God make the plans. Like that book, this one is as ambitious in its scope and impressive in its ability to build a rich cultural history that links ideas, literature, and discourse. Streeter’s focus is on the role in computing of the romantic individual, “a self that is understood as the source of a dynamic, inner experience that calls on us to live creatively beyond the bounds of predicable rationality.”

I was left wondering how Streeter makes sense of the particularly American cultural imprint on the internet when the contemporary practices are global. From China to Facebook, we have multiple practices that now comprise this thing we call the internet. I was left wondering what how expansive and elastic Streeter’s historical explanations can be for contemporary experiences.

Streeter carefully traces what he calls “thrilling ideas,” and herein may be his single biggest contribution. I would like to propose that The Net Effect is enormously useful as a methodological guide for doing cultural, sociologically informed work on technology and ideas. Theoretically, we have long known that ideas and ideologies of technology shaped by communities, culture, and institutions and social structure. The Net Effect is instructive in how to do this by tackling the “microstructural problem of the interplay of idea and institutions by looking at connections on three levels: shared felt experiences association with technologies; cultural traditions that people draw on to make sense of those experiences; and articulations between those linked traditions and experiences with political ideas, particularly political ideas that shape policymaking around internet structure.” In this, Streeter creates a textured look at the connection between objects and institutions, and anyone wanting to reproduce this method would be well served to look at how he lays out the rise of personal computing.

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