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Not How the Internet Happened

A new history of the internet succumbs to hagiography and subservience

The history of the Internet is a house of myths worth tearing down. Even as the executives at the helm of the companies that mediate our experience are called to Congress, from time to time, to testify about the ways they have ushered in the destruction of human value, the idea that Silicon Valley actors are somehow better or more virtuous human beings seems to linger over mainstream culture. How the Internet Happened, a new book from Brian McCullough, host of the popular Internet History Podcast, could have been a good venue for a necessary round of mythbusting. Unfortunately, most of the time, it is not.

McCullough imagines himself as a neutral filter of information, the type of reporter people are supposed to venerate. He has the facts about how the internet as we know it came to be, and he is now turning them over to his readers. These endeavors, however, are always much better at masking bias than they are at eliminating it.

Anecdotes of all-night coding sessions appear in nearly every chapter of How the Internet Happened.

McCullough does dispatch with some of the false narratives public relations machines churned out about Netflix (that Reed Hastings decided to start the company after accruing a $40 late fee for Apollo 13) and eBay (that Pierre Omidyar created the site so that his fiancée might have an easier time expanding her Pez dispenser collection). It’s interesting, to a point, to hear what tech gurus lie about and why. Mostly, they rely on silly founding myths because they need a better story than the true one: they were in it for the money. Weirdly, McCullough buys into many of their delusions, which obscure more than they illuminate.

Anecdotes of all-night coding sessions appear in nearly every chapter of How the Internet Happened. People code things up, they code things out, they code for hours. What is missing from the book is an idea of what any of these people are actually doing. Are they building new features? Are they debugging prior versions? Are they trying to streamline user experience? Are they trying to put in a failsafe in case the program gets too smart and tries to kill them? They must have had ideas and priorities and areas of expertise. A plan, maybe. Was there a plan? Was it chaos? None of this is clear. Somebody, somewhere must actually know. Maybe McCullough knows and just doesn’t want to share, or maybe he’s content telling the story the same way as everybody else. Absent any other explanation, this serves mostly to keep an air of mystique around the people who built these influential programs. It sounds much more impressive if it seems like what they’re doing is magic instead of typing. Otherwise they are just people who did something, and there’s nothing so exciting about that.

In general, the successful people McCullough writes about are handled with kid gloves. He emphasizes the ruthlessness of Bill Gates, but makes no judgment about this quality aside from emphasizing its effectiveness in the arena of capitalism. Perhaps the man who gets the harshest end of the stick is Steve Jobs, one of the only major figures in the book who is now dead. McCullough shows him to be stubborn, mean, and brash, mostly to Apple’s massive detriment. Jobs is almost always the last person to a good idea. Two of the smartest things Apple ever did—expanding iTunes to Microsoft and adding an App Store to the iPhone—are ideas that Jobs resisted as long as he could until he got so fed up with people in the company asking him about it that he let them do it for his own sanity. The same is true for the iPhone, except this time it was both the entire company and Cingular Wireless. McCullough never outright criticizes Jobs for this, but it’s hard to come away with any conclusion other than that Jobs stymied Apple’s progress at key points. There have been many harsher things written about Jobs, but compared to how McCullough writes about Zuckerberg, he basically runs over Jobs with a truck.

The chapter on Facebook, which takes the story from its inception until it opened registration to everyone, is a gleeful coronation. At one point, McCullough makes his first foray into the personal life of one of his subjects, insisting that then-Harvard student Zuckerberg “had no trouble getting girlfriends.” McCullough writes this in the service of mythbusting what he sees as the misleading portrayal in The Social Network, but none of what he writes seems to counter Zuckerberg’s portrayal by Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher. Their central contention is that Zuckerberg was an asshole, against which McCullough offers no contrary evidence.

Once Facebook takes off, McCullough praises Zuckerberg’s apparently persistent practice of using meetings with CEOs interested in acquiring his company as “a crash-course M.B.A. degree.” What does this mean, exactly? Like with the coding session, it’s never clear. McCullough buries any enlightening information here underneath idioms like “picking his brain.” The lack of precision or clarity reads more like a Zuckerberg-authored post than it does the work of an independent writer.

Whether Zuckerberg is a pleasant person in his private life feels so meaningless now.

He gives Facebook itself the same treatment. A particularly telling portion comes when he describes the troubled launch of the News Feed, which caused a large backlash from users. At the time, people saw it as an invasion of privacy; they weren’t comfortable with everyone automatically knowing when they updated their profiles. Instead of usefully contextualizing and engaging with the substance of these protests, McCullough focuses on the News Feed’s performance. “In August, before the News Feed, Facebook users viewed 12 billion pages. In October, après News Feed, page views were 22 billion. People might claim to hate the feature, but Zuckerberg could see they couldn’t stop using it.” This would have been a good opportunity for McCullough to consider the ways Facebook might be influencing its users for the worse, but he punts. Later, when writing about the effectively dead Blackberry, however, McCullough feels free to rightly harp on its addictiveness, repeatedly using the nickname “Crackberry” and quoting prominent Silicon Valley figures like Marc Benioff and Andy Grove criticizing the technology for its negative side effects.

Through all this, the longest chapter in the book, there is only one passing mention of the Winklevoss twins, and no mention of their claim that a large portion of the genius McCullough was putting on Zuckerberg’s shoulder may have been their intellectual property. (The twins settled in 2011 for $20 million cash each and a chunk of Facebook stock worth a lot more.) This omission seems minor in comparison to how McCullough closes the chapter, fawning over Zuckerberg for turning into the type of businessman who could turn down a $1 billion acquisition offer from Yahoo. Certainly, that was smart. It made him much richer. But whether that’s the same type of businessman who would build a massive surveillance network he could not (or would not) control, one that constantly metabolized information he could not (or would not) keep secure, is not clear. Nor is it clear whether Zuckerberg learned how to aid and abet the rise of global fascism on his own, or from one of the CEOs who tried to buy Facebook. The irony of McCullough’s direct rebuke of Zuckerberg’s portrayal in The Social Network is that whether or not Zuckerberg is a pleasant person in his private life feels so meaningless now. I hope he’s kind to the people around him. I also hope he’s stripped of all his power. Neither of these strikes me as particularly likely, but the latter is more important than the former.

What is most frustrating about all of this is that How the Internet Happened is a good straight-laced history when McCullough can stay out of his own way. The way he charts the web browser development from a project at the University of Illinois to Netscape to Internet Explorer is compelling. He writes clearly on the negative impact that consolidated power had on the developing web. His explanation of how the dot-com bubble filled and burst is clear and useful, and he is sure to emphasize the way it hurt average investors who had put what little they could into the market on the common promise that the numbers would only go up. When it comes to the more important analysis, the analysis of the companies that are still around, however, all of the incisive energy is sucked out of the book, leaving it droopy and gormless. And subservient.

How the Internet Happened ends with a short treatise on the vast, vague possibilities for the future. Importantly, it closes with this: “But are we better off? . . . That’s the open ended question as the Internet Era continues.” This is worth thinking about deeply. McCullough’s book would have been greatly improved if it had been posed at the start.