05. June 2012 · 3 comments · Categories: philosophy

There’s been plenty of reaction across the net this week in response to a daft NYT article that begins “Men invented the internet”. At BoingBoing, Xeni is rightly outraged at the way the article is written, and in response comes up with plenty of examples of the contributions women have made to the development of computing. Throughout the resulting thread, many commentators chip in with more examples. Occasionally a (male) commentator shows up and tries to narrow down the definition of “invented the internet” to show that, yes, it was a man who invented some crucial piece of technology that makes it work. These comments are very revealing of a particular (male!) mindset towards technology and invention.

The central problem in the discussion seems to have been missed entirely. The real problem word in that opening sentence isn’t the word “men”, it’s the word “invented”. The internet is an incredibly complex socio-technical system. The notion that any one person (or any small group of people) invented it is ludicrous. Over a period of decades, the various technologies, protocols and conventions that make the internet work gradually evolved, through the efforts of a huge number of people (men and women), through a remarkable open design process. The people engaged in this endeavour had to invent new social processes for sharing and testing design ideas and getting feedback (for example, the RFC). It was these social processes, as much as any piece of technology, that made the internet possible.

But we should go further, because the concept of “invented” is even more problematic. If you study how any modern device came to be, the idea that there is a unique point in space and time that can be called its “invention” is really just a fiction. Henry Petroski does a great job of demonstrating this, through his histories of every day objects such as pencils, cutlery, and so on. The technologies we rely on today all passed though a long history of evolution in the same way. Each new form is a variant of ones that have gone before, created to respond to a perceived flaw in its predecessors. Some of these new variants are barely different from others, others represent larger modifications. Many of these modifications are worse than the original, some are better for specific purposes (and hence may start a new niche), and occasionally a more generally useful improvement is made.

The act of pointing to these occasional, larger modifications, and choosing to label them as “the birth of the modern X”, or the “first X”, or “the invention of X”, is a purely a social construct. We do it because we’re anchored in the present, seeing only the outcomes of these evolutionary processes, and we make the same mistake that creationists make, of being unable to conceive of the huge variety of intermediate forms that came before, and the massive process of trial and error that selected a particular form to survive and prosper. And, through continued operation of that bias, we’ve been conditioned to think in terms of unique moments of “invention” (often accompanied by a caricature of the lonely inventor working late at night in the lab).

And one of the biggest differences between men and women, in terms of social behaviour, is that men tend to boast about their successes and identify winners, while women tend to acknowledge group contributions and downplay their own efforts. So it’s hardly surprising that our history books are more full of male “inventors” than female inventors – the very idea of looking for a unique person to call the “inventor” is largely a male concept. Not only that, but it’s overwhelmingly a rich white guys’ way of looking at the world. The rich and powerful get to make decisions about who gets the credit for stuff. Not surprisingly, rich and powerful white men tend to pick other white men to designate as the “inventor”, and marginalize the contributions of others, no matter who else contributed to the idea during its gestation.

Update: Jan 9, 2014: Thanks to my student, Elizabeth, I now know the term for this: it’s the Matthew Effect. The wikipedia page has lots of examples.

3 Comments

  1. Of course there is another reason why our history books are more full of male inventors. It is only in the past few decades that barriers that hindered women inventors began to come down.

    I would recommend reading Julian Sanchez’s article on the matter.
    http://www.juliansanchez.com/2012/06/05/men-did-invent-the-internet-and-thats-a-huge-problem/

    He argues that men did invent (ignore the issues you bring up for now) the internet, and that this represents a huge problem.

    The grimmer alternative is … that important innovations just don’t happen because the pool of brainpower available to tackle important social goals is needlessly halved—the potential female counterparts of Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn never got the opportunity to accelerate the progress of the Internet because, at the time, hostile institutions froze them out, or antiquated norms of femininity deterred them from obtaining STEM educations in the first place.

  2. Maria Popova’s blog post on ‘Mark Twain on Plagiarism and Originality: “All Ideas Are Second-Hand”’ is worth a read in this context:

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/10/mark-twain-helen-keller-plagiarism-originality/

    It cannot be stressed enough that modern craponitallism’s concept of ‘Intellectual Property’ is completely bogus.

  3. This is not really on topic, but the mention of the lone inventor working late at night in the lab reminded me of it. The Wire on the inventor of the McNugget: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvq3Pf3j61c

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