restricted access Standards, Networks, and Critique
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Standards, Networks, and Critique

From a technical point of view, standards make it possible to combine a variety of components into a functional system or network, thus creating the "network effects" with which we are all familiar. From a strategic point of view, stories about standards are necessarily about power and control—they always either reify or change existing conditions and are always conscious attempts to shape the future in specific ways.

I have come to see the production of standards for new computer networks, one of my particular areas of interest in the history of computing, as acts of critique. One reference point here is Michel Foucault, who observed in 1978 that "critique only exists in relation to something other than itself"—that is, it is always a response to external phenomena and existing power relations. Therefore, critique "must be an instrument for those who fight, resist, and who no longer want what is. It must be used in processes of conflict, confrontation, and resistance attempts. . . . It is a challenge to the status quo."1

The philosopher Gerald Raunig, writing in 2008, agreed with Foucault that critique resists the status quo. Raunig further emphasized the potential of critique to serve as a foundation for action: "critique," he wrote, "also means re-composition [and] invention." In the hands of the cultural theorists Foucault and Raunig, critique sounds less like a traditional mode of literary or art criticism and more like a synonym for innovation. The goal is not only to resist or challenge what is, but to take action and make what could be.2

I think we can use these theoretical discussions to understand the diverse, and often conflicting, interests and worldviews of the engineers who made new network standards. In some cases, engineers offered explicit critiques in published works, conference presentations, and statements to the press—candid commentary on existing market, regulatory, and technical controversies. In other cases, engineers challenged the status quo implicitly, not by dwelling on existing conditions but by building new standards, network architectures, and institutions. Attention to both explicit and implicit forms of critique can help historians to situate innovations in computer networking more deeply in the social worlds that created and used them.

Challenging the Status Quo

Consider the emergence of "open systems" in the nascent data-networking industry of the 1970s and 1980s.3 The most daunting challenges for network architects and engineers in the early 1970s stemmed from multifaceted forms of convergence. As the technical foundations of telecommunication and computer networks converged around new techniques for digital data transmission, the old, clear market boundaries between the respective telecommunication and computing industries blurred. Distinct legal categories and regulatory jurisdictions also converged and conflicted. Amidst the chaos, no organization had the authority to create standards that would be obeyed across diverse technical, political, and economic communities. Competition was intense, technological trajectories were uncertain, and there were few incentives to cooperate.

In the absence of uncontested authority, two powerful actors were poised to dominate data networking in the mid-1970s: IBM and the monopoly telecommunication carriers that together set standards under the auspices of the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee (CCITT). The sources of IBM's potential power were well understood. By the early 1970s, IBM could boast of a large installed customer base, a dominant share of international computer markets, and a new product (Systems Network Architecture) designed to facilitate data communications among IBM mainframes, terminals, and other devices.

Europeans, more than Americans, also understood the sources of the CCITT's power because most CCITT members came from national post, telegraph, and telephone administrations (PTTs). The PTTs were both network operators and network regulators. (The American analogy would have been if the monopoly Bell System and the Federal Communications Commission were combined into a single organization.) The PTTs therefore were incredibly powerful institutions, particularly in countries such as France that sought to constrain the destabilizing forces of competition and promote the fortunes of domestic "national champion" companies.

Throughout 1975, CCITT prepared to issue its X.25 Recommendation for packet-switched networks. A small group of computer researchers, eager to exploit the data-processing capabilities of their rapidly improving...