Excavating Future Histories of the Internet: AfroNet | Newsletter | Telegraph

pin from the Media Archaeology Lab that reads "Ask me about INTERnet"

I forgot how pleasurable and meaningful it can be to write book reviews! I am, then, very grateful to the Los Angeles Review of Books for publishing my review of three books (“Alternative Internets and Their Lost Histories“) which all, in their way, excavate alternative visions of the internet: Charlton McIlwain’s Black Software, Cait McKinney’s Information Activism, and Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s When the Medium Was the Mission. Writing for a broader audience being what it is, the editor smartly cut 1000 words from my initial draft – but since I am still fond of the longer version I am posting it below.


Some years ago, a simple but far from lowly pin found its way to the lab I direct, the Media Archaeology Lab. The pin reads, “Ask Me About Internet!” Shortly before the pin arrived, sometime in 2014, I read Howard Rheingold’s 1993 The Virtual Community, where I noticed what I thought then was his strange use of “internet,” without the article “the.” The absence of “the” is barely noticeable but became more significant in the coming months. As I worked through manuals on internet protocols, especially TCP/IP which was created in 1983 as the standard language for networks to communicate to each other, I could see how, despite all the shoulder-shrugs in the literature about where exactly the term “the internet” came from, referring to the singular, monolithic network that defines most of our waking lives now, “the internet” had emerged from decades of heterogeneity.

From “the internet”, the term was previously simply “internet,” preceded by “internetwork” which reminds us that the Internet is not ‘a’ network but a proliferation of networks communicating with each other; “internetworking” as a verb emphasizing the work it takes to get these networks talking to each other; and, finally, “internetworking” as an adjective describing the process of transferring packets of information to and from any kind of telecommunications network. What, then, were all these different networks that existed before the creation of TCP/IP and later “the internet”?  What was possible on these networks that might not be possible on the internet of today which is de facto a network of surveillance and commercialization; one that feeds trolling, manipulation of facts, and white supremacy; and one whose underlying workings are mysterious to the vast majority of its users? What sorts of communication spaces and communities did they make possible or impossible?

Karin Knorr Cetina reminds us that “a network is simply an arrangement of nodes tied together by relationships that serve as conduits of communication, resources, and other coordinating instances,” such that the way the nodes are tied together could encompass any kind of technology or technique including semaphore. However, the way the nodes are tied together also shapes (even determines) the resulting communication.[1] Different network structures afford different sets of relations. Thus, although the excavation of alternative models of networks is important work for the sake of a full historical record, it is also important for giving us tools to imagine different network-mediated relationships than the ones we currently have. But, in order to do either of these things, when we are confronted with these altnernative networks, we need to ask ourselves both how did they work and for whom did they work? And, more difficult to pin down, why have histories of the internet not included these networks? Why do these histories almost always move directly from the ARPANet of the late 1960s, to the creation of the personal computer in the late 1970s, to the creation and eventual widespread adoption of TCP/IP in the 1980s, and then right to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web in the early 90s? What’s gained and what’s lost from this astonishingly over-simplified, lopsided narrative that neglects the wild heterogeneity of networks that’s existed since at least the 19th century?

Charlton D. McIlwain’s Black Software, Cait McKinney’s Information Activism, and Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s When the Message Was the Mission are all timely, must-read, counter histories and, in some cases, parallel histories to well worn Great Men narratives about the development of the internet. Spanning roughly 150 years, from the mid-19th century through the early 21st century, all three books not only uncover the cultural and technical underpinnings of networks in a way that significantly complicates the usual narrative of how the internet came to be; but they also, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitly, invite us to ask ourselves what power structures have been at work to gloss over or elide these alternative networks? What would have, and could still be, possible if things were otherwise? What if, for example, networks were designed not to “keep black America docile and in its place” but instead had the concerns of black people in mind if not at the center?[2] What would a network look like if it embodied “feminist data politics” and “user control and transparency”?[3] What if, in our recuperation of defunct or obsolete networks, we focused on their disconnections, disruptions, and failures?

Charlton D. McIlwain’s Black Software was published in 2020 and written, sometimes physically, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests that had been painstakingly coordinated almost entirely online. It was initially driven by the desire to understand where “today’s digitally revolutionized racial justice movement [came] from?” (6) but eventually McIlwain’s search for answers led him back to the mid-1970s, to a group of “black folks who…used, built, and developed computing technology, digital networks, and online communities that furthered the interests of black people throughout the African diaspora”–nearly all of whom histories of media and technology have either overlooked or never knew. (6)  These black pioneers, what McIlwain dubs “the vanguard,” were all pioneers but ones for whom there are no webpages dedicated to them on Wikipedia or on institutionally sanctioned websites for computer history. Clearly, scholarly fields are no more immune from white supremacy than any other institutional structure in America. In other words, to return to my question above about what power structures are at play when alternative networks are elided, the first is surely a deeply embedded bias (to put it mildly) at play when decisions are made about who/what gets to be included in the history of networks and the internet and who/what does not.

McIlwain’s solution to this deeply entrenched problem of centering whiteness in these histories is not merely to tinker with the history of networks and the internet (for example, by adding black pioneers and technologists to the already established canon of inventors) but instead he takes on the herculean labor of creating a counter history from the ground up by digging through periodicals ranging from the San Jose Mercury News to the Clemson University Tiger, Kansas City Times, The Tech and countless others; corporate records, conference proceedings, and annual reports; government documents; archives at Howard University, the National Criminal Justice Reference Center, and IBM; and conducting 15 personal interviews. The result is a history that shows us both precisely how white supremacy has long been embedded in the network(s) that gave us our contemporary digital world and precisely how black men and women built alternative networks in their own image.   

Black Software is also full of countless pages of rich detail culled from the archival sources I mention above and from deeply intimate personal interviews with pioneers such as Kamal Al-Mansour (creator of AfroLink Software), Derrick Brown (activist and co-creator of the Universal Black Pages from the mid-1990s), and Ken Onwere (co-creator of Afronet). The story of AfroNet is a particularly compelling example of black software, exemplifying many of the narrative threads running through McIlwain’s book. Founded in 1993 by the aforementioned Onwere, an American-born Nigerian then residing in San Diego, Afronet was a FidoNet system–essentially “a hub to exchange messages, emails, electronic bulletin boards about topics of interest” to “likeminded Africans and African Americans in the US and Canada” (92). It was driven by an army of dedicated volunteers; it was also free and open–designed to be an inclusive umbrella for any number of BBSes or online platforms from the west coast to the east coast. However, in case readers find themselves waxing nostalgic for a time in the early 90s when the internet was not yet completely commercialized and was supposedly, as John Perry Barlow described it just a few years later than the founding of Afronet in 1996, “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” McIlwain dug up old BBS posts that were unapologetically and violently misogynist and anti-black racist. He repeatedly reminds us:

BBS. Usenet. The Internet. Yes, they were creating a whole new world. But it wasn’t a question about if and when racism would rear its ugly head in this new world. Racism, fueled by anti-blackness, was already there when it began. And if you were black, and online, your very emotional survival depended on your finding a respite in a new world that was, like the old one, built on, and permeated by white supremacy. But Afronet became that virtual table where all the black kids could come to sit together. Afronet was where we could find our people. (96-97)

While countless so-called innovators were, at the same time, scrambling to find ways to monetize the net and promote a hyper-individualist vision of being utterly free and unburdened by bodies and IRL identities, black software enginners like Onwere were trying to connect black people. Otherwise put by another member of the vanguard, NetNoir co-founder David Ellington, “To me the business model of the next century is about inclusion.” (124)  What would our current internet look like if it put communities and inclusivity first rather than the profitability of IPs?

Of course the answer to the foregoing is open-ended and, right now in 2021, an exercise in wishful thinking. But we cannot even begin to reimagine an alternative present leading to the future without these alternative histories. In Cait McKinney’s Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies, also published in 2020, this alternative trajectory begins with lesbian feminist print newsletters in the early 1970s and moves to telephone hotlines that existed from the early 1970s to the late 1990s and expands beyond these print and telephone networks to include methods for organizing, cataloging, and archiving these lesbian feminist materials. Given both the crucial role that these alternative past networks play in making possible a wider range of communication and community, and also given the paucity of original archival documents of what was then often ephemeral communications at a distance, McKinney reminds us we not only need to know about these counter, queer histories, but we need an appropriate infrastructure for archiving, preserving, and accessing these histories. In terms of what it means for an infrastructure to be appropriate for its users, McKinney explains:

Lesbian feminists built or altered sociotechnical systems to carry out their work, and these systems materialize their imbrication in queer, antiracist, and feminist life-worlds. Information activism leverages the entanglement of politics with technologies to build infrastructures for lesbian feminism. (3)

Thus, these alternative networks and the infrastructures that support them are explicitly activist and therefore they are not just neat artifacts from the past – they are systems for information exchange, whether living or obsolete, that are part of (and sometimes even prop up) entire “life-worlds.” As I suggest above, they are also all “life-worlds” that have largely disappeared from view because of a nexus of power relations that benefit those in power and, as a result, naturalize structures that promote discrimination in the form of elisions from mainstream history on the basis of gender, sexual, orientation, race, religion, and more.  

Given this seemingly inevitable process whereby certain people and their stories are propped as exemplars of history over others, not surprisingly, similar to McIlwain, McKinney also had to do extensive work to build her own archive from the ground up. Not only did she conduct extensive interviews with information activists that were part of the lesbian feminist newsletter and hotline networks she focuses on but she also pored over an astonishingly wide range of grey literature including “newsletters, meeting minutes, telephone call logs, internal memos, letters…online archival interfaces, photographs, catalog records, log books, subject thesauruses, instruction manuals, handbooks, bibliographies, and actual index cards.” (8) However, while the nature of the archival material along with the identity of the historical actors makes these histories difficult to excavate, the actions of the actors also determines whether or not there are records available to excavate in the first place. As McKinney more elegantly puts it, “[t]he invisibility of women’s work in histories of media and technology is perhaps most acute when this work takes the form of service, care, or emotional labor, categories that include activist projects understood as labors of love.” (12) By contrast, when was the last time you read a history of the internet that highlighted the emotional labor involved in supporting complex decision making processes (that spanned years and numberous countries and organizations) about, say, which protocol to use for an internet?

The chapters on telephone hotlines (such as New York City’s Lesbian Switchboard), indexing projects (such as the Circle of Lesbian Indexers), and the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ digitization practices all contribute to the important task of making visible these labors of love. Furthermore, as these chapters participate in the work of building and uncovering archives, they also illustrate how networks have built-in capacities to “embody and create community.” (46) I was most taken with the first chapter which is largely about Matrices: A Lesbian Feminist Research Newsletter–a print-based network specifically by and for lesbian-feminists. In this chapter McKinney carefully delineates how the newsletter was a complex, multi-faceted object nested in a web of institutional, technological, personal, and political forces. For example, Matrices was collaboratively created by four women spread across the U.S.; it was produced using the University of Nebraska’s English Department photocopier (along with telephones and the postal system) and distributed free of charge for the first three years it existed; and it was often used for resource-sharing and community building for lesbian feminists inside and outside of academia and across the U.S. and Canada.

By the end of the chapter, after McKinney has walked us through numerous provocations ranging from questions about whether lesbians invented the internet and assertions about the importance of the “rhythm and pace” of print networks, even if they are “slow, messy, labor-intensive, and sometimes cumbersome” (61), one of her most compelling points is about how networks need not involve computers to be effective and powerful means for decentralized, distributed information sharing. Citing Riot Grrl VHS tape distribution networks as another example, she points out that “a more expansive media history of feminist social movements understands the idea of networks as paradoxically bound to, but also independent of, particular technologies.” (60) What networks, then, could be possible today and tomorrow if we took Matrices as a model and built networks that are intentionally slow, small, personal, decentralized and distributed?

Finally, Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s 2021 When the Medium Was the Mission is another tour de force in its excavation of the entire assemblage surrounding the first transatlantic undersea cable that is typically thought of as the birth of network culture. Rather than build on the conventional definition of a network–a definition which tends to favor the technological structure connecting nodes over, for example, the cultural/social reasons for needing connection in the first place–Supp-Montgomerie begins with the premise that networks have always been “first and foremost imaginaries” or enactments of “particular forms of social and material life.” (6) Thus, framing networks as imaginaries helps make clear “the very factors that we now understand as the affordances of networks were built through religion, politics, and matter and only later understood to be inherent to network media.” (6) Just to extrapolate for a moment about what this approach makes possible, imagine how different discourse on the internet might look like if histories tracked the ideological, philosophical, and political underpinnings of TCP/IP instead of its technical functioning?

For Supp-Montgomerie, the answer to the foregoing lies more fundamentally with the 1858 transatlantic cable which may have only functioned for 23 days but is still with us in our cultural imaginary about how networks work and why they are lauded as the most important technological feat of the last 150+ years. That is, When the Medium Was the Mission begins with the unorthodox but no less accurate assertion that while connection is now embedded in the very definition of a network, disconnection is actually just as much if not more inherent to networks as evidenced by the fact that the first telegraph lines in the 19th century did not work; as she puts it in the Preface, “fracture was part of the network.” And yet, she goes on:

…networks continue to be imagined as connective media, so much so that we have trouble thinking of networks in terms of the disconnection they actually rely on. Consider for a moment the way participation in digital networks depends on firewalls, passowrds, out-of-office messages, and the delicate art of unfollowing. Historically speaking, networks would not exist without all the disconnection that went into their establishment. (xii)

Continuing on with the line of questioning I have peppered throughout this review, what, then, might be possible if the narrative about our contemporary internet focused instead on disconnection rather than connection? Would it make possible a more honest discussion about, say, the security flaws in our current internet infrastructure rather than assumptions that the internet we have is the best possible version of an internet?

How and why did this misleading and inaccurate belief in the connective power of networks proliferate despite all the evidence to the contrary? Supp-Montgomerie argues that the 19th century’s version of public Protestantism was one of the most important techniques driving the narratives about networks as connective. The central argument of this book is that while disconnection and failure are at the heart of any so-called functioning network, these qualities have been effaced not only because a particular form of U.S. 19th century Protestantism celebrated the telegraph as “the realization of an essential human connectivity blessed by God” (20) but also because the supposed connective quality of networks was seen by missionaries as a “vital new resource in an effort to convert the world.” With alarming echoes of the discourse around failed late 20th century tech projects such as One Laptop Per Child which promised to lift children in the developing world out of poverty by the mere presence of a $100 laptop, 19th century missionaries “used media as mission, equating the spread of certain technologies with the spread of Christianity.” (37) The belief was that “Heathen minds…were hard and closed to Christianity but strikingly passive to the power of technology and awe-inspiring performances of it.” (48)

Given missionaries’ adamant belief in the power of the telegraph to subdue, convert, and modernize, and of perceptions by the very individuals the missionaries were targeting that telegraph infrastructure was a “symbol of imperial control,” When the Medium Was the Mission contains the odd story of attempted network sabotage but mostly they are stories about thoroughgoing, deeply violent subjugation of non-White people in the name of “progress.” To return to McIlwain’s assertion that “Racism, fueled by anti-blackness, was already [on the internet] when it began,” Supp-Montgomerie’s book explicitly points out that racism and slavery were embedded in the birth of networks themselves. More specifically, in addition to the 1858 Atlanta Telegraph Cable, in the same year a little known ship called the Telegraph also crossed the Atlantic and took 654 enslaved Africans from West Central Africa to Cuba. Only 500 survived. The point of this story which opens her second chapter is to gesture to what should by now be obvious: that “despite their disarticulation in US public discourses, the establishment of network infrastructure and practices of slavery occurred in the same time, space, and publics.” (99)           

The paragraphs above barely scratch the surface of what Supp-Montgomerie as well as McKinney and McIlwain reveal in their various accounts of how networks, even including our contemporary internet, were otherwise and could have been otherwise. My hope is that I have made clear the vital contributions all three have made to our very sense of what is possible today and tomorrow. If it wasn’t already clear, it’s now undeniable that our contemporary internet–the offspring of telegraph cables themselves birthed from violent, colonialist, and racist beliefs–is anything but neutral. But it’s also true that an alternative internet or even just an alternative network is possible if we start from alternative premises of, for example, care, inclusivity, and transparency.

[1] Karin Knorr Cetina, “Scopic media and global coordination: the mediatization of face-to-face encounters” 42.

[2] Charlton D. McIlwain, Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. 7.

[3] Cait McKinney, Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies. 2.