'Men Invented the Internet,' New York Times flatly declares

Categories: Tech
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It was the thud heard 'round the world: The opening sentence of a story about sexism in Silicon Valley anchoring the front page of the New York Times' Sunday business section. "Men Invented the Internet," declared David Streitfeld, and it was impossible not to do a double-take, even if you didn't know much about the real history of the Internet's origins. It couldn't possibly be true, could it? No, it couldn't.

What was largely missed amid all the complaining, however, is that the rest of the article's setup was similarly based on a bunch of clumsily rendered and anachronistic stereotypes about the Valley. After his startling declaration, Streitfeld told us that the Internet-inventing men were: "Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago."

So much there to unpack. Most startling, perhaps, is the weird time-shifting, veering from 1966 Mr. Spock to 2011 Mr. Jobs in an article about something that was "invented" (depending on how you apply that word) in the late '60s and mid-'70s (with its origins going back years before that). But the purpose for the description is revealed by the odd, facile little dig at social media at the end there, about knowing what our friends were doing five minutes ago: Silicon Valley is filled with socially awkward nerds, like Professor Frink.

But that isn't any more true than is "men invented the Internet." Which is to say, it has a basis in fact, but the superlative, zero-sum declaration distorts the reality beyond recognition, as such declarations usually do. There are certainly lots of nerds in Silicon Valley, but the culture is dominated at least as much by mercenary finance sharks -- frat-boy types, not nerds -- as well as marketing droids of both sexes. Silicon Valley hasn't been a true geek paradise since at least the early '90s.

The story, after all, concerns allegations of sexual harassment at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the storied venture capital firm. Some VCs are tech savvy, usually just savvy enough to make investment decisions (and they often fall short even then) involving tech firms. But many of them couldn't program their own DVRs. Generally, they aren't nerds, but the NYT story proceeds from the unexamined presumption that they are. It makes no sense.

The loudest, best expressed complaint about the "men invented" bit came from BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin. She makes the argument better than I ever could. But it's important to note that "the Internet" isn't like the lightbulb or the telephone (and even those inventions weren't created in a vacuum). There is no one moment at which the Internet was "invented." It was developed, over years -- or even decades, again depending on how you look at it -- by cobbling together a whole bunch of existing technologies and coming up a whole bunch of new ones, several of them developed in whole or in part by women.

But because we were (and are) a sexist society, more men than women were involved in the Internet's development. After all, the Internet started as a military project (though female military personnel were involved too, as Jardin notes.) Still, it's not for nothing that Radia Perlman, who invented one of the basic network protocols on which the Internet operates, is called "The Mother of the Internet."

If this weren't the New York Times, it would be tempting to assume that "Men invented the Internet" passed muster with a battery of editors because it was pure linkbait, on the order of (paraphrasing) "Aaron Sorkin's movie about Steve Jobs, which he hasn't written yet, will be terrible because he's a hack," or (incredibly, not paraphrasing) "Why do people hate Jews?" -- two recent examples of shameless clickwhoring. In effect, though, this was just as successful as those were, stirring several days of anger and "controversy."

It must be noted that Streitfeld is an excellent, highly regarded reporter. He outed Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors, and his early coverage of the real estate bubble had few peers. One clunky opening paragraph does not a career define.

Craig Silverman at the Poynter Institute wonders if the article's opening was meant as subtle, ironic commentary -- whether Streitfeld was mocking the notion that geeky men are responsible for all technological innovation. Silverman doesn't think so and neither do I. But even if so, it clearly didn't work.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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You're not wrong, but it's kind of ironic to read disparaging comments about "clickwhoring" in The Snitch. Misleading and/or sensationalist headlines, etc. are the bread and butter over here, even if you yourself are not particiatpating in those particular shenanigans.

Joel Bunker
Joel Bunker

So, who is this guy. He went off, about some idiot from NY pissing in what he believed to be his backyard and bowl of cornflakes. Lol.

Joel Drotta
Joel Drotta

I didn't read the article, so I can't comment. I read the article about the article, but the fact that there are articles about an article tells me this reporter from the NY Times really pissed some people off. Silicon Valley is hardly geeks ville, now if ever. Many New Yorker's get a sense of ego about themselves, they're supposedly the biggest, the best, the oldest, most visited by tourists, bla bla bla.

 Therefore, it be easy to take aim at the Bay Area, IF you actually knew what you were aiming at. If you're from here, you know that all Cities, Counties, Out-Liers around the San Francsico Bay are intra-connected. There is no gap, no space, dirt roads, only highly monied suburbs between San Francisco and San Jose. The across the bay is the East Bay, just as connected, with major freeways connecting from San Jose to Oak Land, and then there is of course the five or six bridges which connect us all, and we haven't even got to Marine or Wine Country yet. So, I'd suggest this guy from NY, check what and whom he's talking about, before he possibly sticks his foot in his mouth.

  As to the tech industry being dominated by males, maybe at one time, and maybe the old guard if there is one yet on such a new industry. However, I doubt women found it very interesting at first. Not that they're incapable, just not interested. I'll stop at about that point, as I have no facts, nor true examples I can point to other then the CEO's of these Silicon Giants, who are all pretty much self-made men, mostly being men currently. However, you better believe the rank and file corporate Officer's have plenty of women there. Women aren't stupid, and they see a billion dollar industry just like every one else does. So of course they're there.

   This may have been a one off comment, or a bad attempt at irony. I poke at the Bay Area, factual story.... Not so much. The first internet was developed by the Department of Defense, so army bases could talk to each other should phones and radios go down. Then their were academias whom wanted to share information with each other faster, and this all kind of happened at once or over a span of time. Ten to one, if there is sole "inventor" of the internet he or she would have no clue that he or she is the one that created the electronically interconnected sum total of all mankinds intelligence, thoughts, entertainments, and knowledge, and put it all at the finger tips of any one with a lap top and a decent connection.

       As to facts, I know there have been six internets thus far, which believe it or not had to and often have to get replaced as they run out of realestate if it were. IP addressess and so on, very kind of techy stuff, which the International Internet Association (What ever it's real name is), the self proclaimed kind of lose affiliation of internet big shots. The group is real, their power is not. They try to do good, but as it is with the internet people are going to do, invent, grow, and out manuever things and people that get in it's way. WHY? Because there's money to be made, and the internet is almost akin to the wild west of the 1800's. The Legislatures, are to old and self consumed with politicing to do any real good as far as legislation, so laws are slow to catch up. Finding some one able to grasp both legal and tech, to be of use to any one is nearly impossible. So. there you have it. Off topic as usual, but on topic as it pertains to my life. I am not getting paid for this, therefore I write about what I want to. Lol.

Joel Drotts 

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