Surfing like it’s 1997: Internet trends from a long-forgotten time

While researching for my Ph.D. I’am currently evaluating the origins of the Cyberwar and Information-war concepts. Thereby I stumble over many interesting books and articles from the early years of the Internet, in this case 1997. It is a book that describes „current“ trends in networking. Reading these trends 18 years later is quite interesting. I wanted so share some „current trends“ described in the article: Swett, C. (1997). The Role of the Internet in International Politics: Department of Defense Considerations. In R. L. Pfaltzgraff & R. H. Shultz (Eds.), War in the Information Age: New Challenges for U S Security (Association of the United States Army). Brassey’s UK Ltd.

First, it might be enlightening what the Internet is and how it is described: …… „network of networks,“ it integrates thousands of dissimilar computer systems worldwide through the application of uniform technical standards. Individuals connected to the Internet through desktop computers are able to exchange electronic mail (e-mail) with other users at any location; participate in discussion groups both on-line (in real-time) and off; log on to remote computer sites worldwide; read complex documents and view multimedia images of text, graphics, sound and video. (Sweet 1997, 280f). This description of Internet activity correlates with many other articles from that time. Remember, it was a pre-broadband era so video on the web was still exotic (youtube est. 2003). The social networks of that time where basically E-mail and various chat-rooms. So what where the current trends?

  • One important trend is the growth in the proportion of professionals with personal e-mail addresses on the Internet. Increasingly, business cards include not just phone and fax numbers, but Internet addresses. This trend is so strong that rather than considering an Internet address to be a luxury, comparable not having one is viewed as a handicap, comparable to not having Fax. Individuals and organizations without Internet access increasingly risk being left out of important discussions and processes taking place on-line. (282) Having, or not having, an E-mail address was THE thing back in the day, like business requiring a Facebook or linked-in page nowadays. Observe how Fax-machines are still relevant in the 1990s.
  • The next big trend having your own website: „The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs has just implemented a World Wide Web service containing news releases, daily summaries, press advisories, transcripts, and contracts.“(282)  In 1994, the White House got its first email-address and former prime Minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, was the originator of the first inter-head-of-state E-mail communication on February 4, 1994.
  • The threat to established mass media is observed, an effect that we can witness quite clearly in Germany right now, where right-wing political forces try to denounce the official media as ‘Lügenpresse‘ (lying press) and rather listen to alternative media channels and their peers in social networks, spreading right-wing propaganda: „The monopoly of the traditional mass media will erode. No longer will the news editors and anchors of newspapers and television networks solely determine what the mass audience learns and thinks about current events. The filtering of the news, currently performed by traditional media, will partially give way to direct consumption of un-analyzed information by the mass audience, diminishing the influence now enjoyed by the media.“ (295)
  • Another trend of the Internet’s early days is the utopian idea of electronic democracy, a theme that is seldom articulated nowadays. This trend, although never fully realized, seems to be over: „Some advocates of electronic democracy envision on-line elections and referendums, in which voters cast ballots from their homes, The ease of voting would presumably increase participation, making ballot referendums and polls more common and meaningful.“ (287)
  • This might have to do with a second projection that is articulated directly after the former quote: „Still others fear the potential for „big brother“ control of the political process, in which electronic information is used to manipulate constituents as well as inform them. In this view, detailed databases make the public vulnerable to sophisticated, well-targeted information campaigns“ (287). Although the early writers and thinkers on the Internet often are labeled cyber-utopians or cyber-idealists, they had a quite realistic vision of the threats to come.
  • Speaking of utopianism: „Numerous commentators and activists believe that the Internet will play a catalytic role in international affairs. Former U.S. presidential candidate John Anderson envisioned a „supra- national“ political era in which current conceptions of state sovereignty might become outmoded. He viewed the Internet as a potential global support network for the United Nations, an important source for measuring world public opinion, and a possible early-warning system for monitoring developing regional conflicts“ (290). The idea of the obsolescence of the national state was quite famous during 1996, when John Perry Barlow published his Declaration of Independence of CyberspaceHowever, John Anderson ran in the presidential campaign in 1980, quite before the (graphic) Internet gained momentum.
  • The author also mentions the responsibility of state governments to join Cyberspace: „Remaining out of the Internet will be seen as a strategic weakness, a sign of being behind the times. […] Increasing demands for public accountability will draw them into the Internet, beyond simply posting news releases and other documentation on-line.“ (296). Herein lies the idea that the Internet can make state conduct more transparent, a phenomenon that both democracies and authoritarian regimes have to struggle with.
  • „Text-oriented e-mail will be replaced by video/audio messages.“ (296). I’am not really sure about this one, considering the return of text, in form of WhatsApp and other messengers. However, the recent trend to record snippets of voice and sending it via a text messenger (combining the worst of both a phone-answering machine and a short text message) might indicate a turn to video. At the same time the author points to the importance of video in terms of political propaganda and envisions something like Youtube: „As a result, political groups will discover the propaganda potential of video on the Internet, and will produce and disseminate video clips supporting their point of view.“ (ibid. 297). Recent media campaigns by ISIS seem to prove this.
  • The author also envisions the effect of light footage from war-zones and the possibility of creating accountability for war crimes: „Current information about conflicts placed on the Internet in real time by on-the-scene observers and alternative news sources will be devoured voraciously by the world audience and will have an immediate and tangible impact on the course of events. Video footage of military operations will be captured by inexpensive, hand-held digital video cameras operated by local observers, transferred unedited into data files, and then uploaded into the global information flow, reaching millions of people in a matter of minutes.“ (298). This sounds pretty much like the Wikileaks ‘collateral murder‘ video.
  • He also envisions the current drag-net style surveillance operations: „Monitoring Internet traffic needs to be supported by automated filters that retain only messages satisfying certain relevance criteria. It is also important to note that the accuracy of much of the raw information on the Internet is suspect. Thus, new means of validating information received in this way are needed.“ (300).… However, if it became widely known that DOD were monitoring Internet traffic for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes, individuals with personal agendas or political purposes in mind, or who enjoy playing pranks, would deliberately enter false or misleading messages.
  • Another interesting topic is the offensive use of information campaigns over the Internet, for example by disrupting the communication of political adversaries or activist groups. „The United States might be able to employ the Internet offensively to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives. Information could be transmitted over the Internet to sympathetic groups operating in areas of concern, allowing them to conduct operations that the United States might otherwise have to send special forces to accomplish. Although such undertakings would have their own kinds of risks, they would reduce the physical risks to special forces personnel and limit the direct political involvement of the United States, since the actions would be carried out by indigenous groups“ (301).
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