Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet
First Monday


Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet

Contents

Introduction
What Gore Said
Repetition Equals Reality
Who Invented What, and When Did They Invent It?
Al Gore Meets the Information Highway
Senator Gore's Activities
Gore Is Not Alone
Why This Matters

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Introduction

It has become an automatic laugh. Jay Leno, David Letterman, or any other comedic talent can crack a joke about Al Gore "inventing the Internet," and the audience is likely to respond with howls of laughter. Even Gore himself participates in the merriment: in a recent episode of Leno's Tonight Show, Vice President Al Gore was seen holding the cue cards. The joke? "Al Gore invented cue cards" - a clear reference to Gore's supposed claim about the invention of the Internet. In his September 26, 2000 town hall meeting held as part of MTV's "Choose or Lose" series before a group of students at the Media Union at the University of Michigan, Gore joked, "I invented the environment." The students erupted in laughter. Gore is at once the object and progenitor of the humor.

The commonly accepted wisdom is that Al Gore, prone to exaggerating his record, claimed at one point on national television that he "invented the Internet." Not only is this fodder for comedians' monologues, this widely accepted folklore may have materially affected the 2000 Presidential campaign:

  • Gore is seen by many pundits, and presumably by millions in the public at large, as a politician who makes up the facts to fit the desires of the audience. Given the putative "fact" that he claimed to have "invented the Internet," this tendency towards exaggeration apparently even extends to Gore's own resume. No one would hire a new employee who was known to have padded a resume; who would vote for a candidate for the presidency who had done the same?
  • Gore has been effectively estopped from engaging in serious discussion of Internet issues from the perspective of a politician who knew and cared about the evolution of the national information infrastructure. The 2000 Presidential campaign has been deprived of debate and discourse that could have been informative and beneficial to the Internet community and the citizenry at large.

One might see these consequences as the natural - and deserved - outcome of Gore's own exaggeration. There is only one problem with this evaluation. It simply isn't true. Just as Rick never said "Play it again, Sam," in Casablanca, Al Gore never claimed to have "invented the Internet." That simple fact apparently isn't important to the journalists and comedians who repeat the claim.

This article explores how the perception arose that Gore in essence padded his resume by claiming to have invented the Internet. We will then explore Gore's actual record, in particular as a U.S. Senator in the late 1980s, as an advocate for high-speed national networking. Finally we will examine this case as an example of the trivialization of discourse and debate in American politics.

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What Gore Said

Although Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet, he did discuss his role in Internet development in an interview with Wolf Blitzer of Cable News Network. The interview took place on March 9, 1999 during CNN's "Late Edition" show. Specifically, what Gore said was "I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

A cynic might observe that "creating the Internet" and "inventing the Internet" are tantamount to the same exaggeration. But let's look at the entire quote in the context of the colloquy with Blitzer. Here is Blitzer's entire query to Gore:

BLITZER: I want to get to some of the substance of domestic and international issues in a minute, but let's just wrap up a little bit of the politics right now.

Why should Democrats, looking at the Democratic nomination process, support you instead of Bill Bradley, a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?

Clearly, Blitzer is asking Gore to offer an explanation of how he differs as a politician from other politicians in general, and his rival at the time, Bill Bradley, in particular. Here is Gore's entire response to Blitzer's question:

GORE: Well, I will be offering - I'll be offering my vision when my campaign begins. And it will be comprehensive and sweeping. And I hope that it will be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.

But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

During a quarter century of public service, including most of it long before I came into my current job, I have worked to try to improve the quality of life in our country and in our world. And what I've seen during that experience is an emerging future that's very exciting, about which I'm very optimistic, and toward which I want to lead.

Here Gore appears to have been caught off guard a bit by the question, rambling a bit as he seeks to vocalize a responsive answer. He emphasizes his work during his years in the Congress - Gore served in the House and later the Senate - as well as his leadership on various issues. Perhaps not showing the most elegant variation in words, he mentions "initiative" three times. Clearly his overall message is that he worked hard on a number of issues, and took a leadership position relative to others - presumably including his rival Bradley. The overall thrust is that Gore paints himself as a forward-looking legislator and political leader.

The rest of the interview dealt with George Bush and Elizabeth Dole as potential rivals, with Clinton proposals for community policing, with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and with the notion of engagement with China. If Blitzer thought he had caught Gore in a gaffe, he did not take note of it during the interview.

But if Blitzer didn't notice (or try to exploit) the gaffe, the rest of the press had a field day. Articles and television coverage ridiculed Gore's statement. Most of these reports covered the issue rather lightly, and dismissing the veracity of Gore's remark with a superficial statement along the lines that "The Internet was invented in the late 1960s" or "The Internet was invented in 1969."

Of course, Internet history is not that easily characterized. Any news report that tries to summarize Internet history by dating its origin to the 1960s or the year 1969 is oversimplifying. Such a news report is as sloppy as the statement for which they take Gore to task. There were too many significant milestones in Internet history to allow for a sound-bite length description of that history.

Many reports linked Gore's misstatement with previous Gore gaffes. For instance, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times editorialized in its March 24, 1999 edition:

Gore's recent statement that as a member of Congress he had taken the initiative in "creating the Internet" drew hoots of laughter, especially from Republicans. Gore has long been a promoter of the Internet, but he didn't invent it. Trying to keep a straight face, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott quickly issued a news release claiming that he invented the paper clip. This was not the first time Gore has overreached. A year ago Gore told reporters that he and his wife, Tipper, at the time when they were college sweethearts, were the inspiration for the novel "Love Story." That came as news to the befuddled author, Erich Segal.

The editorialist saw the Internet statement as part of a pattern of hype, of Gore overstating his own accomplishments. Like Lott, other politicians saw Gore's statement as fodder for ridicule. Dan Quayle took up the bait, quoted as saying, "If Gore invented the Internet, then I invented Spell-Check."

The Arizona Republic noted in an editorial that "Gore has a way of morphing, Zelig-like into the lives of whomever he's addressing." The editorial showed Gore some mercy, however, continuing: "In fact, as the chairman of a key science subcommittee in 1986, Gore did foster the creation of five supercomputer centers through the National Science Foundation that became the cornerstone of the Internet."

The Republic was in the minority with this balanced reportage. Most other media outlets downplayed or omitted Gore's role as a Senator in supporting national networking initiatives, instead concentrating on the apparent gaffe. By this point, there was little hope of correcting the record in journalists' minds. And, as the Republic observed, "Alas, too late. Leno's already worked him into the monologue."

And indeed, Jay Leno and David Letterman had worked the story into their monologues - and other material. Letterman's "Top Ten List" for June 16, 1999, was entitled the "Top Ten Things Starr Has Found Out About Al Gore." Entry number 7 was:

Although he didn't invent the internet [sic], he did invent those annoying bits of punctuation that look like sideways faces :-)

By December the joke hadn't lost its appeal to Letterman and his writers. The December 3, 1999 Top Ten list demonstrates:

Top Ten Other Achievements Claimed By Al Gore

10. Was first human to grow an opposable thumb

9. Only man in world to sleep with someone named "Tipper"

8. Current Vice President - Moesha fan club

7. He invented the dog

6. While riding bicycle one day, accidentally invented the orgasm

5. Pulled U.S. out of early 90's recession by personally buying 6,000 T-shirts

4. Starred in CBS situation comedy with Juan Valdez, "Juan for Al, Al for Juan"

3. Was inspiration for Ozzy Osboune song "Crazy Train"

2. Came up with popular catchphrase "Don't go there, girlfriend"

1. Gave mankind fire

The public quickly chimed into the fray soon after the CNN interview, as well. Note, for instance, this letter from Lew Pritchett of Placentia, California printed on March 19, 1999 in the Los Angeles Times:

Up until Gore's announcement, all I knew of his inventions was global warming. And now, the Internet too? Wow, what a guy!

Even President Bill Clinton joined the frivolity, joking to the Gridiron Club a week after the CNN interview:

"Al Gore invented the Internet. For the record, I, too, am an inventor. I invented George Stephanopoulos."
(Source: Boston Globe, March 28, 1999.)

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Repetition Equals Reality

Once Leno and Letterman, pundits, and opposition politicians had worked up one-liners based on the false "invented the Internet" phrase, the stage was set for the phrase to become the permanent, common understanding of the public at large. Today's journalists are notorious for moving in packs, and the packs tended to quote the phrase without citation - and without checking the facts or the context. Months after the CNN interview, husband-and-wife columnists Steve & Cokie Roberts reported on a series of person-in-the-street exchanges. They noted in a January 2000 column:

When Gore does try to assert himself, it often backfires - witness his claim that he helped invent the Internet. "He sounded naive when he said that; he was just trying to make himself look good," says Mike, a telephone lineman. "I just don't trust him; he doesn't know his facts."

Mike, the telephone repairman, appears to believe that Gore simply made up a claim of inventing the Internet out of whole cloth - as if it were a random, wanton schoolyard boast. Millions of people may share Mike's superficial assessment. The phrase "Gore invented the Internet" has since been burned into the public consciousness. Exploiting the situation, the George W. Bush campaign has inserted the "issue" into the current Presidential campaign, with a female voice on a national television ad intoning, "If Al Gore invented the Internet, then I invented the remote control." A Republican-sponsored Web site, gorewillsayanything.com, expands on the theme.

Of course, Gore is a seasoned politician, noted for his caution - even woodenness - when he is under the lights. We expect such a politician to choose his words carefully. The question is whether journalists like Cokie & Steve Roberts should be held to an equally high standard in quoting the Vice President. After all, his remarks were made during a live-on-tape, informal interview. The Robertses were writing for their syndicated column, and presumably have plenty of resources at their disposal for fact checking - and good fact checking includes getting quotes down accurately. Unlike Gore in a live-on-tape interview, the Robertses also had plenty of real time to get their facts and phrasing completely accurate. Even opinion pieces ought to have their factual components rendered, well, factually. If telephone lineman Mike and millions of other citizens had heard the accurate quote of "I took the initiative in creating the Internet," and if they understood the statement in the context of Gore's actual legislative record, then they might have a very different impression of the Vice President.

The press, the politicians, the comedians, and the public all ended up with the same image of Gore as resume fabricator. But if we assess Gore's remarks in light of what he actually said, and examine his legislative record, we find that Gore is guilty of somewhat sloppy terminology, not a bold-faced lie.

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Who Invented What, and When Did They Invent It?

Although Gore never said that he "invented the Internet," he did say he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." Can that claim be substantiated? As we will see, Gore did indeed take an intellectual and legislative interest in promoting high-speed data networks in the United States, and he did this during the 1980s, at a time long before most members of the public - let alone most politicians - were thinking about such issues.

The Internet Society hosts a monograph called called "A Brief History of the Internet." (See http://www.isoc.org/internet-history/brief.html) The authors include some of the designers of the essential components of how the Internet works today: Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, and Stephen Wolff. The paper notes these key milestones in Internet history:

  • 1961: Leonard Kleinrock writes the first paper on packet switched networks.
  • 1962: J.C.R. Licklider of MIT writes a paper describing a globally connected "Galactic Network" of computers.
  • 1966: Larry Roberts proposes the ARPANET to the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
  • 1968: ARPA issues Request for Quotations for the Interface Message Processors (IMPs), which became the first routers.
  • 1969: First IMP is installed at UCLA.
  • Early 1970s: Universities and defense agencies and contractors begin to connect to ARPANET.
  • 1973: Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf begin research into what eventually becomes IP - the Internet Protocol and its companion, TCP - the Transmission Control Protocol.
  • 1973: Bob Metcalfe develops Ethernet, which had been the subject of his PhD thesis, while working at Xerox.
  • Early 1980s: The Personal Computer revolution begins.
  • Mid 1980s: Local Area Networks (LANs) begin to flourish in business and university environments. Campus area networks soon follow.
  • January 1, 1983: All "old-style" traffic on the ARPANET ceases, as TCP/IP becomes the only protocol used. [Arguably, this is the date of the birth of the Internet as a functioning, practical, production network.]
  • 1985: Dennis Jennings chooses TCP/IP as the protocol for the planned National Science Foundation Network (NSFnet).
  • 1988: NSF sponsors a series of workshops at Harvard on the commercialization and privatization of the Internet.
  • 1988: Kahn et al. write a paper "Towards a National Research Network." According to the Brief History, "This report was influential on then Senator Al Gore, and ushered in high speed networks that laid the networking foundation for the future information superhighway." [Emphasis added.]

Note that these authors of (and participants in) Internet history state clearly that as early as 1988, then-Senator Gore became involved in the goal of building a national research network. We'll examine his role in more detail later.

"The Brief History" by Cerf et al. details the key milestones in the development of the Internet infrastructure that were essential for the Internet to evolve into what we know and use today. They cite the conscious decision to transition the Internet from a primarily defense, research, and education network into a national network of networks incorporating private as well as commercial traffic.

More recent developments brought about the global Internet as we know it today. Before this infrastructure could be widely adopted, the world demanded applications programs that large numbers of end users could in fact use. By the early 1990s, most users of desktop computers were moving from line-mode interfaces (e.g. MS-DOS) to graphical user interfaces (MacOS, Windows, X-Window, etc.) At this time new applications programs transformed the Internet into a tool the masses could use:

  • 1991: Mark McCahill et al. (University of Minnesota) release the Internet Gopher, the first widely-adopted menu-based system for browsing and retrieving Internet-based documents.
  • 1991: Tim Berners-Lee et al. at the European Center for High-Energy Physics (CERN) describe the World Wide Web. The first browser is a line-mode tool.
  • March 1993: Mark Andreessen et al. at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois release Mosaic, the first widely-adopted graphical browser for the Web
  • September 1993: NCSA releases Macintosh and Windows versions of Mosaic.

Recent Internet history is well understood, with the commercialization of long-haul networks, of Internet access companies, the creation of the portal sites, and the rise of the dot-coms and of e-commerce.

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Al Gore Meets the Information Highway

We have seen that Internet history cannot be easily summarized; there is no one single moment of discovery or invention. Press reports that claim the "Internet was invented in 1969" simply are not accurate; the term "internet" had not yet been coined. The most accurate summary would avoid use of the word "invent" altogether, as the Internet is not a single technology or device. One might date the birth of the Internet to the 1970s, when Kahn and Cerf began research on the Internet Protocol, or the 1980s, when it came into widespread use. But as the timeline shows, the basic underlying ideas date back as far as the early 1960s.

Clearly, then, if we take Gore literally at his word, he could not have "taken the initiative in creating the Internet." As the ARPANET moved from research to deployment, Gore was finishing college and serving in the Army in Vietnam. From 1976 to 1985, Gore served in the House of Representatives. From 1985 to 1992, he served in the Senate. The record shows that his interest in national computer networking issues became acute during his years in the Senate - when the Internet clearly was fully in operation.

So let us grant to Gore's critics that he was in no position to "take the initiative in creating the Internet." But is it possible that Gore's declaration, chosen in real time during a live-on-tape interview, could be simply a poor choice of words - sloppy speaking on his part - and that a slightly different formulation might be quite reasonably interpreted as totally accurate?

While the "Brief History" timeline gives us a good understanding of the milestones in creating today's Internet, some perspective is required. The mid-1980s until the early 1990s were the years when the Internet's potential was proven, primarily in the realm of university activity. But during this time, very few people in the public at large observed or understood the importance of what was evolving. During the late 1980s, Internet activity exploded, driven in large part by the National Science Foundation's NSFnet. This national backbone connected universities at then-high speeds (first 56 kilobits per second, then 1.5 megabits per second, and finally in the early 1990s at 45 megabits per second).

A primary goal of the NSFnet was to allow university-based scientists, located at a geographically dispersed range of institutions (both domestically and internationally) to exploit the resources of five supercomputer centers, also funded by the NSF and located at U.S. universities and national labs. The fact that TCP/IP was selected for this network in 1985 is probably one of the most unheralded milestones in Internet history. It might have been different; a different choice of protocol standard, such as X.25, DECnet, or even IBM's System Network Architecture, might have been selected. Had that happened, the NSFnet would not have played the important role it did in cementing TCP/IP in particular, and the Internet in general, as the appropriate choice for a global information infrastructure. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NSFnet exposed ever-growing audiences on university campuses to the potential for ubiquitous wide-area networking.

All of this remained by and large unknown to the general public until the explosion of the Web beginning late in 1993. The media took little note of the Web revolution until 1994 and later. Just as Isaac Newton explained that he "stood on the shoulders of giants," the primary inventor of the Web, Tim-Berners Lee, acknowledges "the Web revolution depended on a much quieter revolution - the Internet revolution." (Source: interview with Berners-Lee, 1995.)

In terms of the Internet's effects on people and on commerce, then, the real revolution took place in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Now let's examine Al Gore's legislative record during that time period and see what role he might have played.

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Senator Gore's Activities

An examination of floor speeches, hearings, and other activity by then-Senator Gore shows an active interest in a broad range of topics. A search of the Congressional Information Service database reveals examples such as:

  • A 1983 proposal to build a national computer-based registry of organ donors and those in need of transplants.
  • Legislation in 1987 to mandate copy protection mechanisms for Digital Audio Tape [ironic given the much greater copying problem introduced years later by the Internet and by Napster].
  • A 1989 bill, unenacted, "to amend the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978 to protect the environment of Antarctica."
  • A 1989 resolution, not passed, to "designate the month of May 1989 as National Digestive Disease Awareness Month."
  • A 1989 resolution, not passed, to "urge Noble Commission to consider awarding Nobel Prize recognition for achievements in preservation of the world environment."
  • A proposed resolution in 1990 calling on the government of Malaysia to preserve tropical rainforests.
  • Proposed 1992 legislation, not enacted, that would "stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide to protect the global climate, and for other purposes."
  • Various bills over the years supporting funding for NASA.
  • A resolution to establish the month of October 1989, as Country Music Month (not enacted).

Clearly Gore's legislative activity reflects a broad range of interests. Not surprisingly, much of his activity centered on the environment. Like any member of Congress, much of the legislation he proposed was not enacted, no matter the issue or the merits.

But it is Gore's activity with respect to the Internet that interests us. His legislative activity demonstrates his interest and involvement in issues relating to computing and networking; for instance, he co-sponsored the Computer Abuse Amendments Act of 1990, to complement the Computer Security and Fraud Act of 1989, which had been used to prosecute Robert Morris, Jr., the author of the Internet Worm (one of the first widespread viruses).

Gore's support for national computer networking initiatives came in a very different milieu in terms of science funding than one might perceive in the year 2000. In the 1980s, the United States was worried about its competitive position internationally, specifically with respect to Japan, Europe, and Soviet Union. Topics included:

  • Superconducting magnets (e.g. how to build "mag lev" trains).
  • What nation would make breakthroughs in particle physics (and whether to build a superconducting supercollider).
  • The prospective loss of U.S. dominance in the semiconductor industry.
  • Basic issues of how science and technology could support a national industrial policy.

While consistently supported funding for agencies involved in science and technology, such as the National Science Foundation and for NASA, Gore also began to give speeches and hold hearings in support of high-performance computing and networking. In 1987, for instance, Gore spoke on the floor in support of research into superconducting supercomputers:

Mr. President, I rise to discuss the subject of superconductivity and to make my colleagues aware of dramatic new developments which have been disclosed in the news media and which have been taking place in the field of science during the last 6 weeks. Last week in New York City, there was an unprecedented conference which was described by participants as unlike anything the field of science had ever seen before. A series of rapid-fire dramatic new discoveries in the science of superconductivity, which means the creation of materials which conduct electricity with no resistance whatsoever, promise to open up tremendous new applications in fields from electricity transmission to high-speed rail transit to the construction of appliances and the like. We must have a national response to this new opportunity.

It's a safe bet that very few members of Congress at the time would have felt the urge to make this kind of speech. Many may have felt little desire to listen to it, either. The point, however, is clear: Gore took an active interest in promoting the United States position in science and technology. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Gore held hearings on these issues. During a 1989 hearing colloquy with Dr. Craig Fields of ARPA and Dr. William Wulf of NSF, Gore solicited information about what constituted a high-speed network and where technology was headed. He asked how much sooner NSFnet speed could be enhanced 30-fold if more Federal funding was provided. During this hearing, Gore made fun of himself during an exchange about high-speed networking speeds: "That's all right. I think of my [1988] presidential campaign as a gigaflop." [The witness had explained that "gigaflop" referred to one billion floating point operations per second.]

But Gore's interest and support for U.S. high-speed networking begins much earlier than 1989. As early as 1986, Gore called for, in the context of funding for the NSF, support for basic research in computer networking:

Mr. President, it gives me great pleasure to support the proposed National Science Foundation Authorization Act.

MR. PRESIDENT, IT GIVES ME GREAT PLEASURE TO SUPPORT THE PROPOSED NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION AUTHORIZATION ACT.

WITHIN THIS BILL I HAVE TWO AMENDMENTS, THE COMPUTER NETWORK STUDY AND THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT REPORT. THE FIRST AMENDMENT WAS ORIGINALLY INTRODUCED WITH SENATOR GORTON AS S. 2594. IT CALLS FOR A 2-YEAR STUDY OF THE CRITICAL PROBLEMS AND CURRENT AND FUTURE OPTIONS REGARDING COMMUNICATIONS NETWORKS FOR RESEARCH COMPUTERS. THE SECOND AMENDMENT REQUIRES THE PRESIDENT TO SUBMIT A REPORT TO CONGRESS ON THE ACTIONS TAKEN TO ESTABLISH AN INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT.

BOTH OF THESE AMENDMENTS SEEK NEW INFORMATION ON CRITICAL PROBLEMS OF TODAY. THE COMPUTER NETWORK STUDY ACT IS DESIGNED TO ANSWER CRITICAL QUESTIONS ON THE NEEDS OF COMPUTER TELECOMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS OVER THE NEXT 15 YEARS. FOR EXAMPLE, WHAT ARE THE FUTURE REQUIREMENTS FOR COMPUTERS IN TERMS OF QUANTITY AND QUALITY OF DATA TRANSMISSION, DATA SECURITY, AND SOFTWEAR [sic] COMPATIBILITY? WHAT EQUIPMENT MUST BE DEVELOPED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE HIGH TRANSMISSION RATES OFFERED BY FIBER OPTIC SYSTEMS?

BOTH SYSTEMS DESIGNED TO HANDLE THE SPECIAL NEEDS OF SUPERCOMPUTERS AND SYSTEMS DESIGNED TO MEET THE NEEDS OF SMALLER RESEARCH COMPUTERS WILL BE EVALUATED. THE EMPHASIS IS ON RESEARCH COMPUTERS, BUT THE USERS OF ALL COMPUTERS WILL BENEFIT FROM THIS STUDY. TODAY, WE CAN BANK BY COMPUTER, SHOP BY COMPUTER, AND SEND LETTERS BY COMPUTER. ONLY A FEW COMPANIES AND INDIVIDUALS USE THESE SERVICES, BUT THE NUMBER IS GROWING AND EXISTING CAPABILITIES ARE LIMITED.

IN ORDER TO COPE WITH THE EXPLOSION OF COMPUTER USE IN THE COUNTRY, WE MUST LOOK TO NEW WAYS TO ADVANCE THE STATE-OF-THE-ART IN TELECOMMUNICATIONS -- NEW WAYS TO INCREASE THE SPEED AND QUALITY OF THE DATA TRANSMISSION. WITHOUT THESE IMPROVEMENTS, THE TELECOMMUNICATION NETWORKS FACE DATA BOTTLENECKS LIKE THOSE WE FACE EVERY DAY ON OUR CROWDED HIGHWAYS.

THE PRIVATE SECTOR IS ALREADY AWARE OF THE NEED TO EVALUATE AND ADOPT NEW TECHNOLOGIES. ONE PROMISING TECHNOLOGY IS THE DEVELOPMENT OF FIBER OPTIC SYSTEMS FOR VOICE AND DATA TRANSMISSION. EVENTUALLY WE WILL SEE A SYSTEM OF FIBER OPTIC SYSTEMS BEING INSTALLED NATIONWIDE.

AMERICA'S HIGHWAYS TRANSPORT PEOPLE AND MATERIALS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. FEDERAL FREEWAYS CONNECT WITH STATE HIGHWAYS WHICH CONNECT IN TURN WITH COUNTY ROADS AND CITY STREETS. TO TRANSPORT DATA AND IDEAS, WE WILL NEED A TELECOMMUNICATIONS HIGHWAY CONNECTING USERS COAST TO COAST, STATE TO STATE, CITY TO CITY. THE STUDY REQUIRED IN THIS AMENDMENT WILL IDENTIFY THE PROBLEMS AND OPPORTUNITIES THE NATION WILL FACE IN ESTABLISHING THAT HIGHWAY.
[Upper case shown, indicating a contemporaneous insertion into the Congressional Record at the time of corresponding floor debate.]

That Gore wrote about a national "data highway" as far back as 1986 is extremely significant. It is important to make clear the context of the state of computing at that time. The IBM PC was only four years old. The Apple II computer was still in widespread use. The number of hosts on the Internet numbered, as counted by Mark Lottor's Internet Domain Survey, was 5,089. Entire universities (such as Michigan State University) made their initial connection to the Internet in 1986. In order for Gore to make this kind of speech in 1986, he had to have been conversant with the thinking of computer scientists and Internet pioneers. Such pioneers included such as Vint Cerf, Steven Wolf, and Larry Smarr - then director of the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois (NCSA), where Mosaic would be born some seven years later.

In 1988, Gore argued for the creation of a high-capacity national data network:

THIS LEGISLATION TAKES THE FIRST CRITICAL STEPS TO ADDRESS THOROUGHLY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S ROLE IN PROMOTING HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTING. OVER THE NEXT SEVERAL MONTHS, WE CAN REFINE THIS LEGISLATION. BUT WE MUST ACT. THE UNITED STATES HAS MAYBE A 1-YEAR LEAD OVER OUR CLOSEST COMPETITORS IN THE HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTING FIELD. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO HESITATE IN CRAFTING A BLUEPRINT TO ENSURE THAT LEAD FOR THE [*S16898] NEXT DOZEN YEARS OF THIS CENTURY AND TO POSITION OURSELVES FOR THE NEXT CENTURY. REPRESENTATIVES FROM INDUSTRY, ACADEMIA, AND FEDERAL AGENCIES SHOULD DISCUSS WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, USING THIS BILL AS A FRAMEWORK FOR ACTION.

THE NATIONAL HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY ACT OF 1988 WOULD EXPAND AND IMPROVE FEDERAL SUPPORT FOR RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT AND THE APPLICATION OF HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY. SPECIFICALLY, THIS ACT WOULD ESTABLISH A HIGH-CAPACITY NATIONAL RESEARCH COMPUTER NETWORK, DEVELOP AND DISTRIBUTE SOFTWARE, DEVELOP ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE PROGRAMS, STIMULATE THE DEVELOPMENT OF HARDWARE, AND INVEST IN BASIC RESEARCH AND EDUCATION.

THE ACT WOULD DEFINE THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S ROLE IN HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTING. THE ACT WOULD PROVIDE FOR A 3-GIGABIT-PER-SECOND NATIONAL NETWORK, DEVELOP FEDERAL STANDARDS, TAKE INTO ACCOUNT USER VIEWS, EXAMINE TELECOMMUNICATIONS POLICY, BUILD AN INFORMATION INFRASTRUCTURE COMPOSED OF DATA BASES AND KNOWLEDGE BANKS, CREATE A NATIONAL SOFTWARE CORPORATION TO DEVELOP IMPORTANT SOFTWARE PROGRAMS, ESTABLISH A CLEARINGHOUSE TO VALIDATE AND DISTRIBUTE SOFTWARE, PROMOTE ARTICIFIAL INTELLIGENCE DATA BASES, INCREASE RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS, STUDY EXPORT CONTROLS AFFECTING COMPUTERS, REVIEW PROCUREMENT POLICIES TO STIMULATE THE COMPUTER INDUSTRY, AND ENHANCE COMPUTER SCIENCE EDUCATION PROGRAMS. IT ALSO CLEARLY DEFINES AGENCY MISSIONS AND RESPONSIBILITIES WITH RESPECT TO HIGH-PERFORMANCE COMPUTING.

Gore made explicit the need for high-speed networking, specifically a 3-gigabit per second national network. In 1989 floor debate Gore continued his support for federally funded research in high-performance computing and networking. His words presage the Internet as we know it today:

Well, we could do more and we should be doing more. I'd take a slightly different view of this question. I agree totally with those who say, education is the key to it. But I genuinely believe that the creation of this nationwide network and the broader installation of lower capacity fiber optic cables to all parts of this country, will create an environment where work stations are common in homes and even small businesses with access to supercomputing capability being very, very widespread. It's sort of like, once the interstate highway system existed, then a college student in California who lived in North Carolina would be more likely to buy a car, drive back and forth instead of taking the bus. Once that network for supercomputing is in place, you're going to have a lot more people gaining access to the capability, developing an interest in it. That will lead to more people getting training and more purchases of machines.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the term "information superhighway" became a sort of mantra in Gore's speeches. Some observers, in fact, credit Gore with coining that very term. Actually, for Senator Gore to seek to build a national data network analogous to the interstate highway system should not surprise us; his father, Al Gore Sr., as a senator in the 1950s was a major proponent of the creation of the Interstate Highway System, modeled after the German autobahns. No doubt Gore Jr. was inspired by the model and metaphor of his father's efforts. Gore Jr.'s remarks in 1989 reflect this throwback to Gore pere's earlier role:

THREE YEARS AGO, ON THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM, I SPONSORED THE SUPERCOMPUTER NETWORK STUDY ACT TO EXPLORE A FIBER OPTIC NETWORK TO LINK THE NATION'S SUPERCOMPUTERS INTO ONE SYSTEM. HIGH-CAPACITY FIBER OPTIC NETWORKS WILL BE THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAYS OF TOMORROW. A NATIONAL NETWORK WITH ASSOCIATED SUPERCOMPUTERS AND DATA BASES WILL LINK ACADEMIC RESEARCHERS AND INDUSTRY IN A NATIONAL COLABORATORY. THIS INFORMATION INFRASTRUCTURE WILL CLUSTER RESEARCH CENTERS AND BUSINESSES AROUND NETWORK INTERCHANGES, USING THE NATION'S VAST DATA BANKS AS THE BUILDING BLOCKS FOR INCREASING INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTIVITY, CREATING NEW PRODUCTS, AND IMPROVING ACCESS TO EDUCATION. LIBRARIES, RURAL SCHOOLS, MINORITY INSTITUTIONS, AND VOCATIONAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS WILL HAVE ACCESS TO THE SAME NATIONAL RESOURCES -- DATA BASES, SUPERCOMPUTERS, ACCELERATORS -- AS MORE AFFLUENT AND BETTER KNOWN INSTITUTIONS.

CAN WE RELY ON THE MARKET SYSTEM TO PROVIDE THIS KIND OF INFRASTRUCTURE? WE CERTAINLY COULDN'T WHERE THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM WAS CONCERNED, ALTHOUGH PRIVATE INDUSTRY ULTIMATELY BENEFITED A GREAT DEAL FROM THE GOVERNMENT'S LEADERSHIP AND INVESTMENT. I BELIEVE THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT MUST AGAIN BE A CATALYST, TO GET COMPANIES INTERESTED IN THOSE INFORMATION NETWORKS AND SHOW THEM THAT THERE IS A MARKET OUT THERE. CLEARLY, THE TECHNOLOGICAL SPINOFFS AND PRODUCTIVITY GAINS WOULD BE ENORMOUS, FROM A NETWORK THAT WOULD COST THE GOVERNMENT LESS THAN ONE STEALTH BOMBER.

Although the press took relatively little note of Gore's speeches, hearings, and proposed legislation on national networking, some coverage did appear. John Markoff wrote for the December 29, 1988 edition of the New York Times:

Computer scientists and Government officials are urging the creation of a nationwide "data superhighway" that they believe would have a dramatic economic impact, rivaling that of the nation's interstate highway system.

This highway would consist of a high-speed fiber-optic data network joining dozens of supercomputers at national laboratories and making them available to thousands of academic and industry researchers around the country ...

Legislation introduced in October by Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, included initial financing for development and construction of a National Research Network. Backers of the measure say that Federal financing for the project is necessary to develop the technology and convince industry that vastly speedier computer networks are commercially viable.

Gore's efforts in the mid to late 1980s to promote national networking initiatives eventually paid off, when the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 was passed by both houses of Congress. The Houston Chronicle ran an article under the headline "Data superhighway' for nation's computers approved by Congress" on November 30, 1991, crediting Gore's role:

A plan to create a high-tech "data superhighway" likened in importance to the creation of the nation's highway system has been approved by Congress and sent to President Bush for his signature.

The plan would create a high-speed national computer networking infrastructure that would link computers in the nation's research, education and military establishments.

Proponents say that this network eventually will evolve into a universally available National Public Telecomputing Network that may be the successor to the telephone system, marrying the entertainment, communications and computer industries.

The High-Performance Computing Act of 1991, which contains the plan, was approved by a House-Senate conference committee over the weekend after being stalled for several weeks because of disagreement over a "buy American first" provision.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Albert Gore, D-Tenn., does not provide funding for the effort. Budget allocations and appropriations must be made individually during each year of the program.

No less an authority than Vint Cerf, inventor of the Internet Protocol, has gone on record confirming Gore's role in U.S. Internet development. On June 14, 2000, Time Magazine hosted a live Internet forum with Cerf. The (anonymous) moderator joined his journalistic wisecrackers by invoking Gore's Internet inventor "claim." Cerf abstained from the frivolity:

Timehost: Welcome to the TIME auditorium. We're thrilled to have as our guest Vinton Cerf, one of the inventors of the Internet. Mr. Cerf has just written an article for TIME magazine, in which he says that the Internet will be everywhere. Even, literally, in our bodies! So send in your questions about the past, present and future of the Internet. Who better to answer those questions than the man who invented the Internet? (Sorry, Al Gore)

Timehost: Mr. Cerf is now with us. Welcome!

Vinton Cerf: Good evening, or whatever time zone you are in, hi!! While we're waiting for questions, I'd like to clear up one little item - about the Vice President ... He really does deserve some credit for his early recognition of the importance of the Internet and the technology that makes it work. He was certainly among the first if not the first in Congress to realize how powerful the information revolution would be and both as Senator and Vice President he has been enormously helpful in supporting legislation and programs to help further develop the Internet - for example the Next Generation Internet program. I get to see a lot of this stuff because I am a member of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee and we regularly review the R&D programs of the US Government and many have relevance to the evolving Internet.

On September 28, 2000, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf released a statement to key Internet mailing lists stating their unequivocal belief that Gore played an important role during his congressional years in supporting the Internet:

I am taking the liberty of sending to you both a brief summary of Al Gore's Internet involvement, prepared by Bob Kahn and me. As you know, there have been a seemingly unending series of jokes chiding the vice president for his assertion that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet."

Bob and I believe that the vice president deserves significant credit for his early recognition of the importance of what has become the Internet.

I thought you might find this short summary of sufficient interest to share it with Politech and the IP lists, respectively.

==============================================================

Al Gore and the Internet

By Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf

Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development.

No one person or even small group of persons exclusively "invented" the Internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore's contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.

Last year the Vice President made a straightforward statement on his role. He said: "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet." We don't think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he "invented" the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator, Gore's initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening. We feel it is timely to offer our perspective.

As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship. Though easily forgotten, now, at the time this was an unproven and controversial concept. Our work on the Internet started in 1973 and was based on even earlier work that took place in the mid-late 1960s. But the Internet, as we know it today, was not deployed until 1983. When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication. As an example, he sponsored hearings on how advanced technologies might be put to use in areas like coordinating the response of government agencies to natural disasters and other crises.

As a Senator in the 1980s Gore urged government agencies to consolidate what at the time were several dozen different and unconnected networks into an "Interagency Network." Working in a bi-partisan manner with officials in Ronald Reagan and George Bush's administrations, Gore secured the passage of the High Performance Computing and Communications Act in 1991. This "Gore Act" supported the National Research and Education Network (NREN) initiative that became one of the major vehicles for the spread of the Internet beyond the field of computer science.

As Vice President Gore promoted building the Internet both up and out, as well as releasing the Internet from the control of the government agencies that spawned it. He served as the major administration proponent for continued investment in advanced computing and networking and private sector initiatives such as Net Day. He was and is a strong proponent of extending access to the network to schools and libraries. Today, approximately 95% of our nation's schools are on the Internet. Gore provided much-needed political support for the speedy privatization of the Internet when the time arrived for it to become a commercially-driven operation.

There are many factors that have contributed to the Internet's rapid growth since the later 1980s, not the least of which has been political support for its privatization and continued support for research in advanced networking technology. No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President. Gore has been a clear champion of this effort, both in the councils of government and with the public at large.

The Vice President deserves credit for his early recognition of high speed computing and communication and for his long-term and consistent articulation of the potential value of the Internet to American citizens and industry and, indeed, to the rest of the world.

++++++++++

Gore Is Not Alone

Unfortunately, our penchant for drawing deep conclusions about the character of national leaders based on a spontaneous, in-the-moment, reaction, later oft-repeated but seldom presented in context, is not limited to Mr. Gore. In 1992, President Bush visited a trade show where state-of-the-art grocery store equipment was being demonstrated. The pool reporter assigned to cover the event, Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times, wrote a short article describing Bush's astonishment at the technology of a grocery scanner. Rosenthal's resulting piece portrayed Bush as being surprised at supermarket UPC bar code scanning technology, which was old hat by 1992 and quite familiar to the voting public.

Once the story was out, the die was cast: as far as casual commentators and the general public were concerned, George Bush was a patrician President out of touch with the lives of everyday Americans. At that time, and since that time, Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, has protested vehemently that Rosenthal completely misinterpreted the situation - that Bush had long since known what a grocery store UPC scanner was, but that he was merely politely acknowledging the sales pitch of an NCR official. On November 5, 1995, Fitzwater detailed his complaint on C-Span's "Booknotes" program:

FITZWATER: Well, President Bush during the 1992 campaign went to a convention in Florida of grocery manufacturers, and before the speech, he was being shown some demonstrations and displays, and he walked up to a new checkout scanner that was being displayed by National Cash Register Company, and the fellow who was at the cash register says, "This is our latest thing. This can do everything but slice bread, and it reads credit cards, and does billing, and everything." And that fellow - the cash register guy - said, "That's amazing!" And President Bush, to be gracious, said, "Yes, it is amazing." And we just kind of withdrew away. Nobody paid much attention to it. And then later on, when the President was asked about the technology, he said, "I saw some amazing technology on the cash register." And Andy wrote up the story as if the President was so out of touch with American life that he'd never seen a cash register - a supermarket scanner - before. And it was one of those kind of tragic situations where we could never catch up with the story.

And it painted the President as being out of touch, and I think it was also interesting that - you know, in a sense, it touched on a truth - which is why this story had so many legs - in that we were out of touch on the economy. We really didn't know where the American people were hurting and how they were reacting to economic problems at that time. The problem was the President wasn't awed by this scanner. It wasn't really true. He hadn't expressed his amazement over something he had never seen before, and it wasn't a case that he'd never been in a grocery store before. So it was a case of where the story that Andy wrote - which was from a pool reporter, really - was not true or accurate in the sense of what the President did.

Note Fitzwater's point: that "we never could catch up to the story." Once the punditry and the comediocracy have latched onto a theme, it is impossible for facts to intercede.

If Fitzwater has his facts straight, the supermarket scanner story is quite similar to Gore's situation: through distortion of the candidate's statement, and repetition and magnification of the distortion, the public's judgment of the candidate is materially affected. In both cases, it is unfair to the candidate to be judged on the basis of an off-the-cuff comment, misquoted, misinterpreted, and magnified through repetition and ridicule by those who neither know nor care what was said - or the context in which it was said. The entire process is also a disservice to the Republic.

William Safire, writing in his political column for the New York Times on September 14, 2000, derided the "snickering campaign" - the modern phenomenon whereby Saturday Night Live transformed Gerald Ford into a bumbling fool thanks to repetitive Chevy Chase routines and George W. Bush is painted as illiterate due to the repeated ridicule of his mispronunciation of "subliminal."

++++++++++

Why This Matters

Any fair review of the legislative record makes it clear that Senator Gore was an early and forceful advocate for high-speed national networks, and that he understood how this vision could lead to widespread benefits for the citizenry and for commerce in the United States.

No doubt that record is what he sought to convey in his answer to Blitzer. If Al Gore had chosen a slightly different formulation for his extemporaneous statement, none of this discussion would have ensued. For instance, this statement might have avoided the repetition and ridicule:

While I was serving in the Senate, I took the initiative in supporting the basic research necessary to create the Internet as we know it today.

But Gore - and the nation - are stuck with the words he chose and the reaction that followed. Gore's slight misstatement, and its subsequent magnification, distortion, and frequent repetition, stymie Gore in any attempt he might want to make to use his record on Internet issues during the current campaign. He simply can't raise the subject in a serious way. He is reduced to joining in the joking himself. This citizenry is thus deprived of any serious discourse in the 2000 Presidential campaign relating to Internet issues. In point of fact, serious issues remain as to the proper role of government and the Internet. These include:

  • Internet taxation: Is the moratorium on Internet taxation justified? George W. Bush, as a sitting governor, might have an interesting perspective on this issue, given the importance of sales taxes to most states' budgets.
  • Media and distribution amalgamation: is the AOL/Time-Warner merger (and others sure to follow) a threat to free and equal access to Internet content?
  • Pornography and filtering: how can the nation provide the control parents seek over access to erotic content in a way that does not offend the First Amendment or children's need to access medical and scientific content?
  • The role of government in fostering continued United States leadership in Internet and information technologies: The Internet was the fruit of United States government investment, by ARPA, the NSF, and other agencies. At this point in Internet history, what role remains for government investment in Internet research?
  • The "digital divide." Is it the responsibility of government to assure a minimum level of basic access to the Internet for all citizens? How much money should be budgeted for this effort? Is the "E-rate" the correct mechanism for achieving universal access?
  • Civil liberties: How can law enforcement be given the access to evidence it needs to apprehend and prosecute criminals in a way that does not threaten basic constitutional rights? Is the FBI "Carnivore" program justified?
  • E-government: how can government transform itself into a provider of services as efficient as an Amazon.com?

One could imagine an entire Presidential debate dealing with these issues, along with the broader subject of the role of government in the information age. Alas, this is not to be. If the Internet is raised as a topic in any of the debates during this campaign, it is likely to be a prepared zinger that Bush unleashes - perhaps to deflect attention from one of his own shortcomings. If this happens, once again the easy laugh will triumph over serious discourse.

Too many media personalities share a yen for the cheap laugh; too many Jay Lenos and Tony Snows and Cokie & Steve Robertses have the microphone. These comedians and pundits will choose the easy laugh or the facile debating point every time - even if it cheapens the discourse of the political campaign. For them, the goal is the laugh or the superficial - even infantile - theme for a television bit or a syndicated print piece. Their goal is not illuminating the issues of the day, or the candidates' thinking about those issues; the goal is elevating the comedian or journalist by ridiculing the candidate. Over time, the cumulative effect of all the Gore Internet jokes is a diminution of the quality of real debate in the real campaign.

The public at large is also not innocent in this process. Too many voters are satisfied with sound bite character assessment - and sound bite character assassination. Citizens should demand more of their journalists - and more of themselves - in assessing those who would lead the country. Wolf Blitzer himself reports an ironic twist in the superficial manner in which media portrayals define a candidate: his own daughter told him, "I'm gonna vote for Gore ... Because he was cool on the Tonight Show." Wolf Blitzer concludes: "There's no doubt that all of this comedy has an impact. Elections are won and lost on public perception in that kind of popular culture." Leno giveth, and Leno taketh away. (Source: "The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy," by Marshall Sella, the New York Times Magazine, September 24, 2000. [This article analyzes the interplay of politics and late-night comedy. Sella concludes that due to the liberal bias of comedians and comedy writers, the ultimate effect of the genre obtains to the benefit of liberal candidates. Such analysis is beyond the scope of this article.])

From all evidence, Jay Leno is a decent person - a truly nice guy, who, based on his "Jay Walking" segments, is pained by the sorry state of basic knowledge exhibited by the average person on the street in this country. Far be it from me to suggest that Jay Leno is unpatriotic, but every time he repeats a Gore Internet joke, he is dumbing down the Presidential campaign one more notch. Does the nation really want Jay Leno and his comrades to define the level of political discourse in the United States? In the spirit of fairness, don't the candidates deserve better? In the spirit of democracy, doesn't the nation deserve better?End of article

About the Author

Richard Wiggins is an author and speaker specializing in Internet topics. He has presented at numerous conferences nationally and internationally. Wiggins co-hosts a television program, North Coast Digital. He discusses computers and Internet topics monthly on WKAR-AM / wkar.org, National Public Radio for mid-Michigan. He is writing a book, A Guide to the Literature of the Internet (Libraries Unlimited, forthcoming). Wiggins currently serves as a senior information technologist in the Computer Laboratory at Michigan State University.
E-mail: wiggins@mail.com
Web: www.netfact.com/rww


Editorial history

Paper received 30 September 2000; accepted 30 September 2000; revision received 1 October 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet by Richard Wiggins
First Monday, volume 5, number 10 (October 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_10/wiggins/index.html





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