Given the growing number of recent books that explore the Internet as a religious and spiritual terrain, such as Erik Davis’ Techgnosis, it should not be surprising that the rhetoric surrounding digital technologies has begun transforming into mythology. Even generally measured business publications like The Economist can be caught recounting the activities and ventures of scientists, technologists, and digital entrepreneurs in biblical, epic, and heroic terms.
For the professional historian, this is important ground. The digital technologies being developed, and their social, political, economic, and cultural impacts deserve wide and serious historical investigation. The new digital mythologies of the twenty- first century will also be an significant area of investigation in coming years. This exciting terrain is as dangerous for the historian, however, as it is important. In a period of hyperbole about the Internet Revolution, the attraction of writing the Great Internet Creation Myth can lure scholars like fragrant flowers draw bees in summer. This is one reason why Voltaire counseled that the historian should not pick up his pen until all his subjects were dead.
To write a balanced, analytically sophisticated account of the Internet’s history at a time when personal accounts and journalistic paeans fill the New York Times best sellers list, therefore, requires a historian dedicated to complexity, nuance, and equity. Janet Abbate deserves high praise for writing precisely such an account with her new book— Inventing the Internet. Abbate’s book is the most balanced, well-researched volume on the history of the Internet yet written, and it will be the touchstone work for sometime.