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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

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

Posted By on Tue, Jun 5, 2012 at 10:06 AM

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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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Dan Mitchell

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