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Paul Ceruzzi’s Internet Alley November 3, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Not too long after I arrived in Washington, DC for my post-doc at AIP, I gave a talk on some of my work on operations research and systems analysis at the National Air and Space Museum.  Afterward NASM curator Paul Ceruzzi (who is, by the way, the primary contributor to the IT History Society blog) told me about the role that these fields took in his book Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005 (MIT Press, 2008).

Tysons Corner is an area in the Virginia suburbs just outside of Washington.  While I worked at AIP, I lived in the city and commuted out to Maryland on the DC Metro.  Nevertheless, I did cross the Potomac River into Virginia from time to time, and, when I went to Dulles Airport or the Leesburg outlet mall, I traveled through the region that is the subject of this book.

On the surface, the place is a typical stretch of the American suburbia that can be found in most metropolitan regions: highway, surrounded by housing subdivisions, chain stores in strip malls, and unremarkable office buildings.  Ceruzzi is a longer-term resident of DC, and, in the opening to his prologue, he describes how this same scene captured his curiosity:

Many of the buildings had the names of their tenants displayed in bold lettering on the top floor.  Some names suggested high technologies: names ending in ‘-tronics,’ ‘-ex,’ or the like.  Others consisted of three-letter acronyms, few of which I recognized.  As I drove by, all I could think of was the famous line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: ‘Who are those guys’?

This question, really, is the essence of “positive portraiture”, giving the development of knowledge about the past priority over interpretation of the past.  As a regional study, Ceruzzi’s book has no particular topic aside from identifying a clear phenomenon — the presence of these buildings — and then studying the confluence of various contexts, which can explain that phenomenon. In this task, the book is successful, although a tad disorganized in the execution.  The chapters run roughly chronologically, but each seems to be neither about a particular period, or a particular topic or theme.  Discussions of the military contracting industry, which could span the 1960s to the 1980s, suddenly return to the 1960s to discuss the politics of land development, before returning to some other aspect of military contracting, or perhaps a discussion of transportation planning or the Tysons Galleria mall.

However, I like very much Ceruzzi’s treatments of these heterogeneous topics as all being as important in explaining the central phenomenon.  It’s nice, for instance, to see land developers treated as historical individuals with their own thinking and strategies.  While it is not always easy to keep track of all the specifics on account of the organizational hurdles, if you bring a notepad and pen, you are likely to learn a lot.

For my part, I learned a great deal in one of my own areas of interest: military policy analysis.  The key reason Ceruzzi told me about his book in the first place is because the Research Analysis Corporation (the successor organization to the Johns Hopkins University Army Operations Research Office, 1948-1961) was one of the first organizations to move to the area.

After about 1960, the world of military policy analysis starts to get conceptually murky, as policy analysis intersects and blends in with all kinds of contract analysis, research, and development work.  Effectively, it becomes part of what I call the historiographical “20th-century problem”, wherein a whole host of organizations and efforts become important, but it becomes impossible to study one thing in particular without either pulling it out of the context of the other things around it, or, just as bad, making it out to be a stand-in for the things around it: once you’ve studied one military contractor, what else do you really need to know?

For the Army operations analysis, specifically, historians are deeply indebted to the dry, formulaic, and supremely informative recent three-volume official histories of military historian Charles Shrader, which brings the story all the way up to 1995.  Ceruzzi’s regional approach cuts the story a different way, which does not constrain the analysis to a particular organization (e.g, the Army) or specialty (e.g., operations analysis).  This helps extend the story in a natural way across its messy boundaries to players such as Braddock-Dunn-McDonald (BDM), founded in New York in 1959 but moving to Virginia in the mid-1960s (chapter five).  BDM specialized in the effects of nuclear radiation on missile systems.  Ceruzzi goes on to discuss similar companies with at least feet in suburban Virginia, such as California Analysis Center, Inc. (CACI) and Planning Research Corporation (PRC).

(Incidentally, Braddock, Dunn, and McDonald were all physicists out of Fordham University, who had gone into academics but did side contract work before founding their own company.  This offers a nice counterpoint to the elite physicists included in my ACAP resource, making its 850 biographies seem quite small.)

However, since we still seem far from the historical map of the military-industrial complex we need, I think the main strength here is not these potted corporate histories — useful as they are — but Ceruzzi’s effort to set out some of the key phenomena that will help organize any such map.  For example, Ceruzzi has good discussions of the importance of retired military officers (usually relatively young people, on account of the early retirements offered by the military as well as limited promotion opportunities to the highest echelons) being employed by contract organizations to help liaise with the nearby Pentagon.  There are also good discussions of the virtues of for-profit versus non-profit organizational arrangements, as well as the use of one contractor to monitor and critique the work of other contractors.

Maybe I’m imagining it, but chapter seven — the titular internet chapter — seems different from the rest of the book.  The internet industry is certainly a part of the history of the area, building up along the adjacent Dulles Corridor.  Still, where the other chapters all seem to nicely contextualize each other in the effort to determine who “those guys” were, the internet chapter seems more of a tally of the origins of things that later became famous: protocols, ISPs, domain names suffixes, and that sort of thing.  There is some revisionism of “a linear model” of computing progress within this format — Ceruzzi argues for the importance of Telnet, CompuServe, and The Source as a side-route past ARPANET toward the internet.  But, the difficulty here is that “the internet” is still the end-point of the story, so it’s difficult to put these developments in a contemporary perspective of computing in suburban Virginia in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

At 177 pages of text, this is a short book, and seems aimed at a fairly broad audience.  It does not sacrifice sophistication to do it, even if the “internet” title seems like a nod toward this goal, though.  However, I take the actual internet chapter’s emphasis on the lead-up to later internet technologies (again, if I’m not imagining it) to be less a concession to this goal, than, I think, a sign of Ceruzzi’s comfort with the topic, and thus perhaps his inclination to gravitate toward it (he is the author of A History of Modern Computing and co-editor of The Internet and American Business).

Internet Alley is a fine example of how punchy, sophisticated, and useful a short-form study directed to a fairly broad audience can be.  Taking this as a pair with Christophe Lécuyer’s somewhat more scholarly study of Silicon Valley (which I summarized here), there seems to be real historiographical power in the genre of regional history of technology.

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