Just finished Paul E. Ceruzzi’s Internet Alley: High Technology in Tyson’s Corner, 1945-2005 (MITP 2008). I’ve heard Paul (who is a curator downtown at the Smithsonian Air and Space) give bits and pieces of this before in talks, and it’s of obvious local interest, but I really want to recommend it to a broad audience. Part business history, part science and technology studies, the book does a superb job of materializing the infrastructure of the internet—portraying Tyson’s Corner and the Dulles Corridor as a place “where cyberspace is connected to the ground,” as he puts it in one memorable phrase (157).
The book starts with an overview of the region, whose identity is something of an anomaly from a historical standpoint. Occupied by Federal troops throughout the American Civil War, northern Virginia has itself been a kind of cyberspace (my facile comparison, not Ceruzzi’s), a place neither truly of the North nor the South. The area takes its name from the intersection of what are today Rt. 7 and Rt. 123, but Ceruzzi draws out all of the other distinguishing features as well, from Dulles Airport to the Beltway, the planned community of Reston, the Gallerias, even the rise of George Mason University. The Union army had used the high ground that is the most important topographical feature to build observation and signal towers, a fact that finds modern continuity with the massive and mysterious government radio tower that dominates the shopping malls and office parks around it, complete with ominous signs forbidding drawing or photography. (The tower was/is part of a war-time emergency communications network, designed to ensure continuance of government.)
The backdrop for the project, of course, is its obvious comparison to Silicon Valley. What makes Internet alley distinctive, Ceruzzi argues, was the emphasis on a new kind of military science and high-tech government contracting, called operations research. Unlike the hardware firms that thrived elsewhere, these outfits (names like BDM, CACI) produced no tangible products, only analytics—a new kind of artifact for a new kind of government and economy and defense industry. Creuzzi then documents how the area shifted to an internet-based economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union (AOL, Network Solutions), and then again, following the internet bubble and September 11th, back to one again dominated by security and defense.
Of course I’m simplifying. That’s why you should read the book. You’ll also find out, along the way, how seven out of thirteen of the internet’s root domain servers came to be in the Washington DC area (three of them, as Ceruzzi notes, in the same office park in Herndon) and what MAE-East—a premier commercial switchpoint for much of the world’s internet traffic—is doing in a parking garage in Tyson’s.
Like Ceruzzi, I had often driven through Tyson’s Corner and glimpsed the strange confluence of office parks and shopping malls from the Beltway, everything in the figurative shadow of the nearby Pentagon. This book teases apart the tangled skeins of technology, real estate, government, consumerism, and suburban fashion that gave rise to this archetypal edge city with a fiber optic mainline at its core.
My “pecha kucha” presentation at Softwhere 2008.
Just had this one pointed out to me, Jan Baetens in Leondaro On-Line. Wow.