Inventing the Internet, by Janet Abbate. A solidly researched, no-nonsense look at the Internet’s early days.
The Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota has a fantastic oral history database of interviews with dozens of computing pioneers. A truly invaluable resource for anybody interested in computer history.
The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, by Daniel Bell, published in 1976. Bell, a journalist and sociologist, was a prominent public intellectual in the 1960s and ’70s; this book was his attempt to forecast the future of the knowledge economy. A generally enjoyable read, although at times insufferably erudite.
Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee, is a slight tome from 1999, notable primarily for being written by Berners-Lee, the primary inventor of the World Wide Web. Valuable mainly as a you-are-there look at the origins of the WWW project.
The Internet Galaxy, by Manuel Castells, is a smart overview of the societal implications of the Internet at the turn of the twenty-first century.
America Calling, by Claude S. Fischer, recounts the social history of the telephone in the years preceding World War Two. Fischer’s book is both legitimate scholarship and legitimately readable—no small accomplishment.
How the Web was Born, by James Gillies and Robert Cailliau, is another look at the origins of computer networking. The authors, both European, are extremely interested in touting Europe’s contributions to computer networking. Cailliau collaborated with Berners-Lee at CERN on the early development and promotion of the World Wide Web.
Where Wizards Stay up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, is a very readable primer on the personalities and organizations that created the Internet. Good introductory material on Licklider and his colleagues—the extent of whose contributions to the ARPANET project I have been forced to elide from this essay for reasons of space. Not as scholarly as Abbate’s book, but much more readable.
“The Evolution of ARPANET email” is an unpublished UC-Berkeley history thesis written by Ian R. Hardy in 1996. I can’t find anything else written by Hardy, and have no idea what happened to him, but it would be a great shame if this paper marked the end of his historical writing career. A clear, well-researched, and important look at the early days of e-mail, and the significant role it played in network development.
Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, is a “Netbook” by Michael and Ronda Hauben. The Haubens are interesting figures: Michael was a Columbia University undergraduate in the 1990s whose heavy involvement with online communities led him to coin the term “Netizen”; along with his parents, Jay and Ronda, he was perhaps the first participatory historian of the Internet. Netizens suffers a bit from a lack of detachment from its topic, but as a passionate users’ take on the Internet’s communicative dynamic, it is invaluable.
Spreading the News, by Richard John, is an elegant overview of the history of the antebellum American postal system, and the role it played in changing Americans’ communication patterns. Definitely worth a read for anybody interested in learning more about the Internet’s communicative predecessor.
Libraries of the Future, by J.C.R. Licklider, written in 1965, is the first real blueprint for what would come to be called the Internet. Dense reading in parts. Also see Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” from 1960, and “The Computer as Communication Device,” from 1968, written with Robert Taylor. M. Mitchell Waldrop’s biography of Licklider, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, is also valuable.Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.