Category Archives: Week 11

Making sense of the Internet in a time of political confusion

It is fascinating to read simultaneously this week about the history of the Internet and about how people in the United States are dealing with how applications of the Internet may have influenced the outcome of a presidential election in significant ways. In Computer: A History Of The Information Machine (2014), Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray explain the evolution of the Internet and emphasize that when email was invented, it was not expected to be the “smash hit that it was” (p. 284). Indeed, the interest in the network of networks for communication among people was the big surprise that drove much of the growth of the Net.

Throughout its various phases of developments, the social aspect of sharing information with others and finding common-interest spaces continued to develop until the point in which we are now. Going from bulletin board systems to different versions of social spaces, social media applications are today the doors to the Internet for many people. In the US, “79% of internet users (68% of all U.S. adults) use Facebook,” according to the Pew Internet Project. And after the surprising result of the recent election, a debate has spurred about the influence of this platform in the shaping of public discourse.

In fact, Campbell-Kelly and Aspray mention that the ubiquity of computing really increased with mobile computing, which gave a great momentum to what they call “the phenomenon of social networking” (p. 299). In their concluding words in writing about the history of the Internet, the authors emphasize a really good point: there is an evolving dominance of “a small number of giants” (p. 305), such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Twitter, that are benefitting from a “systematic collection and use of personal data on individuals” (ibid). When we think about how we now interact with the socio-technical system that is the Internet, this has to be considered because these companies are now developing the software with which we do so.

As Manovich (2012) explains in his overview of software studies, “software has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs” (p. 2). If we reckon the ubiquity of the Internet and the way we use, and then we reckon there are only a few companies writing the software “on which the world runs,” it is clear there is an issue if there is no accountability to them. As Prof. Irvine explains (n.d.), it is hard to explain what the Internet is because it is not one thing. As noted above, it is a socio-technial system, which means it is composed of several parts. In this memo, I focus on this one aspect, the software through which we interact with this system and with others through it, but this does not mean that other aspects are less relevant for discussion. In this case, the software through which we interact on the Internet is very relevant as has been evidenced by discussions this week after the surprising election results in the US.

It is worth noting this is not the first time a country questions the role of social media in the shaping of public opinion and its influence on national politics. A few months ago, a similar story occurred in Bolivia. A referendum would go to vote to decide whether or not the president could go to reelection for a fourth time, and the result surprised the president when it (barely) went to the No. Support for the president was thought to be a given. Both supporters and opposition to the referendum discussed how social media influenced the outcome. The former condemned its use calling them “tools of the imperialism” that only “collect garbage” and serve to spread “difamation and lies”; the latter saying they are tools to democratize access to information.

In both the US and Bolivia cases, election season was marked by a series of scandals that were spread, along with misinformation and malicious comment, on social media. And in both cases the results were uncertain and then said to be influenced by how conversation took place on social network applications. The difference was that, in Bolivia, social media apps were either taken to represent “the US imperialism” as a whole, or as a neutral platform. In the US, the presence of the company is starting to be clearer. Opinion articles now call on Mark Zuckerberg himself to find solutions to the problem of misinformation spreading and to at least acknowledge how echo chambers easily form in his platform (see for example the NYT or Vox). There is a call for accountability, even if Zuckerberg is in denial for now.

As Campbell-Kelly and Aspray rightly emphasize, “a platform dependent on voluntary sharing of personal information is highly dependent on not alienating users” (p. 302). Because this platform is run by a private company, how accountable it is depends on how much users ask of it. If users acquiesce to how the company operates through continued unquestioned use, these “small number of giants” don’t have an incentive to be more open about how they develop software. In Internet governance parlance, this is an issue of privatized governance of the Internet. How the Internet functions on its application layer is decided in private driven by private concerns. If we go back to the idea that the socio-technical system that is the Internet is of a particular kind because, as put by Prof. Irvine, “it is part of our long history of symbolic cognition, technical mediation, and communication,” it is clear that claiming accountability today is paramount. And given that the reach of these platforms is global, the accountability has to account for users in other countries in which information spreads locally. Do local interactions with information through the algorithms of social network applications vary due to contextual differences? This also has to be investigated by companies like Facebook if it is to get serious about how its algorithms influence public opinion.

Zuckerberg explains Facebook is a tech company, a platform, not a media company, and therefore does not need to be regulated as such. But the term platform is tricky when it deals with so many aspects of our interactions with the Internet. Through a systems-view of this socio-technical system, it is clear that an interaction with the Internet requires several layers of infrastructure, physical and virtual, to be in place. It also requires users to be in synch regarding how to communicate on this platform, for which a set of symbolic and cultural artifacts are put into play as well. When an interaction happens through Facebook, interactions among actors are activated through this “platform” in ways that must be acknowledged. In his presentation about why the term “platform” is tricky (The Politics of Platforms), Gillespie shows how by presenting themselves as a platform, a company like YouTube or Facebook can get away with several types of interactions all at once, as seen in the image below. There is interactions with end users, advertisers, media partners, lawmakers.

Gillespie on platforms

Gillespie on platforms

The history of computers and the Internet has developed in such a way that today they are part of our everyday (mis)understanding of the world. Still, while it is true that, also from a systems perspective, the socio-technical system that is the Internet is good in hiding its complexities, they are tangible and can be felt when they become problematic. As users of these systems, and as citizens who use these systems in symbolic ways that are part of our civic engagement, we have to find ways to continuously challenge the blackboxing of these complexities. If recent events in politics make anything evident, it is that demanding accountability from the “giants” is key.

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014

Martin Irvine, Introducing Internet Design Principles and Architecture: Why Learn This?

Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.


Internet mind generations

Internet mind generations  — Galib

It is topic for huge volume books. Internet became part of human life replacing many other communication tools. We tend more to send a message through social sites or e-mail accounts rather than to call; we prefer to speak over internet communication portals, rather than using conventional phone lines; we like reading world news on internet, rather than watching TV news programs, etc. etc. Internet has ability to provide us with all communication options and got power to make us more dependent on it. We can compare negative and positive sides of this phenomenon in our life, but it is existence and influence to our life is growing constantly.

Nowadays, it is already impossible to imagine almost any human cognitive activity without referring to internet engines of its capacity to connect with the rest of the World and provide demanded information. Beginning from education process and ending with searching good deal for commodities we are making ourselves more dependent from the Internet options. On one hand, the continually growing volume of information itself demands additional tools for saving it and find its required part within short time. On other hand, outstanding ability of internet becomes more distractive providing numerous of additional information and various options for entertainment reasons. Eventually, it challenges us to define balance between privacy and security issues, which becomes more crucial aspects with penetration of internet to almost all areas of personal life and connecting as professional as well as social communities.


Apparently, Internet gives a chance for those (i.e. hackers) to illegally misuse personal and professional information of others for their own sake. Despite being so contradictive factor in modern life of the World community, Internet gives more positive options and incentives for further socio-economic development and scientific progress and continue defining new ways for protecting private information of users.

Once internet became available for broader population, (being initially as ARPAnet – DoD department of Advanced Research Projects Agency)[i], it has several stages within its development process. Among them we can mention creating such technical features (software standards) to connect remote devices like Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP)[ii] to make available sending-receiving information and recognize every single user (computer) of this information.


It also uses modularity approach for designing its layers’ capacity, utilizing “hidden information”, blackboxing some operations, encoding and decoding process[iii]. The operational functioning of internet for users may be demonstrated on The Protocol Stack Model[iv], demonstrated above. Another significant achievement for internet development was creating tools to divide big portion of information to smaller packages (packet switching)[v], deliver them to receiver and put packages in the right order for saving accuracy of sent information.


This technical feature gives a chance to send big files of information with relatively shorter period. In general, internet emerging boosted computer science, hardware sector growing, and technical progress itself. Information availability and its rapid exchange between remote users enhanced globalization process, which caused unprecedented socio-political-economic events. It drastically changed various of cultural aspects of internet global community and brought news values, standards and principles to apply in everyday life to be connected with the rest of the world. “The internet is really a set of standards for interconnecting networks”[vi]. At some degree it resembles the neuron centers network in the brain and reflecting the same operational mechanisms for information transmitting and receiving processes.


Apparently, it changes the mind, social identity and way of life of current and coming generations, and this aspect may be the most significant influence of the internet to the human being development process.

[i] Ron White, How Computer Work, 9th edition, 2008, page 310

[ii] Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, Your Live, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, Pearson Education Inc, 2008, page 304

[iii] Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation, The MIT Press, 2010, page 38

[iv]  Irvine, Martin, Introducing Internet Design Principles and Architecture: Why Learn This?

[v] [v] Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, Your Live, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, Pearson Education Inc, 2008, page 304

[vi] [vi] Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis, Your Live, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, Pearson Education Inc, 2008, page 304

The Internet: virtuality and materiality through its physical layer

The Internet is known as a network of networks, or an inter-network, as showed in the video “There and back again: A Packet’s Tale. How Does the Internet Work?”, from the World Science Festival. Because users’ interface with the Internet is mainly the application layer, the transport, network, physical layers (Ron White, How Computers Work, 2007) and others are commonly not noticed even if there are signs of them around us.

In “Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide”, from Ingrid Burrington, the author joins art, design, architecture and politics and through many draws shows how the Internet looks like in a city. My main take away from her book is that the architecture of the Internet is embedded in the architecture of our cities.  The Internet is as virtual as it is material. The streets, avenues, buildings all have signs of the materiality of the Internet.



Before thinking of the large Internet, it is possible to think of Local Area Networks (LANs). A LAN is a group of computers, routers, hubs and other equipment that communicate to each other through a common language, the Internet protocol. The Georgetown network is a LAN. For the Internet as we know it to work, it starts in the Georgetown building (and in others around the world as well), and is dependent on the design of the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

As White (2007), the TCP/lP break data into packets that are labeled with some identification and addressing information. As the video aforementioned shows very well, the packets then travel over a massive infrastructure and the distributed network until arrive in its destination where the packets are put together again to be readable and interpreted by the recipient machine.

Vint Cerf, one of the creators of the TCP/IP protocol, calls attention to its design in the foreword of the Great Principles of Computing (Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell, 2015). For him, this is the reason why the TCP/IP has become the main communication protocol of the network. The fact that application designers do not have to understand how IP packets are transported, and that at the same time, the protocol does not depend on the type of information in transit, have contributed to the wide diffusion of the TCP/IP and also to the stability of the network, even if it receives daily a multiplicity of new applications not initially foreseen.

For a network to connect to each other in order to transfer more than 100 billion e-mails or to allow more than 2 billion Google searches a day (Internet Live Stats, Nov 15), the physical layer is as key as the transport layer discussed above. To be connected, the networks need to be identified with  autonomous systems numbers (ASN), an autonomous system is thus a network administered by an Internet operator. Google, AT&T are examples of big network operators. When a user sends information through their Internet Service Provider (ISP), an e-mail, for example, that ISP is required to interconnect with other networks in order to deliver the information to the assigned recipient.

Although such operations are not visible to the Internet users, the interconnection is ordinary and essential to the Internet to work and is commonly privately administered by companies. This happens through commercial agreements, such as regular data traffic purchase and “peering” that is part of the economy of the Internet. In the example on the transmission of an e-mail, the ISP has two possibilities to deliver the information among the various types of interconnection agreements. It can pay to connect to transit providers, which will allow it to establish communication with many networks at once (the larger Internet). Or the ISP can opt to do “peering” with other Internet operators, sharing traffic and infrastructure, in a one-to-one basis, also referred as bilateral connections. In this case, both operators share the necessity of delivering data through the cables and other resources owned by the peer. Peering is, thus, a collaborative relationship that decreases the value of the connection due to sharing of resources, although it can also involve payments among the parts.

These connections are only possible through physical cables and structures distributed among countries. The physical distance among operators can have impact on both the cost of user’s Internet connection, due to more or less resources necessary to make the linkage, and the Internet quality, given that the more distant the operators are among them, the more subject to latency they tend to be.  Because of this, an important interconnection facility gains relevance within the network, the Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) – previously known as NAPs (Network Access Points), as it is mentioned in the World Science Festival video. IXPs, as the video briefly shows, are physical spaces in which numerous autonomous systems can connect to each other, including Internet service providers, transit providers, content providers, content delivery networks, and others. IXPs optimize the network and amplify the possibility of peering among the Internet operators. Once they become part of an IXP, they are connected to all other operators already in the facility, from telcos to ISPs, from banks to universities. IXPs approximate Internet operators without their cost of having to connect individually.

The Internet Exchange Map, a tool developed by TeleGeography shows the distribution of the known IXPs around the globe here:

From a socio-technical point of view, there are many aspects of IXPs that need yet to be understood. There is an unequal distribution among countries that generate infrastructural dependencies among nations – Canada and Mexico are highly dependent on the United States Internet infrastructure, as other Latin American countries as well. There are also questions about the complexity of purposes that these facilities have nowadays and the different meanings that such technological artefact has for industries, governments, users, even if only a few of those actors are currently engaged with this topic considered very well.

On the Internet – we can and can’t decide our online actions

1.What does Internet mean?
Both Wikipedia and How Computers work call Internet a system that connect one terminal, such as a personal computer or a ATM machine, to others. Of course, that description is absolutely right. Internet itself is a system, which means it is a collection of different technologies, including the gadgets we can see every day like router, from hardware perspective, and things like IPV4 and IPV6 protocol that we are rather not familiar with, from software perspective.

A basic fact is that like other complicated systems, Internet consists of numerous subsystems that can be divided into more smaller systems, meaning Internet is black-boxed. A basic model indicates that the whole Internet system is based on the connectivity between different terminals. Although I know little about computer network, I see that the core task for network software engineers is to ensure that the current Internet protocol or algorithm is efficient enough to avoid block. For hardware engineers, connectivity means optimizing the framework of hardware, including modem, router and network card and find out new materials for more bandwidth with more information transmitted at the same.


A basic model for information transmitted by Internet

So now we can see that the whole Internet system is for connectivity, without which the infrastructure and the elaborately designed protocol will be meaningless. Hal Abelson gives a more detailed definition of Internet, indicating that Internet is such a system that is about “a delivery for bits” and “how they get one place to another”. The definition is very similar to the description made by Shannon of the transmission process of information that exactly we do not care about what the information transmitted is about but the transmission mechanism. In this perspective, what we post online or what we leave when using search engine for Google or Microsoft to analyze is not the part of the system itself, so we are not implanted “in” the Internet but live “on” the system.

2.Being on the Internet is conscious
It is not difficult for us to understand that being on the Internet is a conscious and initiative process. We can post photos on Instagram to public but can also open Instagram only to friends, which means that we can control the extent to which we engage in the Internet. Actually, we easily active we should be online, after all we are the one who know the pass word of our own phones, computers and social media accounts.

To most people in modern society, they know clearly the differences of the same thing described offline and online. For example, when a friend comes to me for suggestions of buying a new computer, I will tell him that hardware online can sometimes be cheaper and less possible to be fake. That is a subjective cognition because to me the disadvantages of buying online, such as assembly, do not outweigh the advantages. Therefore, being online is an initiative choice for people because some of them are social stars who think online social platform can be more influential and some of them are otakus who do not step out of home with the convenient services provided online.

3.Being on the Internet is unwitting
Sometimes being on the Internet is an unwitting process. A number of this week’s readings mention the role that IP address and domain name play in the whole Internet system. In modern society, living like a hermit physically is not difficult, but eradicating all digital information about ourselves is an impossible task because our information has been stored in governmental database and any place we have ever consumed, lived and even just visited.In fact, modern life destines that anyone who wants to live in a developed country normally can not resist the usage of Internet and during the process our information has been known to some people we do not realize. For example, in China when I make an overseas transaction, usually I will immediately receive the phone call from bank to ensure that the transaction was made by myself. The leaking process not realized by Internet users can sometimes be used by people for ulterior purpose.


The mechanism of online man-hunting

Actually, there are many criticisms about the status of modern people that they are forced to be online. Cyberpunk novels, movies and games are always focusing on the threat from access to Internet. They claim that the ubiquitous monitors and digital personal information system leave hackers tons of backdoors to invade. For example, in the video game Watch_Dogs, players can use the mobile phone to access citizen’s information, paralyze traffic system and control street cameras because all those things have been integrated into a main system called CTOS.


Watch_Dogs is a game about hacking anything with information stored online

In general, we both choose and are forced to be on the Internet. Internet is a technical system when it was invented, but now it has been become the synonym for modern lifestyle.

On the Internet

Chen Shen

To answer the question “what does it mean to be ‘on the Internet'”, I have to address a more fundamental question: what is the Internet. The term may be hard to define because the answer depends on to which layer we talking about the Internet. But just as the name suggests, the Internet is a network of networks. The interconnection and interaction of these networks gave rise to the Internet. This means the Internet is a system.

One bizarre character about systems is that system itself is not a thing, but an emergence. The Internet is not the sum of computers in it, but what happens when these computers are connected. Since the Internet is not a thing, not an object, it’s clearly intangible. Like an urban traffic system, we can only see its nodes (traffic hubs, central stations, etc.) and edges (road, bridges, ramps, viaducts, etc.), but this they are merely the infrastructure layer of the system. For the system of Internet, even the edges are intangible (in the sense of bit transmission, not in the sense of communication infrastructure).

A universal model for systems is like below. The graph illustrates that a system is a process that turns input into output with a fraction as loss, and both input and output are outside the system.


In this perspective, we can define the Internet by defining the input and output. As Hal Abelson et al mentioned in Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, “The Internet is a system, a delivery service for bits, whatever the bits represent and however they get from on place to another”. In this perspective, the terminal computers are excluded from the Internet. The Internet is the system of all the intercomputer connections, be it wired or wireless, LAN or WAN. In this perspective, the websites we see on the Internet are literally on the Internet. They are data stored in another terminal connected to the Internet and interpreted and interacted by out computers. In this sense, “on the Internet” means the data is accessible by combinatory routes in the computer networks. For me to be “on the Internet”, it means another user can receive/send data to my devices via the Internet. That’s to say, when I went to Shenandoah National Park where there’re no WIFI signals for my smartphone, I am “off the Internet”.


By The Opte Project – Originally from the English Wikipedia; description page is/was here., CC BY 2.5

But there’re other ways to interpret the Internet. Abelson’s definition focus on the IP layer of Internet, if we add more layers to it, things will be different. For example, if we include protocol like VoIP, include programs like Skype, and include infrastructures like a base station, the telecommunication network can be integrated into the Internet. One can transform bits data traveling on the Internet to electromagnet signals traveling in LTE. As a result, even in the Shenandoah recess, I’ll still be “on the Internet”. For me to be “off the Internet”, I have to escape to somewhere no cellphone signal can find me, like a plane. In the sense of Internet as a system of the networks of  computer-based data communication and phone-based sound telecommunication  combined, a passenger in an international plane from D.C. to Beijing is “off the Internet”.

But the Internet can be even more. If we incorporate application layer to the networks, the flight management system relying on Internet connection and distributed cooperation is also a part of Internet. So even when I am thirty thousand feet above the ground and no cell phone signal or WIFI signal can find me, my presence is still recorded and displayed in real time in the FMS, which can be regarded as a subsystem of the Internet. I’m “on the Internet” even in an airplane.

We can push this even further. Some of the sociotechnical systems can make one “on the Internet” without himself knowing it. The ubiquitous surveillance camera system, for example, can reconstruct the presence of a targeted individual to the detail he cannot recall. Not only the presence, due to the recordable nature of data and practically infinite storage for data, our activities in the past are also “on the Internet” and may always be there. It’s not only overt information about when did one sleep last night, but also covert information that one may never consciously notice: a shopping routine, a mood cycle, a color preference, or a sleep time pattern. And because our society has completely entwined with the Internet, from the day an infant is born, her digital footprint begins to accumulate on the Internet. So much so that others can reconstruct a great deal of her life from the data they glean, in this sense, we are constantly “on the Internet”.

By now we can see the Internet can be many things. The only shared property is the Internet is always a system. With the model above, we can even interpret Internet as an extremely complicated circuit that consumes about 3.3 Million Mwh every day; or a communication method that more than 3 billion people shared; or a  mass post service system generating over 200 billion emails every day. The interpretation goes on.

So, the answer to “what does it mean to be ‘on the Internet'” depends on how we define Internet. Same as the content, the width, the connectivity,  the definition of Internet is also expanding, incorporating new systems every day.


Ron White, How Computers Work. 9th ed. Excerpts from chapter, “How the Internet Works.” Que Publishing, 2007

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014

Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012

Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008

The Internet: The Most Complex System – Jieshu

What does it mean to be on the Internet? Ten years ago, my answer would be “connecting to a modem or a hub using a cable.” Several days ago, my answer would be “connecting to wireless signals.” After this week’s reading, I would say: “First, you need to distinguish ‘on the internet’ from ‘in the internet.’” Here I will try to explain what it means to be on the Internet.

As I said, first we need to reiterate that as end users of the Internet, we are actually “on” or “attached to” the Internet instead of being “in” the Internet. According to Schewick in her Internet Architecture and Innovation, computers on the Internet are those that “support users and run application programs[i]”, such as our PCs, which make up the “edge” of the Internet. On the contrary, computers that establish connectivity among the computers attached to the Internet and that form or implement the network are seen as being “in” the Internet, such as “cable modem termination system operated by a cable provider.” So, being on the Internet partially means using computers that “interface directly with the end users[ii]”.

Second, since the Internet is a modular system organized in layers, being on the Internet also means interacting with user interfaces with details of these modules and layers being black-boxed. For designers, modularity reduces the complexity while layering increases the modifiability[i]. For end users like us, modularity and layering mean that we can surf the Internet without professional training. An example is my experience as a webmaster without specialized knowledge about the Internet. When I was in college, I got a part time job of a webmaster for one dormitory building. My job was to ensure everyone in the building able to connect to the Internet. If one student was offline, I had to find out the problem and fix it. Here are some of my routines if an offline was reported. First I would check whether the cable was correctly connected between the computer and the hub. Then, I would ping the gateway to see whether the computer was connected to the gateway. Most of the time, the problem was IP address conflict because my university assign a static IP address to each student, and it happened that students mistakenly used other people’s addresses. If IP conflict was the case, I would log in the host to check the physical address of the computer that was using the IP address in question and then log in the student information system to check who owns the computer and call him/her to change the IP address. Retrospectively, I feel funny about the fact that I could do my job very well without specialized knowledge about the Internet, which was made possible largely by the blackboxness coming with modularity and layering. The graphic user interfaces of the computers, the hosts, and the student information system enabled me to easily interact with their huge and complex inner structures.

Being on the Internet also means to send and receive data in the form of packets[iii]. Packet switching was a method designed to send messages, with each unit 1500 bytes or less[ii], increasing the robustness of the Internet. For example, a web page was made up of many different media objects, such as texts, hyperlinks, images, music, and videos. When I open a web page in my web browser, the media objects are divided into many small packets. As Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis mentioned in their Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, “the packets that constitute a message need not travel through the Internet following the same route, nor arrive in the same order in which they were sent.” Sometimes, errors might occur, such as an unloaded image whose place is left blank, however, with other objects intact. You can leave it alone and just read the text in the page, or you can reload the image and it will come to you soon through different routes without reloading the whole page.

In the dimension of time, being on the Internet is a cross-section of an inevitable but accidental historical process. Many visionary pioneers have envisaged things like the Internet. As we read in the past weeks, Vannevar Bush’s memex, Licklider’s man-computer symbiosis, Engelbart’s hypertext, the invention of E-mail[iv]… All paved the way to our ubiquitous networkings. Reading the history of the Internet reminds me of the old days when the Internet was a luxury. In 1994, My father brought home two old and malfunctioning computers from Singapore and fixed them, probably the first computers ever appeared in my hometown. He also had a bunch of five-inch floppy disks. Three years later, Internet bars started to appear in the little town where you could spend two dollars for one hour on the Internet. I remember I spent much of my pocket money in one Internet bar in order to collect information for a course paper about John Rabe’s diary during the Nanjing Massacre in WWII. I stored texts and images in my 3.5-inch floppy disk, which had only 1.44MB space, unbelievably small in today’s standards—not enough for a single image shot by my iPhone!

Who would have thought two decades later, there would be something called the Great Firewall of China (GFW)? It demonstrates another aspect of “being on the Internet”—politics. It may sound ridiculous for the western society that people in China have no access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Wikipedia, New York Times, and many other websites including some academic ones because they might “jeopardize the country’s traditional values and political stance[v]”. The Internet in China is jokingly called “the biggest LAN in the world”. I even cannot log in my Georgetown email account in China. I have to purchase a VPN to do that. Most Chinese netizens don’t have VPNs, so they use Baidu, a Chinese search engine instead of Google. The difference between Baidu and Google is obvious. Baidu not only censors information politically but also ranks the search results according to the bidding list, which is the biggest source of revenue of Baidu. In Baidu’s search result, it is very difficult to tell the difference between a normal web page and an advertisement. Earlier this year, a 21-year-old college student called Zexi Wei died after an experimental treatment for synovial sarcoma at a hospital that he learned of from a promoted result on Baidu[vi]. His death revealed another aspect of the Internet—ethics. The packets constantly sending and receiving in our computers have so much power on our life that they allow some people to become billionaires while others as poor as church mice, even being able to decide life or death.

These facts keep reminding me of the complexity of the Internet, a social-technical-political-economic system[iii] that impacts everybody’s life.


[i] Schewick, Barbara van. 2010. “Internet Design Principles.” In Internet Architecture and Innovation, New edition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[ii] Abelson, Harold, Ken Ledeen, and Harry R. Lewis. 2008. “The Internet as System and Spirit.” In Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley.

[iii] Irvine, Martin. n.d. “Introducing Internet Design Principles and Architecture: Why Learn This?”

[iv] Campbell-Kelly, Martin, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, and Jeffrey R. Yost. 2013. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. 3 edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[v] “How to Access Websites from China.” 2016. VPN Critic. November 4.

[vi] “Death of Wei Zexi.” 2016. Wikipedia.