Innovations, Agreements, and the Internet

(Image Credit: geralt)

Most internet users are happy to understand it at a surface level, eager to accept it as a basic utility for other ends; profit, learning, sharing, etc. It becomes necessary to understand the design history of the internet on a deeper level, however, in order to design innovations based on its’ ongoing affordances. In their overview of “The internet as system and spirit”, Abelson et al. conclude that “The Internet is an object lesson in creative compromise producing competitive energy” (Abelson, Ledeen, & Lewis, 2008). I found this statement to be a helpful means of understanding the internet as a systematic set of ongoing interactions both technical and social, rather than a “thing” in and of itself.

Webster’s dictionary defines “internet” as “an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world”, citing a usage example as “doing research on the internet” (“Definition of INTERNET,” n.d.). While technically true, this definition fails to paint a full picture of what the internet really is and why it works. Earlier in their overview, Abelson et al. describe a broader convergence of interests that define the internet:

The Internet works not because anyone is in charge of the whole thing, but because these parties agree on what to expect as messages are passed from one to another. As the name suggests, the Internet is really a set of standards for interconnecting networks. The individual networks can behave as they wish, as long as they follow established conventions when they send bits out or bring bits in (Abelson, Ledeen, & Lewis, 2008).

Did you catch the difference in these definitions? If you stopped at the dictionary level, it seems to connote that the network is an organic and self-sustaining entity – a thing. The technology in and of itself does not make the internet work. Whether in the form of agreed-upon protocols or policies, the Internet works because of “standards” that govern mediations within and without the technology. Vint Cerf, David Clark, et al. note that “The Internet is as much a collection of communities as a collection of technologies, and its success is largely attributable to both satisfying basic community needs as well as utilizing the community in an effective way to push the infrastructure forward.” (“A Brief History of the Internet | Internet Hall of Fame,” n.d.).  

The internet has turned out the way it has because of correlating agreements, decisions, and incentives a communicative network facilitated by agreed-upon standards. It does not stand on its own. These standards will shape ongoing incentives based on continued agreement facilitating room for scalable experimentation. For anyone desiring to innovate in today’s global economy, then, they cannot afford to sit out of that conversation.



A Brief History of the Internet | Internet Hall of Fame. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

Abelson, H., Ledeen, K., & Lewis, H. (2008). Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (1 edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley Professional.

Definition of INTERNET. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from