The internet, this complex social-technical system

The internet started as a happy accident and now we can’t imagine our life without it. But the internet is not just a singular artefact, and we simply can’t refer to it as one. Rather, it is a complex system that involves a technological evolution, a social aspect, a global infrastructure and a commercialization aspect, according to A brief history of the internet. It is a communication system, that somehow connects the whole world, but it’s not owned or controlled by a specific group that has dominant powers over the others. So, the internet is open to all of us, and there’s so much that we can do, but first let’s try to understand what The internet is

What’s the origin of the word, “the internet”?

According to Khan, the origin of the word is “inter-networking“. In the late 1960s, he faced the problem of three communication networks that did not connect to each other. He worked with Vint Cert to solve this problem, and together they created and built the TCP/IP, which is the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol; actually a collection of methods used to
connect servers on the Internet and to exchange data. TCP/IP is a universal standard for connecting to the Net.

For something that we use so much, how come it is so difficult to explain what it is and how it works?

Well, this is not a surprise. As we’ve talked in our class, everything that we cannot physically see, makes it hard for us to understand what it is, and to explain how it works. So, after this week readings, it is much easier for me to use the correct terms and understand this complex system. The internet is a system that includes everything from the cables that carry information, to routers, modem servers, cell phone towers, satellites all inter-connected, transmitting information, using protocols, which I referred to earlier.

What I find most fascinating about the internet is it’s design principle and architecture. Modularity and layring approach are two concepts that we’ve discussed earlier, but understanding how they apply to the design of the internet is critical. There is a trade on complexity and performance that happens with these design principles, but the end goal of this architecture is to effectively have the flow of information, the transmission of the data packets from one end to the other.

This means that the development of all media, services, apps all depend on the internet architecture.

Most of the time, as a consumer society, we never worry about how something works, and the internet in particular, is such a delicate case, because of the “magic” that happens, since we don’t see all these network connections and how the packets transmit information from one server to the other.  But as we all know now, there is no magic when it comes to technology and understanding that the internet was designed to do what it does, is part of this system that we all can contribute.

Building websites is the most fascinating thing that I really enjoy doing. Learning HTML, CSS, JQuery and JavaScript helped me understand how  we see what we see in a website. There are a lot of website building platforms, but creating a website from scratch was a unique experience.

I gave this example to make the point that, the most powerful things are invisible and we don’t see what is happening behind this “blackbox”, but trying to understand how it works and asking the right questions, really helps to give meaning and to make us think about ways that we can contribute, and the Internet, this complex system, if full of opportunities to do just that.


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

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

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