On the Internet or On the Interface?

People have always used prepositions as metaphors for the way they interact with media. We read through books, talk on the phone, and look at pictures. And while none of these metaphors entirely capture the experience of interacting with these human artefacts, none miss the mark quite so bad as claiming to get on the Internet. However, even though the preposition fails to offer much help by way of an accurate description, just as much confusion arises from the object to which it refers: the Internet.

Of course, in some ways, we need some sort of nominal indicator so that we can refer to this network-of-networks in some workable way during casual conversation. Unfortunately, the tendency of this sort of conversation tends to regress into reifications of “the Internet” which further black-box this human artefact and only stand in the way of understanding what actually occurs when going “on the Internet.”

Essentially, when one claims to go on the Internet, he or she refers to accessing an interface (such as a web browser) designed to send and receive small bundles of data called internet packets according to pre-established protocol which are asynchronously sent across computing machines called routers. What the Internet-user in 2019 experiences as “getting on the Internet” is really the back-end of this complex (albeit almost instantaneous) process: the arrangement of packets received from routers by the interface. In a certain sense, it might be more accurate for the digital citizen to talk about getting on the interface instead of getting on the Internet. In other words, the Internet is not the thing that one uses, but the process of distributing information and data which become manipulatable through interface design.

Aside from de-black-boxing the online world for the average user, understanding the Internet as a process of distributing information across a network of computing technologies can help the scholar or designer understand more specifically their object of study. In other words, one can examine the design of an interface, the design of the data/information, the design of the network, the design of the protocol, or the design of the physical, computing machines. Not to mention studying the history, effects, politics, and economics of any of these things. To study the design, history, or effects of the Internet is a massive undertaking which would probably take several lifetimes. However, by understanding the Internet as a complex set of practices, media scholars can achieve rigorous and meaningful conclusions about the role of the Internet in the modern world by focusing on particular moments in this process.

Works Cited:

Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures

Denning and Martell, Great Principles of Computing, Chap. 11, “Networking.”