The Internet as a Design Philosophy

Mary Margaret Herring

Throughout this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but relate to a scene in The IT Crowd that aired in 2009. In this scene, two IT ‘nerds’ lend their non-technical manager “the internet” for her employee of the month acceptance speech in an attempt to humiliate her in front of the company. They give her a black box with a blinking red light on top and explain that the “elders of the internet” have lent it to her for this special presentation. She is thrilled and eager to present it in her speech and the IT guys are ready for her lack of tech knowledge to be displayed to their coworkers. Much to the IT employees’ dismay, though, no one really knows what the internet is and believes that it is, in fact, the black box.

Once you get past the laugh tracks, I think that this scene from The IT Crowd was genius in the way that it captured how little internet users actually understand about the internet. While an operational knowledge of how to perform certain tasks is needed to ‘use’ the internet, the entity of the internet is veiled. When thinking about what it means to be “on the internet,” it is important to realize that the internet is not a thing but a vast infrastructure and a design philosophy. Irvine (2018) sums this up in a compelling manner by stating “The internet – both as an information infrastructure and as the networked media sources that we use and create – is enacted and performed as an ‘orchestrated combinatorial complexity’ by many actors, agencies, forces, and design implementations in complex physical and material technologies” (p. 9).

To be “on the internet” simply means that a device is running a TCP/IP software and has an active IP address (Irvine, 2018, p. 6). But all of the jargon used in the previous sentence makes this seem quite confusing. I will try to apply the concepts I learned this week to elaborate on this process. The transmission of information between networked computers on the internet relies on protocols. Two important protocols are the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). To be connected to the internet, each computer needs an IP address. The IP address is a lot like a postal address and provides a location where information can be sent. When someone streams a song in Spotify, for example, the data is broken down into smaller packets that are routed asynchronously to their destination. When they arrive, the TCP works to reassemble the packets and ensure that all components of the packet have arrived. This process continues over and over again until the entire song has been played. The importance of following protocol becomes clear in the example above. If the data was broken down in a way that the TCP was unfamiliar with, it would not be able to reassemble the packets. As Vint Cerf explains, “the internet is really a design philosophy and an architecture expressed in a set of protocols” (Code.org, 2015).

I am unsure of how to reframe the conversation about the internet to be one that is more accurate. This is mainly because it is easier to view the internet as a uniform technology and people don’t need to understand what the internet is to use it. Most of my hesitancy to understand what the internet is comes from the complex jargon used and fear of asking a ignorant question. I do think that the Crash Course and Code.org videos are very helpful when bringing these ideas to a general audience, though.

I am sure that I greatly over-simplified a very complex process but hopefully the gist of this was correct. After reading and watching the videos this week, I am still a bit confused on how the information travels. The Crash Course videos talked about queries for information going from LAN to WAN to mega routers but I found that to be quite confusing. Also, what are the ‘intermediary computers’ that packets travel through? Could we talk a bit more about these processes in class?

References

Code.org. (2015, Sept. 10). The Internet: IP Addresses & DNS [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/5o8CwafCxnU

Irvine, M. (2018). The internet: Design principles and extensible futures. Unpublished manuscript.