The internet looks like a monolith when we engage with it but there are many cultural and socio technical factors that play into it being viewed as such. When we think about what it actually is, we cannot point out to anything in particular. The internet shows itself to us via our computer and mobile screens. But this doesn’t mean that the internet is behind our screens? It is so metaphorically but what does it mean? GUI’s provide us access to the internet but we need to breakdown the internet into its multiple components and layers to understand what does it mean to say “we are on the internet”.
The internet began as ARPANet, a project in the 80’s to solve a network engineering problem of how to connect mutually incompatible computer systems in different locations with no single point where the network could be broken (Irvine, 4). US government via DARPA, managed funding for research projects related solving problems in data communication methods between computers. Telecom companies were far away from such research because they had already invested so much in switched network telecom infrastructure. What came out of these government funded university research labs was the TCP/IP protocol and data packets as ways of sending messages. The Transmission Communication Protocol or the Internet protocol is a method for sending and receiving data packets that work end-end regardless of the incompatibility of computer systems on each end (Irvine, 6). Data Packets as opposed to the single, continuously held, closed circuit connection used in phone calls, make up bundles of data packed in smaller units (Irvine, 6). The packet itself has no information but much like carrier waves in radio signals, it carries data that can be called the “payload”. This packet has other information in bits that determines its path in the network (which computer to go to based on IP address) and the payload has the message stored in it which is received, and converted for the GUI on the other end (White, 258-259). This is the symbolic-technical aspect of the information system we call the internet.
The physical system comprises of the Coaxial cables that run underneath the ground that carry these data packets to your house, the routers, modems, etc in accordance with Internet Protocol. The internet is treated like a monolith as if it’s a totalized unified entity with a force and agency of its own (Irvine, 2). But underneath we see that it is a symbolic-technical system that transfers syntax that we convert into meanings using our GUIs, all grounded in physical technologies likes high-speed phone lines, fiber-optic connections, and microwave links (White, 280).
Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures
Ron White, “How the Internet Works.” Excerpt from How Computers Work. 10th ed. Que Publishing, 2015.