The Internet, Explained!

The Elliott 405 computer of 1956, Computer Resurrection Issue 42

A secret message to someone living in the 1950’s

I don’t know how long I have to explain this to you; I’m only able to send you this message. You see, I’m from the future; 2013 to be exact. It’s an exciting time to be alive. So exciting, in fact, that I had to risk causing a paradox and destroying the universe just to tell you about one of our greatest inventions. It has thoroughly changed the way everyone lives. It’s not a teleporter or a flying car. No, it’s not intergalactic colonization. Er, no it’s not world peace either. Actually, why don’t you just let me explain it?

Where to begin…

It’s mainly called The Internet, or the World Wide Web, but fragments of it go by many names. Some call it Facebook, others Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, OKCupid, and countless other titles. One can represent these names like one would with countries on an Atlas; the names are countries, the Internet is the world that they all sit upon. A web of lines runs between the application nation-states that make up the diverse experience of being on the Internet, which we can refer as “being online”.

I suppose you could say it would look something like this. Keep in mind, this is just an abstract representation. (Map via XKCD)

Of course, none of these “countries” are places that a person physically travels to. Rather, we use these names as sort of a grand indexing system; they are names of products and projects established by corporation or volunteer alike. In a way, the Internet works like real estate: a person can buy a computer that serves up files of information to everybody that has an Internet-enabled device.

Some Internet-enabled devices can even be worn on your face, allowing the working adult on the go to instantly access information.

I know what you’re thinking: How does everyone get access to the exact same paper documents? Guess what? None of these files are on physical paper or anything. We literally figured out a way to send information as computer data, over a long series of cables, wires, and networks, and have it be received correctly on the other end by any device that requests it. We have this process for everything from reading magazines to playing games to sending mail. This system is as pervasive as it is ubiquitous.

Think ENIAC, but bigger. (via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s everywhere, and everyone has access to it in some way, shape, or form. We even have small hand-held mobile phones that have built-in miniature computers that can access the Web at any time. Just about any modern telephone company provides this functionality as a service, too. Everything is wireless these day, so different wireless networks are always broadcasting and receiving information regarding when these different files are updated.

Radio Waves” by PIXAMIGHT

We also take pride in how the files look to people. Designers craft elaborate displays that sort and represent different pieces of information to a person. For example, some of these displays, henceforth to be referred to as websites, can be used for vastly different purposes. One website might be used for checking up on friends around the world, whereas others might be used for shopping or reading the news.

Usually looked at on a thing like this while you’re on the go.

Different data needs to be displayed differently, and so any device that accesses a site normally renders a specifically-designed look and feel to accommodate it. Better yet, the look and feel of many websites now adjust to comfortably fit on the screen of a wide range of devices; that way a person can comfortably read whatever it is they want to read without trouble.

The Real Benefits

I want you to think about the last time you had to write a comprehensive essay for school. Think of all the research you had to do, pouring over obscure titles for hours and hours. You probably had to reference several other books from one another just to find the answers you were looking for. After all that pain of searching, studying,and verifying notes to see that your sources were legitimate, you could begin writing your paper.

Library at Penn State University, 1950’s

In the future, answers can be found nearly instantly. Gone is the image and experience of having to dig through a library’s card index or filing cabinet, gone is the need to remember a Dewey decimal system, gone is the need to even bother remembering every detail. In 2013, a person can easily sum up inquiries any subject based on a quick search and skimming a brief overview in a particularly popular internet encyclopedia.

Forever gone is the experience to have to really work to find good sources of information. Gone is the experience of having to wait for a letter in the mail from someone. Gone too, are arguments at a bar about obscure lesser-known facts. Everything is instant now. The results for any search are clean, organized, and easy to navigate.

Another interesting perspective of the web is its literal ability to connect people. Many online communities full of people with related interests exist now that wouldn’t have ever happened without the web. Activists are able to come together to enact attempts at social change, and now, it’s easier than ever for a group of people to strongly come together around an idea they believe in. Everything from music to games to technology can come together by volunteers working in their spare time.

The web is increasingly becoming a social experience in and of itself. You can be a creator of your own information, and you can also be a participant in how people respond to your own ideas and opinions.

Sadly, there’s a catch.

The Downsides

First and foremost, as brilliant as some people can be, you’re probably aware that many people are idiots. Unfortunately, these idiots are on the internet, too. The drawback of the technology being so readily available means that everyone, from grandma to the village idiot, can get online and talk to you at any given moment. There’s a general over-sharing of information, for the most part, as people are drawn to their own egos and how they present themselves. People at times can be profoundly annoying, mostly due to the fact that everyone is so vain about how they’re perceived online.

Vanity, personified.

Some parts of the web seem to celebrate the act of reusing good jokes and recurring pictures over and over again in different ways. These are called memes. While memes are far from a bad thing, many people will beat a dead horse with jokes that aren’t funny in a desperate grab to feel relevant and fresh. This comes back to vanity, and can become obnoxious to constantly stumble over.

One such example. It’s a deranged parody of Donald Duck.

Pornography is another interesting talking point. It’s not necessarily something good or bad; consensus in our society today seems to be pretty okay with it. It’s just that pornography is widely readily available for anyone that wants it. Some parents set up censoring systems on their child’s computer so that they cannot access it, but such systems can almost always be circumvented if a person is desperate enough to figure it out.

The Web also gives rise to some of the darkest places of humanity. Some illegal websites are set up for the purpose of watching animals be tortured. Some groups of people come together over the trade of videotaping active child molestation. Hate groups thrive in their calling for racial and spiritual superiority. Lies are readily available too, if a person, company, or government knows how to distribute them properly. Much of the most important information to be found is swimming in an ocean of unrelated white noise.

PRISM, a US government spying initiative.

The web can also be used to spy on people. Many of today’s foremost online social hubs are actively monitored by the US Government and private businesses. All of a person’s personal information is stored in a database; every social interaction they make, every picture or piece of music they share, everything they have to say on a subject, all of it is there, and all of it can be sold for a price. Most interestingly, all of that information is put there voluntarily, as a means of interaction between people.

The Bottom Line

We do just about everything on the web now. Anyone can easily use it just about anywhere, and it’s useful for a wide range of communication, social interaction, and querying world databases of information. It is not without its pitfalls; much of it is currently in danger of taking a turn for the worse, but it remains a real resource to any human being that has it. The point I’m making is that the Internet is going to affect society in profound and remarkable ways when it finally comes around.

Society is never going to be the same after it happens. It will revolutionize schools, businesses, and handheld technology itself over and over again.

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