10,000 years from today, the age we live in will be known as the Internet Age. We will be remembered as the first humans to get online and establish a worldwide information network; this is the internet.
The above statement could be used to argue that the internet will outlast us. If our civilisations suffer a catastrophic event, the internet will survive because it is intangible. We expect our social media profiles to last longer than our physical bodies. We can test this argument. Is our understanding of the internet correct?
Open your web browser and type in a web address. Our example is “www.google.com”. This takes us to Google, something we are all familiar with. It is a search engine: an index of websites which we can navigate using keywords. Typing “Napoleon” into Google is likely to return a number of webpages about Napoleon Bonaparte. Those webpages are described as searchable because they are indexed.
There are also a non-searchable webpages. These will not appear in search engine results and require specialised software to access. They are known as the “dark web” and a portion of them are used for illicit purposes. But we can now return to Google. How did we get there?
You used a computer (desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone). This computer has an input function. A keyboard translates keystrokes into letters. These are assigned a code which is transmitted to the computer. It reads the code and communicates it to the webpage. Your computer is communicating with Google. How does this work?
First, your computer needs to have software capable of processing information to and from Google. It also needs to be able to send messages to Google and receive messages back. But Google isn’t inside your computer. The dataset (collection of information) it has access to is far too vast for your computer to store or process, the entire searchable internet. The webpage is somewhere else. So now we leave your computer and go to find Google.
The webpage is on the internet, a simple answer. What functions is it performing? It receives information from your computer, “Napoleon”. It processes that information, turning it into something it can use. It performs a search through its database for “Napoleon”. For this search to yield results, Google must be able to store a number of webpages containing information about Napoleon Bonaparte.
In reality, Google finds a more space-efficient solution. It stores information about such webpages and where they can be found, an index. So it searches the index, which has been created via input (filling the index with data). It then processes its findings and communicates them to your computer.
The internet is intangible. This position is indefensible in light of the above. Google is a webpage which forms part of the internet along with every other webpage in existence. But it performs the same type of functions as your computer. It translates, processes, communicates, stores, indexes, and searches information. An intangible thing cannot do any of these. If the internet isn’t intangible then what is it?
The internet is a network. A network describes the relationship between things or it describes a group of things. It is not a thing itself. Your computer isn’t communicating with Google, a webpage which appears on your screen, just as Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t write letters to letters. He wrote letters to his generals. The webpage is the vehicle for communication, not the sender or recipient.
Your computer is communicating with another computer. The latter computer has similar function, but more storage space and processing power. It is called a server. The server computer doesn’t hold all the webpages you want to visit on your computer. That would require something even larger and faster. Instead, it holds an index which leads you to other server computers which hold information about Napoleon Bonaparte.
Now we can see that, rather than being intangible, the internet is very physical. It is a global network of communication between computers of varying sizes and capacities. The internet doesn’t exist as a thing, so it is incapable of outlasting the civilisations which built and maintain the computers. This understanding has real-world implications. Policing the internet is possible by policing the servers and private computers which sustain the communications network.
Policing internet service providers (ISPs) is only a short step towards this. They provide infrastructure only, links between private computers and servers. This is the mail van, not the mail organisation (internet), or the parties involved in the communication.
I hope you found this webpage informative, it might outlast us both!