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A brief explanation of how the Internet works

     For many people, knowing how their automobile actually works is of little or no interest. The only technical details they want to know are how to get it started, how to drive it, and when to take it to a mechanic for service. The good news is that the Internet can be treated in much the same way. It really is not necessary to understand how the Internet works in order to be able to use it. People like myself, however, like to know a little bit more about how our tools work, and that is the purpose of this Addendum.

     If you share my proclivity for understanding how things work, however, it may be worthwhile keeping in mind the fact that the Internet is the largest technological artifact yet created by humankind. Therefore, the following descriptions of e-mail, chat rooms, mailing lists, and other such technical details are abstracted to their most basic levels so that the general reader will have a grasp of what goes on "under the hood." While the information in this Addendum is not necessary for an understanding of the main body of this work, it does answer some basic questions, such as:

  • What is a hypertext link?
  • How does e-mail work?
  • How does information get moved from one computer to another?
  • Just what is the Internet?
  • How is the Internet governed?


Long before the World Wide Web's hypertext technology was deployed, the Internet community was already experiencing a commonality of spirit unknown to the rest of the world. All during the day and throughout the night, researchers, scientists, and information junkies roamed the world's computers, freely sharing information with one another as they searched through electronic files like archaeologists digging through ancient libraries. Although several million people were already connected to the Net, it felt like a small community.

Without any top-down imposition of rules, a civilized society emerged, netiquette evolved, friendships were forged, and a global electronic village began to take shape. No one knew exactly where all of this was leading, but everyone was having a great time building the foundation of cyberspace. Then the Web arrived on the scene, and everyone who touched it was caught in its seductive embrace.

Even before the technology we call the World Wide Web was superimposed on the Internet, the spirit of cooperation, the friendship, and the lure of the future already pervaded the Net. Thousands of people were helping each other without any expectation of receiving compensation for their services. This altruistic behavior is still found in a great many places on the Internet today.

My first personal experience with this phenomenon came when I was leading a team of computer programmers at a large telecommunications company. We were developing a prototype for a multimedia training-program, and we could not get the software tool we were using to carry out an operation we thought would significantly enhance the program. After several days filled with futile attempts to get the tool to work properly, the team decided to discard that particular feature. At home that night, while continuing my exploration of the Internet, I found an electronic bulletin board used exclusively by programmers who were using the same tool our team was using. So, I posted a description of our problem on the board.

The next night I found a half a dozen e-mail replies to my query in my electronic mailbox. One of them was from a woman researcher in Italy who gave us a solution to our problem. I was astounded! Here was a highly trained professional who freely gave away some valuable advice. It was an experience that made such a lasting impression on me I can still clearly recall my surroundings that night as I read her e-mail message. It just seemed too good to be true. People, in a highly competitive industry, were actually helping each other just for the sake of being good Internet citizens. I was hooked. For the rest of the time I worked with that software tool, I checked that bulletin board regularly. Occasionally I was able to answer someone else's question and did so to further encourage this public-spirited behavior. It not only felt good, it was fun to be a part of this growing community. Without realizing it, the spirit of the Internet had already captured me.

In its infancy, the culture of the Internet was defined by a relatively slow moving, close knit community of predominantly academic types. Much like great explorers from past ages, their ships gently rolled across seas of information, occasionally returning to port with stories of strange new lands and people. Today, life on the Internet is more like riding on an out-of-control bus that is being driven by a character out of a Jack Kerouac novel. But I think you will find that this change of pace, while not only inevitable, has been for the better.

Before getting too carried away with metaphors, however, this may be a good place to point out the fact that the World Wide Web, which is the part of the Internet the majority of people see, is not the same thing as "the Internet." As you will see in the next section, the Internet is an extremely large collection of interconnected computer networks. The World Wide Web is an easy-to-use graphical interface, which helps us find information on these networks. It is really that simple. The "Internet" is a "network of networks," many of which are awash in interesting information, and "the Web" is a tool that simplifies the process of finding information "on the Internet." Most people, however, call the process of finding information on the Internet "surfing the Web."

Don't worry if all of this talk about networks and interfaces doesn't mean a lot to you right now. By the time you finish this "Addendum" you will not only have a clear picture of what the Internet is, you will also be able to explain it in concise and simple terms to your friends.

In some ways the Web works like our brains do, making great leaps from one topic to another. Have you ever started thinking about the price of gas as you were driving to work, and by the time you arrived you were thinking of the cookies your grandmother baked on Christmas eve? How did your thoughts get from the initial topic, the price of gas, to what you were thinking of as you got out of your car? In essence, you were using a form of what computer programmers call hypertext. Hypertext, which is one of the underlying principles of the World Wide Web, works by connecting one topic to another by associating elements that two topics have in common. Your mind does the same thing. For example, one minute you might be thinking about your favorite movies; then about the movie "Titanic"; then about what it must be like to be floating in a small boat in the middle of a freezing ocean, wondering if you are ever going to see land again; then about Christopher Columbus, who finally reached shore and "discovered" America; then about the Spanish Conquistadors who slaughtered great numbers of Native Americans, from both the North and the South; and finally you find yourself thinking about how much knowledge was lost when a fanatical Spanish bishop burned the great Mayan libraries. In one way or another, everything is interconnected. On the Web, these points of interconnection are called hypertext links.

You already know how hypertext works because you use it every day. Start paying attention to how your thoughts evolve, particularly when you are daydreaming, and you will see what I mean. While our minds and the Web may work in much the same way, there is one very important difference. The thoughts you place on the World Wide Web become part of an ever growing, and highly interconnected, global memory. Once you let information loose on the Web, it takes on a life of its own. You may set up a personal web site that only gets a few visits a month from your friends and family. Because of the way the Internet works, however, your web site may be cached, or copied, on other computers around the globe, and sometimes pages from web sites are indexed by search engines and sometimes they are backed up on archive tapes. The information you place on your little web site may, quite literally, live indefinitely, even if you decide at some point to remove it from your own personal site. Someone, somewhere in time, might link this information to another web site, thus connecting one more patch in the quilt of information that is beginning to cover our planet. The speed at which this blanket of information is growing is increasing at an exponential rate. As is explained in the main body of this work, it is my belief that this rapid growth of interconnected information is setting the stage for the human species to make its next significant evolutionary leap.

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