A brief explanation of how the Internet works
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,
- 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
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
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
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