The human internet

The genius part of the internet is that you don’t actually think about it. When it works as designed, it works completely without your knowing. You interact with your computer and you really have no idea whether you’re looking at something stored on your computer or not.

None of this happened by accident

The story is familiar by now, I’m sure. The internet started as a loose network of large computers at universities in 1969. Funded by the US government, it was originally designed to make sure that the government’s top minds could communicate after a nuclear attack.

Over 30 years later Sir Tim Berners-Lee took the internet from text to graphics, and created the World Wide Web. He created the groundwork that led to the way you understand streaming and surfing. In doing so, he hid a lot of the hard work behind an increasingly attractive facade. By making it possible to communicate without knowing how it was all done, the internet was opened up to regular folks like you and me.

The revolution continued

Ten years later, “Web 2.0” arrived, driven by graphic display technologies like Flash and Java. All of a sudden the internet was less like a giant book and more like a sprawling, interactive movie. Those technologies may be “dirty words” today — Flash is almost gone along with its inherent security issues, and Java has been gone for years –but back then they were really instrumental in giving us really entertaining content.

Then, ten years after that, the combination of apps, fast connections, cloud storage and content delivery networks gave us the world of streaming video we know today. Of course, YouTube had been around since 2005, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that streaming video became almost indistinguishable from watching TV.

And it happens because of copper, fiber, and microwaves

We intentionally give no thought to the way information flows over the internet. As I said the internet works that way on purpose. We don’t think about the millions of pounds of copper wire, the millions of miles of fiber, and the microwave links that make the modern internet possible. We don’t think about the massive server farms that give us what we ask for, almost instantly. I happened across one of these data centers not long ago in Richardson, Texas. It was a massive, almost impenetrable fortress nearly devoid of human life. And yet, from the power lines leading to it and the many giant buildings, it was obvious how important it was.

We created the computers, and they created us

At this point the internet is so bewilderingly complex that no one person truly understands it. There are experts in every field who understand how the computers communicate, the kind of hardware that makes it happen, and the way that all those wires connect. But in order to understand the internet, we almost need a “human internet”… a massively redundant network of experts in all parts of the world, each with enough knowledge to explain just one tiny part.

That’s the weird thing. The internet was born from human intelligence. It is not (as far as we know) truly independently intelligent yet. However it follows its own rules and its own programming. The internet couldn’t work if humans had to control every aspect of it.

And so, weirdly, the internet has shaped us all into one large internet. widespread and far-flung. We use the rules the computers have fed us in order to get the information we want.

It’s a little scary to think what might happen next.