November 14, 2007

The Internet is Magic, or “But the problem is, how am I supposed to believe in miracles anymore now that I know how the internet works?”

Today, Emily and I had an exam on the Internet. And by that I mean, we took an exam on concepts related to the internet for SI 502. The exam made us kind of crazy, and we sat in the office recovering, talking in the sort of manic, stressed-out haze that characterizes a lot of our conversations about the work we do at SI.

Emily said the things we've learned in this class have reduced her sense of wonder about the internet, that learning its basic workings has made the whole thing somehow less awe-inspiring. She compared this to the plight of young children (I'm paraphrasing here): "It's like when you hear rumors at recess that Santa Claus isn't real, and even though you know that Christmas is really about Jesus, some the magic of the holiday is lost."

Many of us on this side of the digital divide use the internet every day, without feeling the need to understand how it works. Some of us might even feel that trying to learn how the internet works is a little like asking to have Santa spoiled for you. The internet is pretty freaking complicated. It's hard to sum up, and it requires time to understand. Some day we beleaguered 502-ers might get there.

Although, we are already miles ahead of some. Consider:

Part I


Part II

As Jon Stewart suggests, the internet is not just a series of tubes. Ted Steven's tube analogy (while it sounds half-cocked) is thought-provoking because it reminds us that the internet has physicality – cables, computer hardware, servers, and routers that can "talk" to each other. But the higher-level result of all that underlying architecture – the fact that in less than a second you are able to get a webpage that is stored on a server thousands of miles away to display on the screen in front of you in a format you can comprehend – is mind-blowing when you really think about it. And the layers in between the physical and the conceptual -- they might as well be a series of tubes, for all most internet users care.

My 502 GSI has told us that the core question in this course is "Who's talking to whom?" We perceive with our senses, and communicate in human terms. We've created machines that perceive and communicate in numbers, in bits and code, in simple electronic signals. How do we talk to computers in a language they understand, how do different computers talk to each other, and how do layers of hardware and software work together? The fact that computer systems work, that networks work, is a miracle of communication and coordination.

So as much as I sympathize with Emily and all those little kids (including wee young Katie, circa 1993) who discover their parents lie to them to make life seem cooler, learning some basics about the internet has only increased my wonderment. For me, it's more like discovering Santa isn't real, realizing your parents pulled off a massive, long-term hoax in collaboration with parents all across the Western world, and then settling into an appreciation for the system that could enable the conspiracy to continue from year to year and generation to generation. Well, something like that.

I guess what I'm trying to say is the more I learn about the internet, the more I think that the fact that it works at all is truly, fantastically, completely magical. The more I learn about the internet, the more I feel like doing new-agey pagan rituals in its honor.

Not really.

Well, maybe a little.


  1. I find that the "laying of the hands" works pretty well for computer hardware. But since there is nothing I can lay my hands on for the internet, I just curse at it when it doesn't work.

  2. Wait, you belived in Santa until 1993? Weren't you like 8 by then? No offense or anything.

    Also, I agree with greg. Eventhough I now understand the internet (sort of), it's still very abstract.

  3. I think that this post should be used on the introductory day for 502 newbies.