I met Meaghan in the 3rd grade, but it wasn’t really until middle school that our friendship grew into the “best” persuasion; in the 6th grade, we discovered messaging. During the school day, she and I would pass handwritten notes like typical middle school girls, but after school, our messaging continued for hours. Notes were typed into pop-up windows, littered with multi-color text and old school emoticons, as in the smileys that stayed sideways. And while it has been sixteen years since we made our first screen-names, which I will not divulge for dignity purposes, and the platform has changed, we still message on the daily. GChat during the workweek, iMessage on the weekends – we’re still passing notes, only shorter and much, much faster. Little about our friendship has changed, despite the fact that our lives are entirely different. In the 6th grade, we lived 1.2 miles apart. These days we’ve got 1,913 miles between our doorsteps. So how is it possible for us to remain so close while being so far away? Well, easy: the Internet.
When I first logged on at the age of 11, I used the Internet solely for entertainment purposes. In the consequent years, however, it has entangled its invisible threads around almost every aspect of my life – as it has done with most of us. And the embarrassing truth of the matter is that I really didn’t understand how it worked, even after so many years of constant use. It might as well have been just been this:
As of June 2012, more than 2.4 billion people, over one-third of the Earth’s population, have used services on the Internet. But what IS the Internet? Where did it come from? I mean, surely at some point, someone had to turn it on, right? While we all know how to open a web browser and Google “name of game show with Agrocrag” – how does it actually work?
The Internet is, quite simply, a series of tubes. I’m kidding – but I’m sort of not. They’re metaphorical tubes. See, the Internet, an abbreviation of the term “Internetworking,” is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) to link together several billion devices. That made perfect sense, right? No? Yeah, I was with you.
Here’s the deal: the Internet is a network of networks. The concept of a “computer network” is fairly straightforward – it’s a telecommunication network (communication via electrical signals or electromagnetic waves) that allows computers to talk to each other. Imagine sitting two computers next to each other and connecting them with a cable – it makes sense that you can now transfer files back and forth, right? Well sure, it’s pretty obvious when there’s a bright yellow cable involved. The concept of the Internet isn’t dissimilar from that, it’s just that you’d need about 9 billion more cables, and some of them would have to be really, REALLY long. Thankfully, someone along the way figured out a means of hiding those cables, or ditching them all together via radio waves. (Hi wireless! You beautiful, mystical thing, you.)
So how does that standard Internet Proto-whatever thing fit in, and why does it matter? Well, let’s think about it in terms of people. Say you had a group of people in a room and every single one of them spoke a different language, and only that language. As you can imagine, absolutely nothing would get accomplished. It would be an internetworking catastrophe. But then someone new walks in, and she’s carrying a stack of Rosetta Stone discs. It’s a new language that she just created, a universal language, and that language is called TCP/IP. A few tutorials later, everyone in the room is now proficient in TCP/IP, and can understand each other. Finally able to successfully connect, these people can network with each other freely, no matter what the conversation is. If it’s a room of Iggles, it’ll probably be about Sherlock.
Essentially that’s how the Internet works. In the simplest means, one computer that is part of one network connects to another computer that is part of a different network through electrical signals. Both of those computers, armed with the ability to speak the TCP/IP language, are able to exchange data. Clearly defined, the Internet is the physical network that connects a global system.
But whose idea was this in the first place? Well, to be fair, there were several different countries working on the theory of a global communication network, but the Internet as we know it today was born from a research project commissioned by the United States government in the 1960’s. (U-S-A! U-S-A!) Originally, the plan was for the government to build a fault-tolerant communication system for its various agencies via computer networks. But in the 1980’s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the US backbone, which was a principal data route between large, strategically-placed interconnected networks and core routers. Think of these like home bases in an expansive game of information tag. The purpose of the backbone was so that this internetworking system could be used for both government and academic purposes. Soon thereafter, several other countries started to get in on the global networking movement – and mergers of many national networks birthed the concept of an international communication network.
A bunch of stuff that is exciting to me and probably really dry and uninteresting to the general population happened in the 1980’s. If you’re at all curious, send me an e-mail and I’ll tell you about it. But here’s the next step in the Internet timeline that you might care about: commercialization.
In the early 1990’s, commercial Internet service providers began to offer connectivity to the Internet through their networks to homes and businesses. However, because the Internet at this time was being run on the NSFNET backbone, the content was restricted to academic and government purposes. No online retail stores, no personal websites, just the wonder that was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Still, even that was an unfathomable amount of information at the public’s fingertips, and people couldn’t get enough. Homes purchased dedicated phone lines, and personal computer sales shot through the roof, all for dial-up connectivity. You guys remember dial-up, right?
(If you don’t, please, PLEASE don’t tell me. You don’t know what a fight can be if you haven’t lay across the kitchen floor while your mom tied up the only phone line and you told your friend you’d be on AOL Instant Messenger by 4:30. Remember, we couldn’t text each other yet. We had to call – which we couldn’t do because mom was ON THE PHONE. It was TERRIBLE.)
Finally, in 1995, the United States government decommissioned the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), and the restrictions on use of the Internet for commercial traffic were lifted. This action led to the dot-com bubble, a term used to refer to the soaring stock prices of a deluge of start-up Internet-based companies that spanned from the years 1997-2000. While many of these companies crashed when the bubble burst in March of 2000, the future of the Internet was cemented. The Internet would be a commercialized, open forum for information exchange. It would be a network of networks without a single governing body.
And that threat of international informational freedom is exactly how our troubles began.
Next Month I’ll post part two of the series, where we’ll discuss who controls the Internet, and what exactly this Net Neutrality issue really all about.