Friday, April 27, 2007

Defining the Internet

A discussion started on slashdot last night about a succinct layman’s definition of the Internet.

Most of the examples were technical, and related to computers connected in some way. There were some metaphors: highways, trains, telephones, mail. There were a few references its social aspects. Anthropomorphism was pervasive: computers talking to each other, sending messages, sharing information with each other.

Most of the discussion was about what it was, with some comments about how it works, and occasional references to its social function.

Here’s a précis of the definitions given so far:
  • collection of ideas
  • bunch of connected computers
  • information as trains running on tracks
  • general purpose communication system
  • means for computers to connect to each other and share information
  • everybody already knows what it is
  • computers talking to other computers over cables
  • roadway, highway
  • telephone system with computers calling computers
  • global public computer network
  • mail system
  • physical: computers sending messages; social: virtual community; functional: way to use computers to send messages; technical: computers using protocols
  • agreement (protocol) about how to have networks talk to each other
The best paper I’ve seen on this topic is Susan Crawford’s “Internet Think,” which contrasts the very different ways that “Engineers,” “Telcos,” and “Netheads” define the Internet. Most of the slashdot discussion would fall in the Engineers category.

The metaphors used for the Internet are so stable they’re stale . . . Perhaps the clean slate movement will stir up our thinking. How about the Internet as a brain (back to the Fifties!), or an ecosystem, or a society? The asymmetry of conceptual metaphors is perceptible in the last one: it’s more common to think about society using the Internet as a model (cf. Manuel Castells) than to model the Internet by thinking about society.

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