So today I want to talk about the medium you’re using to read these words, the infrastructure and ideological force-of-will that now connects us all together, that drives the world’s industry and allows us to communicate and argue with loved ones and complete strangers from around the world.
“The Internet is for Porn!” proclaimed Trekkie Monster in Broadway’s famous musical, Avenue Q, and back in 2003, it may well have been — I can certainly attest to this considering the swathes of salacious popups I closed after each RuneScape session — but back when it was known as ARPANET, it certainly wasn’t.
In fact, back in the ARPANET days, porn may well have got you into some very serious trouble with the U.S. Government. This was because ARPANET was conceived with military funding along with state and university infrastructure as a means for military communications across the States.
During the late-60s, the Cold War was in full-swing and although Joe McCarthy was dead, paranoia was still rife in the west. It was for this reason that the U.S. military, with a little prodding from the RAND organisation invested missile money into communications, into new protocols that could harness the pre-existing telephone infrastructure of the U.S. to send large packets of data across vast distances and even survive a nuclear holocaust — don’t ask how, I don’t know.
The idea was simple, use telephone lines to send computer signals, much like computers used wires and circuits to send signals between their components.
Back then, the personal computer didn’t exist, a computer was something you would find in a university laboratory, enormous and curious objects prone to overheating and mechanical atrophy. They were so big in fact that the computers often were the labs, and so once you had a computer, it became very difficult and expensive to un-have it. Despite the downsides, computers were still highly in demand for researchers and data-hungry academics so time-sharing became the compromise; for instance, the Mathematics department can have the computer for six hours on Tuesday, and the Astronomy department can have it for four on Wednesday and cheating would not be allowed!
Then ARPANET comes in and changes things instantly. Via the use of intermediary computers called IMPS, universities were able to share resources. East Coast computers could start computing West Coast problems, and West Coast universities could start working with East Coast data.
As ARPANET’s infrastructure grew, it became decentralised thus improving it’s redundancy, meaning that if one node or link in the chain dropped, the packets could still reach their destination via another means and/or the rest of the network would be unaffected.
Nowadays the internet is replete with conspiracies (and porn), flat-earthers, hollow-mooners, ripperologists, truthers, vegans and UFOlogists, and what makes today’s internet culture so deliciously ironic is that the internet wouldn’t exist in the way it does had the U.S. not begun defecating masonry when Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union. See, to the U.S. of the 50’s and 60’s, Sputnik was more than just the first man-made object in space, it was a display of the USSR’s supreme missile technology, a power-play by the Reds, if they could reach space, they could reach the States, and ARPANET was commissioned to allow communication across the US if a Red missile ever did reach The West. Despite the decades elapsed between us and the birth of the internet, humans are still as paranoid as ever!
Beautiful isn’t it? How we went from pragmatic logistics in case of nuclear holocaust to cute animals and adverts for randy goat weed.
Thanks for the history lesson, but how does it really work?
Ah… you’ve seen through my ploy to not do any real hard work. Alright fine, I’m going to try and work through this. Before I start though, let me state that I am a programmer and not a network engineer, so don’t quote me, or if you do, make sure your audience knows it’s a quote…
So the Internet is a an enormous NETwork of dispersed computers around the world, linked to one another via copper wires, fibre-optics and satellites. It’s a bunch of software and protocols that’s not changed much since the seventies. What it really is is a bunch of rules that everyone’s accepted to allow for data transfer across the planet. The internet isn’t Twitter, Facebook, Google, Reddit or any other website or we service you use. These are only destinations you may arrive at using the methods of the internet. When you browse Reddit, or search for the square-root of pi (or porn) via Google, you’re not actually doing anything on the internet, you’re sending and receiving data to Reddit or Google machines VIA the internet.
So in a nutshell, the internet is both the phone and the phone-book of computers.
So what happens when you type an address into your browser’s address bar? Well, depending on your DNS lookup setting, the first place your request (because that’s what it is: a request) will be sent to a DNS lookup service, take for instance google’s 126.96.36.199, where the address of the site you’re after is compared to an enormous list of other addresses and then the request is sent towards the receiver or in the direction of the closest match. It’s a wonderfully simple system. Essentially, what the Internet is doing is matching 32-bit numbers (in IPV4) or 128-bit numbers (in IPV6) and passing the packet along.
What happens when the packets arrive at their destination depends entirely on the packets, but there you have it. That’s the internet. Basically… Hope you feel smarter.