Internet – Technical Literature

This week, I delved a little more deeply into the technical architecture of the Internet, to finish laying the groundwork for the rest of the semester. After this week’s post, these technical reviews will form the framework for ongoing research. But for now, it’s worth our while to lay out the rest of our key terms and concepts regarding the technology and processes that undergird the modern internet.

At its most elementary, internet architecture depends on a huge number of layers. The physical infrastructure layer is connected at the link layer. These are organized into the network layer, which routes messages, and is further managed by the transport layer. The session layer manages naming, location, and connection information, and the presentation and application layers bring the user their desired interpretation of the data and information being sent around the web. These layers encompass familiar terms like hosting and domain naming (in the physical sub-networks and the session layers, respectively), as well as web sites and email (at the presentation and application layers, respectively). For us, the layers are also important because – regardless of metaphor – they emphasize how many complex parts have to be accounted for when a study involving the internet is undertaken. As a framework for thinking through who and what the internet involves, layers help visualize the vast amount of information, and they also make it concrete and manageable.

Layers of the IP - Internet Protocol - via Creative Commons
The most important, functional layers of the internet protocol, explained visually.
The next most crucial elements of the internet are its links. These  do exactly what their name implies: they connect things. These are the building blocks of networks themselves. They can be physical, textual, hypertextual, and virtual. As we examine the way that information propagates through a system, we must remain conscious of the multiple possible pathways that it can take. This is why links signify more than just edges of the networks they inhabit and connect. They also allow us to describe, graphically and mathematically, the structure of the relationships between people, processes, and ideas that inform the growth and change in those networks.
Protocols will help us measure cultural influence on internet structure. The protocols by which the transmission of data and information are standardized and organized have a complicated history stretching back to the 1970s and 1980s. Oversimplified, they define the rules for moving and locating things online. Much of their structure is large databases. The Internet Protocol, or IP, maintains the numerical addresses of devices and locations online, and combined with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP, the rules for passing information between those addresses), it defines the internet as we know it. Next comes the Domain Name System (or DNS), which correlates those IP addresses with written names such as, and comprises the single largest database in the world. It recently began to incorporate non-Latin domain names, such as those written in Chinese, Arabic, and other character sets, creating a vast increase in possible domain names. The Hypertext Transmission Protocol (HTTP) describes how browsers interpret web sites, the Simple Mail Transmission Protocol (STMP) defines how email is sent and received, and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) manages the movement of files from local machines (like a personal computer) to websites and back again – every time you download a file, you obey the FTP in addition to most of the others mentioned here. Where protocols become curious cultural artifacts is at their moments of development and change, such as when they encounter situations for which they have no existing rules; these are the moments of disruption and confusion to which cultural internet research must pay close attention.
As standardized frameworks for the development of programs and applications, platforms are a broad category. They include content management systems such as WordPress, and application frameworks such as .NET, which live just behind the user’s interface with a web site. Applications can include email, games, social networks, and other user-facing programs. In recent years, a critical shift has taken place on, in, and around the internet: the rise of Platform as a Service and Software as a Service markets that far outstrip other areas of online commerce. Services take on a specific role online, to be explored in more detail next week, when the next post will detail some of the prevailing market, political, and behavioral currents on the internet. These will help prescribe the methodologies, approaches, and underlying assumptions that will structure further research. They will also help point the way to more interesting questions of production, reception, and social organization around the internet.

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