The question of what, after all, is so new about the internet has run through the introductory and summary posts in this series. It is a divisive question. Some proclaim the revolutionary, worldchanging emergence of the internet a wholly unique phenomenon. Others describe its continuity with older forms of media, communication, technology, or ideas. And each vein has its proponents and detractors of the internet’s cultural effects, which seem ubiquitously manifest, though not unequivocally ethically or morally valenced. Since we are concerned, here, with not just cultural effects but also cultural conditions for today’s internet, though, we cannot neatly reduce our approach to any of these positions.
So, we are faced with a series of comparisons and contrasts.
First, compared to other networks, the familiar trope of the internet as a network of networks rings clear. This refers to the architecture of the internet as the abstracted incarnation of multiple disparate computer and area networks. The protocols and structures referenced here (TCP/IP, HTTP, FTP, FTP, DNS, and so on) each certainly conribute to the sense that the internet constitutes something markedly new from what existed before. But though they structure its architecture, these rules and practices do not define the internet, even in combination. Instead, the single most significant technical feature that distinguishes the internet from any earlier networks must be identified in packet switching. When this technique overcame circuit switching as the most efficient and reliable widescale method for transferring information on all-digital networks, the internet was made fundamentally possible. What we see in popular visualizations of network structure, however, tends to belie this important shift in processes. The diagram of nodes and edges that we find similar to the brain, to roads, and so on, shows only a snapshot of the internet’s link structure. When we remember the dynamic and evolutionary — that is, the temporal and historical — aspect of its definition, the internet does indeed appear differently to other, older networks.
Similarly, we cannot think of the internet as a giant computer, though it digital, electronic, and data-processing characteristics do stem from the same categories of engineering as those of specific devices. It remains an unqualified error to point to people typing or clicking at a PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and to immediately assume or state that they are “using” the internet. Though it may seem pedantic, the crucial difference here is that computers can operate without a connection to a network, and when connected, as mediators for just a handful of that network’s layers, whereas interconnectivity between computers and networks is the very purpose of the internet. In this way, the idea of the internet (or itsconstitutive parts) cannot be bound to any single node. I would further suggest that the ability to think of a computer as a single (albeit complex) machine ought not to extend to our conception of the internet. Reductive machinic metaphors do not produce robust description of the internet, let alone in-depth analysis.
But when we juxtapose the internet against media, the waters draw murky. After all, digital media comprise the contents of the sites on the internet, and these are both manifestly different from those that came before, as well as insufficient to explain the whole. To clarify: digital media, as we know well, differ from older media because their objects are interactive, replicable, and can contain other media within them. However, digitalia are not equivalent with the internet. The two exist independently of one another. Rather than reduce the complexity at hand, we must insist on keeping discussions of media at the platform, application, and presentation layers of the internet. So doing, we find the related distinction between the internet and the social, political, economic, or other formations often conflated with it rhetorically.
Understanding the position of media within the even more encompassing system of the internet also complicates governmental confusions over its jurisdiction. As recent internet legislation demonstrates, ranging from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to the broadly protested Stop Online Piracy and PROTECT IP Acts, and including ongoing debate over the Research Works and Federal Research Public Access Acts, Congress faces an epistemological dilemma. They express this in ostensible concerns over the flow of information and of cultural objects, that have real roots in concerns over security, jurisdiction, and economics. The dozens of different committees and subcommittees that have to attend to internet legislation, from commerce and finance to homeland security and foreign affairs, also testifies to the lack of a deep understanding of the internet’s structure. And at the root of all this misunderstanding lies the incongruity and asymmetry between the internet and the nation. That is, because Congress has clearly defined purposes regarding the nation, but America has no unequivocal relationship to the internet — we cannot say that the internet is ‘in’ America, or that America is ‘on’ the internet, for example — Congress struggles to articulate its own role and responsibility when the internet’s structure is at stake.
Turning from definitions to effects, we can further contrast internet use to other ways of reading, writing, listening, or viewing. Structures of feeling hold the critical historical value for understanding the internet that the conditions of one’s access to the internet deeply inform how one makes meaning out of connectivity and other internet functions. Even the use of the verb ‘internetting,’ simultaneously self-evident and obscure, indicates a suite of affective and sensory modes of perception not bound to precisely the types of encounter that older analogues present. The clearest example of this rather messy point: when we sit at a computer or hold up a mobile phone or tablet to connect to the internet, we engage a vast, often obscured or invisible, set of messages that make possible and then visible/audible the content to which we direct our attention. This means that we must wait — if only for fractions of a second — to receive the mediated object that we request. Further, it means that our attention is more difficult to direct for extended lengths of time. This is why the most important computer and web applications are the browser and the search engine: indices hold as much meaning and value as the content themselves, and we need to be able to hold multiple fronts in short-term memory at once. So, although internetting involves reading, writing, listening, and viewing through similar sit-and-attend patterns as do books, movies, and so on, the fundamental distinction remains the multiplicity of each point of attention online.
This leads to a comparison between internetting and other ways of transmitting, sending, encoding, broadcasting, sharing, hiding, or otherwise inscribing data and information. Again, the most important historical distinction between the internet’s ways of doing this and older mediations is a function of complexity. From writing’s evolution out of phonetic and ideographic speech to printing’s establishment of the page and book as the elemental units of communication, to the rise of real-time recorded media in audio and video films, we have drawn ever-increasing amounts of information into increasingly concentrated forms. It might seem incongruous to describe the internet as a further concentration, since the processes and protocols of encryption and transfer sprawl across multiple layers of hardware and software in order to translate language or image into voltage differences and back again. However, the amount of tacit knowledge packed into a single 140-character tweet rivals the Gutenberg bible in terms of technical complexity and craftsmanship. This is not an exaggeration: the unencrypted binary code for that given tweet, if printed in the same format as early presses, would fill a book roughly the same size. We deal in bits and bytes as casually as with nickels and dimes, though we need not see or understand their scope at any given moment.
Perhaps the only moments when we must become aware of these issues (assuming a certain set of privileged points of access to computers and the internet) are those when the complexity fails to make itself sufficiently invisible. Glitches in our systems manifest themselves as points of access to reflexive consciousness. This is not a major point, but it does raise questions about how the internet compares to other ways of connecting with or isolating from others, naming others and selves, or making other uses of information and technology. Specifically, the common anxieties over semi-ubiquitous computing, communicative addiction, and human-machine interaction find their outlet in these glitches. Further, our abilities to forge communities are called into sharp relief when the machinations that allow seamless textual or visual interaction fail; how much do our communities depend upon these kinds of technologies, or exchanges of digital information, as opposed to human connections at some less determined level? Finally, our abilities to encounter others — so richly possible on an open internet, though so often ignored as we become niche consumers who continually narrow down our options for news, entertainment, cultural objects, knowledge, art… — are severely compromised if our interactions take place in such large part online. The historical significance of distributed, interest-focused, intensely personal groups made possible through the internet and only the internet becomes quite clear in the absence of an easy connection from any member of those groups to any other. In short, we feel the cultural effects of the internet most clearly when we cannot exploit the cultural assumptions that generate its form.
So there we have some unique qualities and a sense of the historical significance of the internet. As an “all” “digital” network of networks, based on packet switching, comprised of a deep and complex set of layer stacks, undergoing an accelerating pace of change, and bringing people together through lolcatz, the internet stands alone in human history as both a phenomenon and a phase. Where it develops from here, of course, is an entirely different question, contingent upon economic, cultural, and legal factors yet to be determined. But its newness can no longer be taken for granted, especially in our research. We must approach internet studies without mystification, without valorization, without facile generalization. There we will find ways to think about its import, and its ongoing history.