Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The internet: Everything you ever need to know

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In spite of all the answers the internet has given us, its full potential to transform our lives remains the great unknown. Here are the nine key steps to understanding the most powerful tool of our age – and where it's taking us

The internet is the tracks, the web is the traffic…

A funny thing happened to us on the way to the future. The internet went from being something exotic to being boring utility, like mains electricity or running water – and we never really noticed. So we wound up being totally dependent on a system about which we are terminally incurious. You think I exaggerate about the dependence? Well, just ask Estonia, one of the most internet-dependent countries on the planet, which in 2007 was more or less shut down for two weeks by a sustained attack on its network infrastructure. Or imagine what it would be like if, one day, you suddenly found yourself unable to book flights, transfer funds from your bank account, check bus timetables, send email, search Google, call your family using Skype, buy music from Apple or books from Amazon, buy or sell stuff on eBay, watch clips on YouTube or BBC programmes on the iPlayer – or do the 1,001 other things that have become as natural as breathing.

The internet has quietly infiltrated our lives, and yet we seem to be remarkably unreflective about it. That's not because we're short of information about the network; on the contrary, we're awash with the stuff. It's just that we don't know what it all means. We're in the state once described by that great scholar of cyberspace, Manuel Castells, as "informed bewilderment".

Mainstream media don't exactly help here, because much – if not most – media coverage of the net is negative. It may be essential for our kids' education, they concede, but it's riddled with online predators, seeking children to "groom" for abuse. Google is supposedly "making us stupid" and shattering our concentration into the bargain. It's also allegedly leading to an epidemic of plagiarism. File sharing is destroying music, online news is killing newspapers, and Amazon is killing bookshops. The network is making a mockery of legal injunctions and the web is full of lies, distortions and half-truths. Social networking fuels the growth of vindictive "flash mobs" which ambush innocent columnists such as Jan Moir. And so on.

All of which might lead a detached observer to ask: if the internet is such a disaster, how come 27% of the world's population (or about 1.8 billion people) use it happily every day, while billions more are desperate to get access to it?

So how might we go about getting a more balanced view of the net ? What would you really need to know to understand the internet phenomenon? Having thought about it for a while, my conclusion is that all you need is a smallish number of big ideas, which, taken together, sharply reduce the bewilderment of which Castells writes so eloquently.

But how many ideas? In 1956, the psychologist George Miller published a famous paper in the journal Psychological Review. Its title was "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information" and in it Miller set out to summarise some earlier experiments which attempted to measure the limits of people's short-term memory. In each case he reported that the effective "channel capacity" lay between five and nine choices. Miller did not draw any firm conclusions from this, however, and contented himself by merely conjecturing that "the recurring sevens might represent something deep and profound or be just coincidence". And that, he probably thought, was that.

But Miller had underestimated the appetite of popular culture for anything with the word "magical' in the title. Instead of being known as a mere aggregator of research results, Miller found himself identified as a kind of sage — a discoverer of a profound truth about human nature. "My problem," he wrote, "is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals… Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution."

But in fact, the basic idea that emerges from Miller's 1956 paper seems to have stood the test of time. The idea is that our short-term memory can only hold between five and nine "chunks" of information at any given moment (here a chunk is defined as a "meaningful unit"). So, when trying to decide how many big ideas about the internet would be meaningful for most readers, it seemed sensible to settle for a magical total of nine. So here they are.


The strange thing about living through a revolution is that it's very difficult to see what's going on. Imagine what it must have been like being a resident of St Petersburg in 1917, in the months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. It's clear that momentous events are afoot; there are all kinds of conflicting rumours and theories, but nobody knows how things will pan out. Only with the benefit of hindsight will we get a clear idea of what was going on. But the clarity that hindsight bestows is also misleading, because it understates how confusing things appeared to people at the time.

So it is with us now. We're living through a radical transformation of our communications environment. Since we don't have the benefit of hindsight, we don't really know where it's taking us. And one thing we've learned from the history of communications technology is that people tend to overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies — and to underestimate their long-term implications.

We see this all around us at the moment, as would-be savants, commentators, writers, consultants and visionaries tout their personal interpretations of what the internet means for business, publishing, retailing, education, politics and the future of civilisation as we know it. Often, these interpretations are compressed into vivid slogans, memes or aphorisms: information "wants to be free"; the "long tail" is the future of retailing; "Facebook just seized control of the internet", and so on. These kinds of slogans are really just short-term extrapolations from yesterday's or today's experience. They tell us little about where the revolution we're currently living through is heading. The question is: can we do any better — without falling into the trap of feigning omniscience?

Here's a radical idea: why not see if there's anything to be learned from history? Because mankind has lived through an earlier transformation in its communications environment, brought about by the invention of printing by movable type. This technology changed the world — indeed, it shaped the cultural environment in which most of us grew up. And the great thing about it, from the point of view of this essay, is that we can view it with the benefit of hindsight. We know what happened.

A thought experiment

So let's conduct what the Germans call a Gedankenexperiment — a thought experiment. Imagine that the net represents a similar kind of transformation in our communications environment to that wrought by printing. What would we learn from such an experiment?

The first printed bibles emerged in 1455 from the press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz. Now, imagine that the year is 1472 — ie 17 years after 1455. Imagine, further, that you're the medieval equivalent of a Mori pollster, standing on the bridge in Mainz with a clipboard in your hand and asking pedestrians a few questions. Here's question four: On a scale of one to five, where one indicates "Not at all likely" and five indicates "Very likely", how likely do you think it is that Herr Gutenberg's invention will:

(a) Undermine the authority of the Catholic church?

(b) Power the Reformation?

(c) Enable the rise of modern science?

(d) Create entirely new social classes and professions?

(e) Change our conceptions of "childhood" as a protected early period in a person's life?

On a scale of one to five! You have only to ask the questions to realise the fatuity of the idea. Printing did indeed have all of these effects, but there was no way that anyone in 1472, in Mainz (or anywhere else for that matter) could have known how profound its impact would be.

I'm writing this in 2010, which is 17 years since the web went mainstream. If I'm right about the net effecting a transformation in our communications environment comparable to that wrought by Gutenberg, then it's patently absurd for me (or anyone else) to pretend to know what its long-term impact will be. The honest answer is that we simply don't know.

The trouble is, though, that everybody affected by the net is demanding an answer right now. Print journalists and their employers want to know what's going to happen to their industry. Likewise the music business, publishers, television networks, radio stations, government departments, travel agents, universities, telcos, airlines, libraries and lots of others. The sad truth is that they will all have to learn to be patient. And, for some of them, by the time we know the answers to their questions, it will be too late.


The most common — and still surprisingly widespread — misconception is that the internet and the web are the same thing. They're not. A good way to understand this is via a railway analogy. Think of the internet as the tracks and signalling, the infrastructure on which everything runs. In a railway network, different kinds of traffic run on the infrastructure — high-speed express trains, slow stopping trains, commuter trains, freight trains and (sometimes) specialist maintenance and repair trains.

On the internet, web pages are only one of the many kinds of traffic that run on its virtual tracks. Other types of traffic include music files being exchanged via peer-to-peer networking, or from the iTunes store; movie files travelling via BitTorrent; software updates; email; instant messages; phone conversations via Skype and other VoIP (internet telephony) services; streaming video and audio; and other stuff too arcane to mention.

And (here's the important bit) there will undoubtedly be other kinds of traffic, stuff we can't possibly have dreamed of yet, running on the internet in 10 years' time.

So the thing to remember is this: the web is huge and very important, but it's just one of the many things that run on the internet. The net is much bigger and far more important than anything that travels on it.

Understand this simple distinction and you're halfway to wisdom.


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