Skip to main content

I’ve been reviewing how we assess the internet environment in different countries – its availability, its use, its impact on the ways we do things. That’s raised three questions in my mind that I’ll look at these next three weeks:

  • how we define the internet (and how, therefore, we think about it);

  • how we think of its trajectory (recall its history, imagine its future direction);

  • and how we assess its impact.

This week, the first of these.  

“What is the internet?”

Ask Google the question “what is the internet?” and the answers that you’ll find are pretty similar.

It’s “a vast network that connects computers all over the world” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica); “the global system of interconnected computer networks that uses the Internet protocol suite to communicate between networks and devices” (Wikipedia).  

I find the BBC’s description of it – “a global network of computers that works much like the postal system, only at sub-second speeds” – endearing because it roots it in communications history; but of course for many people now the internet’s far more familiar than the postal system. 

These snapshot definitions are accurate, in their way, and they’re a natural starting point but it’s a very partial one. It’s rooted in what defines the internet as technology, not as an aspect of society.

Start with them and it’s natural to move on to the way that technology is structured as a basis for how we think about the internet: to focus on technology rather than what we do with it. That’s a bit like thinking of a car as a combustion engine on wheels rather than a means of moving quickly between places. A good starting point, but it doesn’t tell you how the car is used or how it’s changed society. 

Teaching about the internet

Textbooks and courses about the internet tend to begin much like this too. Typically, they start by describing the internet’s technology and architecture, rather than its services and outcomes. This is true of courses at university, whether they’re for students of computer science, communications as a social science or just social science. (I’ve been guilty here myself.)  

The description that is found at the beginning of textbooks and courses is often built around layer models concerned with infrastructure, transport, applications and so forth. There are different formulations, but they’re all essentially concerned with the architecture of the internet, then with its protocols and standards, and the ways in which these interlock to enable services and innovation.  

The history of the internet is, likewise, taught as an evolution from the ARPANET, a sequence of innovations in technology from what is now a distant past.

This is, of course, a valid and important way to think about the internet, especially for technologists, but it’s not the only way. And how we define, teach/learn and think about aspects of society influences impacts and how policy towards them then gets made.

How do users define the internet?

There are other ways to define the internet (and think about it) that are based not on technology but on experience. Definitions that come from users of the internet rather than its makers, its subjects rather than its experts. Demand-side definitions, one might way, rather than supply-side ones.  

Most people who interact with internet don’t do so as technologists and aren’t interested in how it works – any more than they are interested in the workings of the combustion engine when they want to drive a car or the mechanics of photosynthesis when they want to eat a lettuce. They’re interested in how they can use it, what it can do for them, and what it’s doing to society.

Their experience of the internet is not rooted in its underlying architecture, but in the access modes they use – the individual devices, which may be computers, are more likely now to be their mobile ‘phones’, and increasingly are going to be appliances that have become connected to the internet.  

Their experience is not about protocols and ISPs but services and applications. That's why they think of it as Google rather than as TCP/IP; why so many people identify the internet with Facebook rather than with, say, the Web.  The internet that they experience is made of services like YouTube, not the data centres round the world that store its data or the massive data flows between them.

And people’s assessment of the internet – their definition of its role within their lives - concerns the value (and anxieties) that they derive from it: the relationships it fosters, the purchases it simplifies, the work that it delivers, the harassment that it enables.

Why does this matter?

This user perspective on the internet isn’t a misunderstanding of it, as some technologists sometimes suggest, but a different – and equally valid – understanding based on experience rather than technology.  For users of the internet, it’s that experience that matters, just as for technologists it’s the science and the infrastructure.

My point here’s that defining the internet today – and understanding what it means within society – needs to be ‘multivalent’, to reflect the different perceptions and understandings that derive from different experiences of it:

  • from both supply and demand sides of the internet;

  • from technologists and businesses, governments and citizens;

  • from developed and developing countries;

  • from those with high levels of access and engagement with it and those with little or with none;

  • from those who’ve gained and those who feel they’ve not, including those who feel they’ve lost.

Internet insiders have insisted, for decades, that discourse and policy towards the internet should be multistakeholder, including ‘the technical community’ alongside governments, the (increasingly predominant) private sector and civil society.  That’s been widely accepted, even in multilateral institutions.

A multistakeholder approach, though, requires the internet to be defined and understood in terms of perspectives from all those stakeholders: to be defined as much in terms of lived experience as of technology.  

This has implications for both learning about the internet and public policy. A few thoughts on the former.

Learning about the internet

The starting point for learning is important here because it influences how we think about the internet in general. If our starting point is that the internet’s technology, then we’re likely to think about its implications and its governance from technological perspectives. That’s particularly problematic if starting with tech mystifies technology for non-techie learners rather than explaining or elucidating it.

Non-technologists (particularly those concerned with policy) need grounding in technology in ways that demystify and locate it in relation to society, economy and culture. If they see technology as the purview of technologists, they are more likely to defer to technical opinion when they make decisions about adoption and deployment.  

There are plenty of examples of that happening and of what can happen in result – of money wasted, priorities mislaid, rights violated and other unintended consequences.  

But it’s also important for students of technology – particularly computer science – to be grounded in societal perspectives.  

There’s been growing concern about the lack of attention to social and (especially) ethical dimensions of technology in computer science courses. If AI’s to become central to the course of future lives, then those who develop and design it should be alert (and alerted in their training) to the impacts and the implications of the ways in which it is designed, not just to maximising technological potential.

And as for users

Something similar might be said about the general public.

It’s useful for users to know how a combustion engine works if they’re going to drive a car (at least when it breaks down) but it’s much more useful (for themselves and for society) for them to have good road sense and understand the rules and norms that govern use of roads (speed limits, signs, ways of behaving towards other users).

There’s a lot of rhetoric about the need to improve the digital literacy of users, as the basis for enabling them to maximise advantage from the internet and as the basis for protecting against risk (from fraud, from cybercrime, from disinformation, from abuse and harassment). Much less, though, does this feature in curricula in practice.  

Governments encourage coding lessons more than lessons in how to cope with the consequence of coding. Both are important, but the latter is more universal. Learning about the internet and the wider digital environment in schools should reach beyond technology to focus on the ways we handle impact and experience.

And so to definitions

Returning then to definitions, I’d say this. We should not define the internet as a technology, but should understand it in a much more rounded sense: encompassing both the technology that’s at its core and other aspects that reach deep into society; including access, usage, lived experience and impact.  

When we’re asked to explain what the internet is, we could start from what it does rather than how it works: to use my car analogy, we could start by saying that it enables journeys to be undertaken rather than that it follows certain scientific principles. And we could ask ourselves whether shifting our emphasis that way changes how we ourselves then think about it.   

Image: "Internet sign", by cawi2001 on Wikimedia Commons.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.