The Internet ≠ the Network

Douglas Rushkoff just posted a piece with which I largely agree, but which indulges in some remarkably lazy language in the process:

“Some of us might like to believe that the genie is out of the bottle and that we all have access to an unstoppable decentralized network. In reality, the internet is entirely controlled by central authorities.”

Arrgh! This kind of thing drives me crazy. If we could stop conflating the Internet (which is a combination of networking protocols) and the physical network (which is a bunch of cables and antennas and switches), we might be able to have a useful dialogue about how to reduce the Internet’s vulnerability to coercive measures by changing the shape of the network.

In the end, that’s what Rushkoff advocates; I just wish he wouldn’t muddy the water so.

Stay with me, kids; I’m going to say this again slowly: The network is the wires and antennas and stuff. The Internet is the way information is organised to travel across it.

More to the point, the Internet is a very specific way for data to travel across it:

  • It doesn’t rely on a middle-man. I might choose to use Facebook for chat, but I don’t have to. I could connect straight to your computer or phone and chat away.
  • It doesn’t need a road map. In effect, the data packets just go hitch-hiking across the network with a sign saying ‘San José’ – or whatever.
  • It doesn’t see borders the same way some other network protocols do. In fact, that’s why it’s an Inter net: Because it routes traffic between different networks.

Once more:

  • Internet = you & me talking.
  • Network = the road system that allows you and me to get together to talk.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Oh, as long as I’m being pedantic: It’s Internet-with-a-capital-I. It’s a proper noun referring to a very specific thing. It’s like a country with all the geography taken out. It still has to have a capital.