How it Works: Why People Should Know Internet Basics

The Internet IT CROWD Pic

One of my favorite scenes from the British TV comedy series The IT Crowd, is when computer illiterate Jen asks her IT colleagues, Moss and Roy, to write her a speech about IT (information technology).  Playing upon her cluelessness of all things technical, Moss and Roy compose a speech about the Internet, convincing Jen that they have been able to “borrow the Internet” for the speech itself.  This “Internet” is an actual physical black box that is supposedly kept on top of Big Ben (for good reception), has been demagnetized by Steven Hawking, is absolutely wireless, and on loan from the “Elders of the Internet.”  While Moss and Roy wait for Jen to make a fool of herself presenting this Internet to her audience, they are utterly shocked when everyone in the room is awestruck by the presence of the “Internet” itself.

To those who know how the Internet works, even just the basics, this is a hilarious representation of most people’s ignorance when it comes to technology.  In actuality the Internet is made of cables, tubes, networks, users and end-users, and protocols.[i]  It is not some black box or intangible cloud, though to many it may seem that way.

How can so many people misunderstand a piece of technology used everyday by almost 2.5 billion people worldwide?[ii]  A recent study on cloud computing revealed: 54% of respondents said they did not use the cloud (though 95% of them use cloud services), 51% believed that weather could effect cloud computing, and when asked what they thought the cloud was, only 16% said they think of a computer network.[iii]  There is clearly a disconnect between technology and the general population.  Some may argue that it is not necessary for all Internet users to understand how it works.  There are many things, especially electronics, that people use on a daily basis but may not, and do not, need to understand—for example an oven or a car.  The Internet; however, is different.

Unlike an oven, the Internet is generative, users can modify how they use the web, but they cannot truly modify how they can use an oven.  Additionally there are policies that regulate how the Internet functions.  These governance structures can effect how people can access information and use the web.  Internet policies gain even more important as the Internet becomes more and more integrated into our lives, and a greater number of real world activities are translated online.

While there are regulations that may limit how one may use or control his or her car, people, in general, know what those laws are.  These laws are put in place to ensure public safety, which with cars is very justifiable as they can be dangerous.  Many people; however, are unaware of the policies that regulate the Internet.  Furthermore, unlike a car, the Internet is an information technology that enables the expansion and sharing of both knowledge and creative works.  Justifying what poses a public threat online is a bit more complicated than explaining the potential dangers with automobiles.  Protecting against the threat of terrorism, and preventing the spread of child pornography online are typical defenses for Internet legislation, especially regarding online privacy.  It can be argued though that freedom of expression and information access are limited by such policies.  This creates a policy platform ripe for debate.  In order to fully comprehend the extent Internet policies have on, well, the Internet, people must first have an idea of how the Internet itself works and how those policies would affect how it works.  Technological literacy must therefore be increased.

But what is technological literacy? Technological literacy goes beyond just usage or the content layer of ICTs.  It entails an understanding of the technical layer, which is intertwined with the infrastructure of, let’s say, the Internet, and determines how content is presented and retrieved.  By comprehending this technical layer, users have the power to no longer just be consumers of content, but digital citizens with an understanding of how what they are using works, and innovators creating new protocols and ICTs.

By increasing technological literacy, not only will more Internet users be able to better grasp current and new regulations, they will also have the potential of becoming technological creators.  According to a 2011 report by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Canada ranks 26th out of 152 countries in the Information and Computing Technology (ICT) Development Index (IDI)[iv].  While this may seem like a good ranking, this is a six-place drop from Canada’s spot on the list in 2008, and though there may be 152 total countries ranked, this list includes developing as well as developed nations.  Additionally, the Conference Board of Canada stated in 2010 that Canada received a “D” grade for technological innovation.[v]  By instituting technological literacy programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, Canada could instill technological skills in youth, inspiring later innovation and production of new technologies.

The big question is how to increase this technological literacy.  It is easy to say a program should be implemented in schools.  With an already crowded curriculum filled with subjects battling for teaching time, integrating technological literacy into the classroom does provide a challenge.  Opponents may say that current science and tech-education programs are enough, and students who are truly interested in the computer sciences will naturally gravitate towards those activities and class.  What these critics do not fully grasp is the technological world we are moving towards.  While a world 100% dependent on the Internet and other technologies is still science fiction to most, it is hard to deny that technology is mediating an increasing number of our daily interactions. Recently I was asked how many hours a day I spend on my laptop or the Internet.  I was surprised to find that it was easier to count the hours I was not in front of a computer screen, and not vice versa.  We do not need to create a world full of hard-core programmers, but a society where people possess a basic understanding of how something as significant as the Internet works is not so far fetched.

Currently digital literacy stops short at the technical layer.  It is great that people are being taught proper online etiquette, and the basics of how privacy and security can be maintained online (even my mother knows to make sure all transactions are done on https:// websites), but that does not go far enough.   Without a fundamental understanding of ICTs, especially the Internet, it is difficult to imagine how Internet users can transition into complete digital citizens.  Can one really comprehend the potential risks of government regulation, legislation such as ACTA, SOPA, and PIPA, and debates such as the net neutrality debate, without understanding how the Internet works?  These issues impact all Internet users, yet so few people are aware of them.

To most technology is a black box.  The IT Crowd’s actual representation of the Internet as a literal black box was spot on.  Unless we engage and educate more people about technology and the way it works, they will be like Jen from the show—believing in myths and presumptions about the net, and not able to engage in discourses of how it should be governed.

-Alex Esenler


[i] How does the Internet Work? (2012). HowStuffWorks. Retrieved fromhttp://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/internet.htm
[ii] World Internet Users Statistics Usage and World Population Stats. (2012). Retrieved fromhttp://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm
[iii] Most Americans Confused By Cloud Computing According to National Survey. (2012). Citrix.Retrieved from http://www.citrix.com/content/citrix/en_us/news/announcements/aug-2012/most-americans-confused-by-           cloud-computing-according-to-national.html
[iv] International Telecommunication Union. (2011). Measuring the Information Society 2011.Retrieved from http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/backgrounders/general/pdf/5.pdf.

[v] Conference Board of Canada. (2010). Innovation. Retrieved fromhttp://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/Details/Innovation.aspx.

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