What is the Internet?

According to the Pew Research Center in 2002, the Internet is a textbook, reference library, tutor, study shortcut, study group, guidance counselor, locker, backpack and notebook.

The students employ five different metaphors to explain how they use the Internet for school: The Internet as virtual textbook and reference library, as virtual tutor and study shortcut, as virtual study group, as virtual guidance counselor, and the Internet as virtual locker, backpack, and notebook.

In the videos “The Machine is Us/ing us” and “Information R/evolution” as well as “A Vision of Students Today,” Dr. Michael Wesch from Kansas State University describes the Internet as a revolution in how we think about education, communication, participation, community, identity and culture.

On June 23, 2008, Dr. Wesch presented “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube” at the Library of Congress. The video is close to an hour long, and it discusses several dimensions of society that are transforming with the Internet.

In the video, Dr. Wesch refers to the book Bowling Alone (about the collapse and revival of the American community) and begins his presentation by talking about Kevin Kelly, (who is currently writing a book online about the developing internet).

I went online to find the August, 2005 article “We Are the Web” by Kevin Kelly, which briefly appears in “The Machine is Us/ing us” video by Dr. Wesch. I found several points that illustrate compelling ideas about the nature of the Internet.

The Internet involves participation. Kelly notes, “[a]t its heart was a new kind of participation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.” Kelly describes the impact of this feature like this:

The electricity of participation nudges ordinary folks to invest huge hunks of energy and time into making free encyclopedias, creating public tutorials for changing a flat tire, or cataloging the votes in the Senate. More and more of the Web runs in this mode. One study found that only 40 percent of the Web is commercial. The rest runs on duty or passion.

… The deep enthusiasm for making things, for interacting more deeply than just choosing options, is the great force not reckoned 10 years ago. This impulse for participation has upended the economy and is steadily turning the sphere of social networking – smart mobs, hive minds, and collaborative action – into the main event.

The Internet is active. Kelly discusses some of the early detractors and naysayers of the Internet, including this view of the potential audience: “You aren’t going to turn passive consumers into active trollers on the Internet.” Later on in the article he revisits this theme:

Everything media experts knew about audiences – and they knew a lot – confirmed the focus group belief that audiences would never get off their butts and start making their own entertainment. Everyone knew writing and reading were dead; music was too much trouble to make when you could sit back and listen; video production was simply out of reach of amateurs. Blogs and other participant media would never happen, or if they happened they would not draw an audience, or if they drew an audience they would not matter.

and writes, “What a shock, then, to witness the near-instantaneous rise of 50 million blogs, with a new one appearing every two seconds.” Kelly notes that linking “transforms reading into navigating” and that “the act of making is the act of watching, and every link is both a point of departure and a destination.” Information is now a process, instead of a thing.

The internet is open. Kelly describes the philosophy held by some of the original programmers working with the Internet (”They saw the Internet as an open commons, not to be undone by greed or commercialization”), and the watershed event in 1995 when the National Science Foundation opened the Internet to “ecommerce,” finally allowing “private or personal business” to occur in addition to the research purposes already allowed. Kelly writes, “it became clear that ordinary people could create material anyone with a connection could view.”

The Internet is exclusive. Writing in 2005, Kelly notes an Internet audience of “1 billion people, or one-sixth of the world’s population.” He also describes it as “available on demand and free of charge,” but this statement assumes that the infrastructure, including electricity, is available. It also doesn’t seem to cover attempts by countries (e.g. Italy, China) to restrict access to certain web sites, the impact of government surveillance or the capabilities of hackers to disrupt the Internet (e.g. DNS, cyberwar). Kelly does mention later on that “While portions may spin down due to power outages or cascading infections, the entire thing is unlikely to go quiet in the coming decade. It will be the most reliable gadget we have.” It feels more accurate to say that the Internet will be the most reliable gadget for those who have the electricity and infrastructure to access it.

The internet is inclusive. Kelly describes part of the nature of the internet as “a global flea market” and “the ultimate business model.” According to Kelly, the key to the success of this aspect of the Internet (that includes eBay and Amazon.com) is that it is “manufactured by users, not corporate interests.”

The internet is a revolution. “A link,” according to Kelly, “is the most powerful invention of the decade.” It transforms the delivery of information from “spectator art to participatory democracy.” Democracy seems too narrow a concept to describe what happens on the Internet, though. As Kelly notes later on in the article:

The Web continues to evolve from a world ruled by mass media and mass audiences to one ruled by messy media and messy participation.

Kelly also describes the Internet as a “planet-sized computer” that “is comparable in complexity to a human brain.” It is a mess, it is changing things in ways we can hardly describe and is comparable to physical systems that we don’t fully understand. The potential future of the Internet is being described in impossible terms, such as Kelly’s mention that “some researchers pursuing artificial intelligence have switched their bets to the Net as the computer most likely to think first.” As Kelly notes earlier, “if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is the plausibility of the impossible.”

The Internet is learning. In “The Machine is Us/ing us” video, Dr. Wesch highlights the line “Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea.” We are teaching the Internet with every act of participation we make and it is teaching us in the process. As Kelly notes, “massive cross-referencing is how brains think and remember.”

Kelly concludes that the Internet is a new way of thinking.

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