Last year, as the debates over SOPA and PIPA raged, Joshua Kopstein at Motherboard wrote a post entitled “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK to Not KNow How the Internet Works“. In the post, he blasted Congress for joking about how little they understood about the Internet while, at the same time, attempting to legislate it.
A year later, it’s time to revisit that message, but in a different context.
With the recent NSA scandals, the attack on Tor network (widely suspected to be orchestrated by the U.S. government), and deep concerns about how government and private entities are cooperating to share user data, it’s clear isn’t just the government that needs a primer on how the Internet works.
The everyday user that does as well.
For most people, including many who grew up with the Internet, the Web seems almost magical. They click to visit a site or send an email and they get content or data from half a world away, nearly instantly.
But where most people take the time to understand at least the basics of how their car works, far fewer have taken the time to understand how the Internet works, even as they depend upon it more and more as part of their daily lives.
But like not knowing how a car works, ignorance can be dangerous and, also like a car, a little bit of understanding can go a long, long way.
How the Web is Like the Car
To go back to the comparison with the automobile, in many ways, the Internet evolved and great much like the car. When the Internet first started, it was slow, difficult to use and not very practical. It was more of a novelty than it was a serious tool.
It was similar to how, when automobiles first started, they would plod along at speeds below 10 miles per hour and require a mechanic to ride along at almost all times to keep it rolling. As such, it was mostly a toy for the wealthy or those who were extremely mechanically inclined.
But, as technology advanced, cars became faster, more dependable, easier to use and cheaper. As a result, more and more people began to purchase cars, better infrastructure was built for them and they quickly became the primary form of transportation in much of the world.
However, with the increased speed and dependance, the dangers also rose. From minor things such as breakdowns to more serious issues, such as accidents. Car problems went from being a inconvenience to, in many cases, a life-or-death matter.
But that increased seriousness did not lead to improved understanding of cars. For a time it remained fashionable and even acceptable to be completely clueless about automobiles and how they worked. Over time though, hard lessons began to pile up and more and more people started learning about at least the basics of cars, feeling it unsafe to drive without such knowledge.
The same is happening to the Internet. It started out as a slow, confusing novelty but has become faster, cheaper and easier than ever. With that improved access its use and importance has grown. Currently, we shop online, we bank online, we date online and the trend of growing importance is not slowing down. Yet, despite all of that, very few have a solid understanding of the mechanics of the Internet and how it works.
This makes it difficult for individuals to be secure online, to know how to troubleshoot many problems and participate productively in debates about Internet regulation. For most of us, the Internet is too valuable a part of our lives to not understand how it works and, for those who don’t know, the time to learn is now.
What You Need to Know
The good news is that you don’t really need to be a computer science graduate to understand how the Internet works.
Still, some of the concepts may seem to be complex, especially if you aren’t tech savvy, but the principles can be pretty easily understood and that is what is more important.
If you want to know the basics of how the Internet works, here are a few guides and concepts to get you started.
- What is an IP Address: Understanding the number that is given to every computer connected to the Internet, whether it’s your router, the site your visiting or even your PC.
- What is DNS: Understand how your computer converts a domain name (IE: blogherald.com) into an IP address and the security/reliability issues that the current method can raise.
- How Data Travels on the Internet: Understanding that data does not travel in a straight line on the Web and passes through many hands on the way from A to B.
- The Difference Between Secure and Insecure Connections: A basic understanding of how encryption works on the Internet and why it is important for sensitive data.
- Basics Internet-Related Acronyms: A list of acronyms to refer back unfamiliar if you’re faced with unfamiliar terms.
While this might seem overwhelming, the guides linked above make it very easy to grasp the concepts. Even if you aren’t tech savvy and don’t understand all of the details, there are real-world analogues that can help you understand the concepts and improve your understanding of how the Internet works.
That understanding, as with a car or anything else that’s important in your life, can go a long way to keep you safe and productive.
Right now, if you have no idea how this Web page appeared on your computer, it’s time to understand it. You need to know that your computer queried a DNS server to get the IP address, passed your request along countless routers, both on your ISPs network and others, and received a response much the same way.
When you understand how the Internet works, many more things become clear including why it is possible to spy on much of the Web, how some problems can be easily fixed (IE: Changing your DNS server when the one you’re using goes out or is slow) and just what politicians are trying to regulate.
Because, while politicians around the world definitely need to get a better handle on how the Web works, so does a majority of Internet users. For far too long, too many have been hitting “send” on their email without having any idea how it gets to where it’s going.
The time to end that confusion is now. Something as important as the Internet should not remain a mystery to those who use it.