Bytes In Flight: The Web

What, exactly, is the Internet?

The internet is such a vague and abstract term to general society. The question “what is the internet?” does not usually come up in casual conversation.

The first way I think to characterize it, after reading the first chapter of “Small Pieces Loosely Joined,” is wild. And I don’t mean that in a simply “Oh, this is awesome!” kind of way. The internet, or what people often call “the web,” is wild—it cannot be tamed.

We have a craving for control and a desire to endlessly do what we want — and the Web gives us some measure of that. It does. It shows us things we want, it entices us, and allows us endless mental stimulation. We often feel we can say anything we want or be whoever we want to be on the internet. It allows for reckless freedom in exploration and self-expression. Nobody directly controls the web, so in that sense it is untamed. It is wild, and although we can try to manage it and make it do what we want, it is not something we can directly bring under our domination.

And anything uncontrolled will control us if we don’t pay attention.

The internet gives us things that we naturally desire—the ability to start over and over and over again, connect with each other instantly, escape from life, create new things, spark thought, enjoy things that give us happiness. Some of our natural desires add beauty and depth to ours and others’ lives; other desires, however, are more self-centered. Regardless of what characterizes these desires, the internet enables us to chase those in ways that are unnatural to us. The internet is nonphysical, and that opens up an entirely new platform with new ways to fulfill our desires.

As with many things, the internet is not black and white. It can be used for good or evil; it is a vehicle which we can employ for different purposes.

Another one of, if not the, defining characteristics of the internet is the ability to connect so rapidly with one another. We can transmit literally thousands of pieces of information to each other in seconds. In his book, “Small Pieces Loosely Joined,” David Weinberger says that the information being transmitted through the internet is “bytes in flight” (referring to bytes as tiny units of information storage on a computer). Frequently, we make that information available to everyone who has access to the internet.

There’s a backend, or “backstage,” to the internet. There is simply so much behind the screen that we’re looking at. We see a page on a website with items to buy; we see a fun video of a cat; we scroll through a page that loads more and more photos posted by people that we ‘follow’ on social media. However, behind that is thousands and millions of bytes of information. We, the average internet user, don’t consider how much time and energy is used keeping websites and various web-based programs functioning. The internet is, and will be, constantly growing.

Additionally, the internet functions almost as a different world entirely. It changes many of our assumptions of the way the world generally works.

“Our real-world view of space says that it consists of homogenous measurable distances laid across an arbitrary geography indifferent to human needs; the Web’s geography, on the other hand, consists of links among pages each representing a spring of human interest. Real world time consists of ticking clocks and the relentless schedules they enable, while on the Web, time runs as intertwining threads and stories. In the real world, perfection is held as an ideal we humans always disappoint; on the Web perfection just gets in the way. In the real world, social groups become more impersonal as they get larger; on the Web, individuals retain their faces no matter what the size of the group — even in the “faceless mass” of the public. In the real world, we have thinned our knowledge down to a flavorless stream of verifiable facts; on the Web, knowledge is fat with stories and voice. Our “realistic” view of matter says that it’s the stuff that exists independent of us, and as such it is essentially apart from whatever meanings we case over it like shadows; the matter of the Web, on the other hand, consists of pages that we’ve built, full of intention and meaning. In the real world, to be moral means we follow a set of principles; on the Web, morality looks like prissiness and authenticity, empathy and enthusiasm instead guide our interactions.” — David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined (chapter 1)

The internet takes certain things in our society to an extremes. We often feel repressed by certain limits we have in reality, even if those limits are not strictly bad. Some limits are physical, like geography. Others are intangible, like perfection, knowledge, and morality.

The internet doesn’t strive to erase these things. For example, it allows us to understand and explore earth’s geography to a much greater extent than we might otherwise; this is adding to our understanding of the physical world. Yet it changes things such as perfection and morality: it lets us bend those to our interpretation, especially our morals. Perfection can be whatever one defines it as, and many of us try to present ourselves as perfect on social media without even thinking. We carefully curate what we post, or go in the opposite direction—post every thought in a seemingly careless manner, whether that thought is something meaningful or funny or offensive. Of course not everyone directly falls into those categories, but we frequently tend to lean toward one or the other.

“The Web is a world we’ve made for one another. It can only be understood within a web of ideas that includes our culture’s foundational thoughts, with human spirit at every joining point.” — David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined (chapter 1)

The web is a wild, chaotic, fascinating world that has very different rules than the world we live in at present. I’m interested to see how it will evolve and how our definitions and the way we think about it will change.

The song “Upside Down & Inside Out” by OK Go reminds me of the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of the internet, and the way it allows us to create new versions of ourselves. Also, the music video they made for the song is absolutely amazing—definitely worth a watch!

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