Nobody Understands How the Internet Works

Rudy Giuliana checks his phone while on the White House lawn

Nobody understands how the internet works. And that’s a pretty serious problem.

Back in 2006, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AL) famously gave us a description of what the internet is, and how it works.

It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.

Sen. Ted Stevens

Of course, his declaration that the complex network of networks and computers connected to one another is nothing more than a series of tubes really isn’t that accurate. While there are indeed many physical components to the internet infrastructure and its backbone, the characterization of online communication technologies being rate limited much in the same way that water pipes are just isn’t correct. Although most ISPs will charge you for both speed and usage, the way that the internet works means that there really isn’t any reason why there is only a certain amount of data available to use. The tube just doesn’t get clogged with too much materials like Senator Stevens suggested.

But in some ways, it seemed kind of quaint and endearing. Here was an older person trying to understand and describe how this new technology works. Of course, it was only endearing up until the point you remembered that it wasn’t just some older person not understanding “those darn newfangled computers” but instead was an actual U.S. Senator who was partially responsible for regulating and managing laws related to the internet. 

Sure, a lot of people don’t fully understand how the internet works. Even people who have built their careers in network infrastructure may only have a narrow understanding of certain areas. Which is totally fine. Of course not everyone is going to fully understand the technology of the internet. But you would expect by this point that most people at least have a cursory understanding of how these omnipresent communication technologies function. Nothing super technical or complicated, but perhaps just enough to recognize that “the cloud” is not some mystical or magical place/thing. Nope, it’s just someone else’s computer. Probably a giant data center in the Wyoming. 

And, this should really not be too much of an expectation, but wouldn’t it be nice if the people in charge of making laws regulating the internet actually understood how it worked?

Recently, Rudy Giuliani made headlines for claiming that a tweet he had posted had been hijacked by someone else, claiming that Twitter had “allowed someone to invade [his] text with a disgusting anti-President message.”

In reality, all that had happened was a simple case of auto-correct. His tweet was missing a space between a period, and the next word “In.” Twitter helpfully recognized the .in gTLD and created a hyperlink to http://g-20.in/

Someone noticed what had happened, and quickly registered the http://g-20.in/ domain name, and created a simple webpage that stated “Donald J. Trump is a traitor to our country.”

Giuliani, for his part, quickly realized what had happened and responded in a professional and collected manne–haha nope! That’s not what happened at all. Instead, he accused Twitter as being unfair and implying that his original message had been hacked in some way.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Giuliani was officially named Trump’s cybersecurity adviser. And he fundamentally doesn’t understand how Twitter works. That’s a bit of a problem.

And unfortunately, Giuliani’s Twitter debacle is far from the only instance of this happening. Google CEO Sundar Pichai had to explain basic functions of the search engine behemoth to members of Congress. At one point, his answer to a Congressman’s question was simply that the iPhone is manufactured by a different company. The problem exists even outside the U.S., such as the recent revelation that Japan’s cybersecurity minister has actually never used a computer. The government officials that we entrust to represent our interests and create meaningful and useful legislation and regulation have absolutely no idea what they are doing!

There is no longer any excuse for being “tech illiterate.” We must stop glorifying “not being good at computers.” It’s not just a matter of a few people not understanding technology, but in fact seems to be astoundingly widespread and reaching into all corners of society. The reality is that modern life is largely defined and dictated by digital technologies and online communication. And, I might add, none of this stuff is really that new! The internet has been around since the 1980s, and reached widespread popularity in the 90s. It is decades-old technology; there is no excuse for being wholly oblivious and ignorant about it. Computers have been part of the modern office for years as well; smartphones have been around for over a decade. “I just don’t do technology” is not an excuse that is going to cut it anymore.

I’m not suggesting that everyone must have a deep understanding of how modern technology works. It isn’t necessary that everyone know the details of TCP/IP or the layers of the OSI model; however, as it stands it seems that a lot of people really don’t understand (nor care to understand) even a basic overview of these technologies. And that degree of ignorance is a pretty serious problem.

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