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The Internet - an Introduction

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Welcome to the h2g2's Guide to the Internet, a comprehensive and wonderfully friendly introduction to the crazy world of the Internet. We've arranged these pages a bit like a real book - you can start with the first page and work your way through the whole Guide section by section using the arrows, or you can pick individual sections from the menu above.

An Introduction to the Internet

Yeah, I'm on the Web!

Actually you're not. You're on the Internet, which is a completely... well not completely, more a moderately different thing in that the World Wide Web1... yes. Hang on. Let's start from the beginning, shall we?

The Internet was first conceived of in the late 1950s, and it's all Sputnik's fault. See, Sputnik was first and while the Americans were admiring the fine ingenuity of the Russians (sending flowers, bonbons and dancing girls into space) they had a single iced-trousers moment when it occurred to them that if the Russians could do that sort of thing with space, then maybe they weren't so gormless after all (despite their questionable political malarkey). In an admirably short time for a political thought, it also occurred to folks that while the Russians might be the first with space stuff, the Americans had still been first with nukes. And, in yet another surprising leap, it was surmised that a nuclear war might knock out a phone line or two, and thus a more scatter-shot approach to communication would be called for to ensure that the politicians in assorted underground bunkers would be able to play phone chess without fearing a break in the line. It was no more than a twitch of an eyebrow between that and the coinage of the term 'online'.

The Internet (or ARPAnet as it was first called) was the baby of the defence department. And as computers were big, expensive, hard to make and often theoretical, the best places to go for a good one were the dark and blinky corridors of fresh and pink-eyed university IT departments. Which, for today's Internet community, was just about the best thing that could have possibly happened. The geeks took over, and within a very short time the Internet had more to do with science fiction, online gaming and bare naked skin than it did with defence.

Which brings us up to 1990 when the World Wide Web was born.

The Internet refers to the whole canole, the WWW, email, chat, usenet, FTP, and the rest of it. The term 'Internet' refers only to the mass of connections that allows the whole thing to hum like a bee banging its head against a screen window. You see, anarchy, even organised anarchy like the Internet, is given to fits and starts and, increasingly, encounters with brick walls.

And the only thing on the World Wide Web is hypertext. And if you are hypertext then you have no need to be reading this.

I Have the Power!

You do not. At the very most you own a server; you see, no one actually owns the net. Various ISPs and content providers A139673#Internet have bitten off little chunks of it (some are chewing bigger cuds than others) but there isn't really a central authority to go running to if you bang your knee on a backbone, wet your pants from a whisper, get your butt wooped in a BBS or get all messy in MUD.

That's what the Internet is like: everyone has their own computer (typically connected together by IP). The Internet would not exist at all on a single computer - that would be rather missing the point, and you can't say that anyone owns it.

Of course Netscape, Microsoft, AOL, IBM and some other big daddy players have all had their say in how they think some things should be done, but they don't run it either.

There are a few organisations that do help to keep the gigabyte goo from leaking out the seams of the rivets. InterNIC assigns domain names, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) acts as a clearing house for technical standards and the World Wide Web Consortium gnashes over chewy geek stuff to do with the web - HTML, CSS and that. But all of this is pretty abstract and most of us hardly notice it at all.

If you had a problem with something someone was doing or saying or publishing online, there isn't one particular person you could snitch to, or even one particular organisation. If you say, had someone spamming you with Jim Carrey quotes, the best you can do after complaining directly to the sender is to go to the offender's service provider and complain to them. But all in all the best thing to do is start a good flame war, which will be more effective, more satisfying and far more mean-spirited than almost anything else you can do online. It's also mean, bad tempered and apt to make you cry.

It is also important to remember that while the net is as yet ungovernable, if you are caught downloading something from the net that is illegal in the country you are in, you can be prosecuted. It doesn't matter that it was sourced from a country in which it is legal.

I'm Going to Get You! And Your Little Dog Too!

Even now with cheap lSPs and primarily local rates on calls, there is a perception that the Internet is expensive to access. It's not. The most you're likely to pay for your ISP account each month is about what you'll pay for a Ceasar salad at lunch time in an expensive coffee bar in a cheap city. However, the fresh prevalence of ISPs has made even this fee unnecessary in some places.

And because the servers have it all worked out so that they just link up together on local rate to shunt things along to the backbone, no one is paying for a long distance call. Local calls, however, are another story, as are cable and ISDN connections. These you do pay for, and through the nose if you live pretty much anywhere outside the USA.

Once you're online most of what you see is free. There are some sites (most of them adult-only or academic) which charge a fee, but for the moment it's all very chummy and relatively cheap, if not always cheerful. Like ham radio, people do it for love and a lot of them do it for free (and even those who do make money still provide free web sites, they just use them to sell things, advertise or gather information).

However, if you are reading this in a cyber café, yes it is very expensive and if you've made it this far, that will be twenty dollars please. Plus the skinny latte, freeloader.

But all this doesn't even begin to cover what the Internet actually is...

Further Reading

1That's WWW for those up on your Three Letter Acronyms...

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