It came into our lives like television or microwave ovens—so suddenly we couldn’t quite remember when it all started. The Internet can seem like a big, overpowering force that controls everything we see and hear. But actually, the Internet isn’t a single “thing” at all. We’ll explain how the Internet works, starting by comparing it to the landline phone system that once dominated this country.
Wiring and Wi-Fi
Just as wiring fed phone conversations for so many decades, similar wiring feeds the Internet. While many think the “Internet” is a monstrous machine stored in some large data facility somewhere, the Internet is simply your computer, combined with your neighbor’s computer, combined with his neighbor’s computer, and so on. Think of it as a large web, with the cables allowing your computer to communicate with the millions of other computers in the world.
Is your computer wireless? This simply means the devices in your home aren’t wired to the equipment that connects you to the rest of the world. Your home is still “wired” to the rest of the world though a Wi-Fi connection, allowing you to get and send information to your friends, family, and even strangers as you decide.
In the case of the phone analogy, your computer is the telephone that allows you to call up the rest of the world. You share only the information you want, so if you want to publish a blog that tells everyone about the great peach cobbler you made for dinner, you can. This is similar to calling up your sister in the late ‘80s to share the recipe by phone, only now you type instead of talk.
And those great websites you visit? Those are simply powerful computers, often hosted by businesses who earn money off of ad revenue on those sites. You could host a website on your own computer, if you choose, but chances are you aren’t interested in having the world access a website on your computer.
The Internet is nothing without you, the user. That’s where peripherals come in. Peripherals include the keyboard, mouse, and other devices you use to convey your message as you surf the Internet. You type words into Google and Google searches its database and sends answers back to you.
Imagine, back in the ‘80s, if you’d been able to get an answer to any question by simply typing it onto a word processor or typewriter. That is what the Internet has created; only it isn’t some magical machine generating the answers. The Internet is the combination of everyone in the country and even the world, collaborating to share information and answer those questions you’ve been curious about.
Where Did the Internet Come From?
Many people mistakenly believe the Internet is a recent invention, having been around only since the America Online days of the mid-‘90s. In actuality, the Internet began 20 years before you ever heard of it. It was originally created by the Department of Defense to allow communication in the event of a nuclear war or natural disaster. The Internet lingered for the next two decades or so, as a tool for the government and scientists.
In the early ‘90s, the government withdrew its involvement in Internet use and companies began offering Internet to consumers. Early efforts to catalog the Internet and present it all in a neat, tidy package resulted in a few “portal” companies springing up. America Online and Yahoo were two notable examples of this. These sites allowed members to join and easily find the information they were seeking without having to go out onto the vast network of computers that could seem scary to newcomers.
Another major change happened in the late ‘90s, as Google changed the way search engines worked. Google, and other search engines, have become the portals to the Internet. We type what we want to find into it and Google pulls up pages of results that we then click on.
How the Internet Works
The aforementioned cables do more than route your home computer to the other computers in the world. If you are communicating with someone across the globe, for instance, your computer doesn’t directly transmit data to that computer. Your e-mail is broken into “packets,” which allows that e-mail to travel more smoothly from one destination to another, arriving in one piece at its final destination. This is called “packet switching.”
Internet transmission is done via routers, which take your information and move it across the Internet to where it needs to go. This speeds the process along better than if it were left up to simply two computers or servers communicating with each other. There’s a reason it’s been dubbed the “worldwide web.” Think of it like a spider web, with many major access points, each going out in a multitude of directions.
A fast Internet connection, however, is important these days because of images, videos, movies, music and other large files that are being passed around. Do you have a fast Internet connection? Are you paying too much for your Internet? Fast Internet does NOT have to cost you a lot of money each month.
So the next time someone around you wonders how the Internet works, likes it’s a mystical force somewhere that controls all of the data across the world, remember the concept of the spider web. You are the Internet — one of many small computers making up the much greater worldwide picture.