As with most definitions, defining the Internet is simultaneously quite simple and extraordinarily complicated. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "internet" as "a computer network consisting of or connecting a number of smaller networks, such as two or more local area networks connected by a shared communications protocol. In later use the global computer network... providing a variety of information and communication facilities to its users, and consisting of a loose confederation of interconnected networks which use standardized communication protocols." This definition is in every way correct yet entirely insufficient, because it does not provide any sense of what the 'Net is "like", how it is used, or what it might "mean". Vernacularly, the Internet is synonymous with the World Wide Web, but according to its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, "The Web is an abstract (imaginary) space of information. On the Net, you find computers -- on the Web, you find documents, sounds, videos,.... information. On the Net, the connections are cables between computers; on the Web, connections are hypertext links..." (Berners-Lee, 1998). Neither is this a particularly disputable distinction, as an article by a group of the scientists instrumental to the development of the 'Net points out: "A key concept of the Internet is that it was not designed for just one application, but as a general infrastructure on which new applications could be conceived, as illustrated later by the emergence of the World Wide Web," (Leiner, Cerf, et al., 2000). This distinction is one of the keys to the 'Net: it is a "general infrastructure." As such, the Internet, alongside the computer, needs to be understood as a keystone technology of the "new media". It also needs to be understood, beyond its technical specificity, as a site of social practice, a potential revolution in the practices and theories of mediation, and as the product history. Most important, and most challenging of all, is that the Internet needs to be understood as something far from settled into a definite form.
The Internet is the product of the evolution of intercomputer communication. Two computers were first connected in 1965, the TX-2 in Massachusets and the Q-32 in California. Lawrence G. Roberts, the man behind this connection, received backing from the US Deparment of Defense Advance Research Projects Agency to develop the idea as a way to ensure the continuity of essential governmental and military communications in the case of a nuclear strike. By the end of 1969, four computers had connected into a network, called ARPANET, using packet switching technology (packet switching allows information to be broken up into chunks that contain not only the information to be transmitted but the address to which they are going, from which they came, and the order they are to be reconstructed in). While DARPA's motivation for funding the development of ARPANET was military communication, most all of the research and development was performed at academic institutions, and much of the emphasis in the development was for resource sharing between computers. (This was long before the advent of the PC in 1981. Researchers often had to run their computer programs in the wee hours of the morning because there were so few computers to go around). In March, 1972, Ray Tomlinson created the first email program, and the nascent Internet became a medium for human communication. On January 1st 1983, the ARPANET switched over to the Transmission Control Protocol/Internetting Protocol (TCP/IP), which, though in constant evolution, is still today the primary format for transmitting information over the Internet (Leiner, Cerf, et al.). That same year, ARPANET was officially separated from MILNET, the network for military communications, and the Internet became the domain of the academic (ARPANET already included BITNET, a network for communications between non-computer scientists in the academy) (Castells, 46). In 1994, Tim Berners- Lee demonstrated the first graphical browser, named World Wide Web. One year later, the last government operated backbone lines of ARPANET were taken off the 'Net, and it became the domain of anyone who could afford it (Ibid.).
For Lev Manovich, the Internet is a primary effector of a "...computer media revolution [that] affects all stages of communication... [and] all types of media" (Manovich, 19). The computer is the technology that makes this possible in that "...all existing media... have become computable; that is, they comprise simply another set of computer data" (Op. Cit., 20), but the Internet allows this to happen more or less simultaneously, giving rise to new media objects the experience of which is shaped as much by the user as by the author following a "post-industrial" logic of "individual customization": "...Instead of identical copies, a new media object typically gives rise to many different versions. And rather than being created completely by a human author, these versions are often in part automatically assembled by a computer" (Op. Cit., 30). The end result is the separation of "content" and "interface". Whereas a film's content does not change whether it is projected in a theater or on a television (the intervention of distributors, retailers, and broadcasters notwithstanding), a website or video game can take input from the user and change itself according to preprogrammed rules. The content is a set of independent modules constructed into an object by the users' interactions with that set through the interface. While variability (Manovich's term) of content is entirely possible without the Internet, the theoretically limitless "size" of the Internet and the flexibility of TCP/IP in resolving the "location" of information and transmitting it makes the Internet an ur-instantiation of the new media.
There is a tension in Manovich between the appearance and experience of user control and boundlessness often associated with the Internet by its more Utopian proponents (cf. the "global village" in Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media) and the actual fact of the necessarily precoded structure of any computer mediated communication. While "...the most fundamental quality of new media... [is] programmability," (Manovich, 46), the question of who does the programming, and how flexible the program is leads to the inevitable problematization of the notion of "interaction": "...[T]here is the danger that we will interpret 'interaction' literally, equating it with physical interaction between the user and a media object... at the expense of psychological interaction..." (57)
"The very principle of hyperlinking, which forms the basis of interactive media, objectifies the process of association, often taken to be central to human thinking... [W]e are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations... to mistake the structure of somebody's else [sic] for our own." (61)
Implicit in this caution is the claim shared (though on different theoretical grounds) by Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Lacan that the very codes of communication (semiotics for Baudrillard, language for Lacan) control all possible responses to communication and restrict them to repetition of the code itself. The code always already shapes all communication to its demands, and the subject of the code is created by it.
The story of this coming be of a technological mastercode in the form of the Internet is the project of Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Written in 1986, during the early years of the Internet, the book opens with the declaration: "Optical fiber networks. People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium..." (1, author's italics). In this dystopian history of media technologies and the being subjected to/by them, "so-called Man" is constantly mistaking the structure of his media technologies for the structure of his selfhood. Following Marshall McLuhan's model of the media as prostheses that simultaneously enhance human capabilities and "amputate" their physical models (41 - 47), Kittler traces the history of the extraction of the sense from the "Self" and their subsequent replacement with recording and playback technologies. The gramophone records sound waves but does not automatically filter out the noise of physical reality and make sense of it as the ear does. With the gramophone's invention, human hearing becomes an imperfect process of which the gramophone (or tape recorder or minidisc) is the perfect model. Similarly, film externalizes the eye, and the typewriter destroys the illusion of the literary soul. The central theme is that "for media to link up and achieve dominance, we need a coincidence...: that something ceases not to write itself" (3). Things (i.e. sensory perceptions) "cease not to write themselves" when a technology is invented that allows them to be recorded without human intervention; thus the invention of a media technology, and therefore of the medium itself, marks the moment when "so-called Man" loses another of his sensory faculties.
It is at this point in Kittler's speculative narrative that "optical fiber networks" enter: "The general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among the individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses turn into eyewash" (Kittler, 1). With the invention of the Internet, and its superaddition of the World Wide Web, all sensory perceptions will have the ability to write themselves, and they will do so in the same medium, and in a code (binary numerical representation, data compression, pulses of energy) that human senses cannot read. In other words, the human project of reproducing our sensory perceptions as extensions of ourselves external to us will reach its logical conclusion and become entirely independent of human concerns when the Internet is fully realized as an all-encompassing channel for the transmission of data.
And yet, in the study of the Internet, as well as in life, human concerns persist in asserting themselves. Working outside the rarefied fields of critical theory and cultural studies, Manuel Castells, a revolutionary-turned-sociologist, agrees with Kittler on the coming of a totalizing electronic medium, and with both Kittler and Manovich on its importance, but for him the determining factor in its development is commerce. "...There will be a multimedia system but, in all likelihood, it will be decisively shaped by the comercial interests of a few major conglomerates around the world. The issue then arises about the ability of these conglomerates to identify accurately what people really want from the media system" (Castells, 397). Castells takes the existence and the longevity of capitalism as a given, and communication as a relatively transparent process. The methodologies of sociology, less concerned with symbolic than with measurable, physical exchanges between people, allow him to see commercial concerns as a possible source of the assertion of "human" values in a totalized media system. This is an ambivalence that (one might even say "compromise") that critical theory and media theory alike seem deeply uncomfortable with, but it is an analytical stance which allows for a picture of the Internet that is neither singularly rosy nor pervasively gloomy. On the one hand, "...all kinds of messages in the new type of society work in a binary mode: presence/absence in the multimedia communication system. Only presence in this integrated system permits communicability and socialization of the message," (405) thus affirming Baudrillard's claim that the basal coding of communication (here in binary code) structures and drastically limits all possibilities of communication. This is stuff that Kittler shapes into a vision of a world that excludes the human entirely from the system; it is also the logical end of "a larger trend to externalize mental life" (Manovich, 57), a trend which Manovich seems prepared to contradict but never does. And yet, on the other hand, "the inclusion of most cultural expressions within the integrated communication system based in digitized electronic production... weakens considerably the symbolic power of traditional senders... transmitting through historically encoded social habits: religion, morality, authority," (Castells, 406). The proliferation of positions and voices made possible by the Internet, while presenting anything but a united or even coherent front of resistance to hegemonic powers, nevertheless undermines the formerly dominant bastions of ideology.
Castells' methodology also posits a very different site of origin for its analysis of the Internet. Whereas Kittler privileges the engineers and inventors who developed the technologies that change human subjects, and Manovich privileges the technologies themselves, Castells looks to the social practices and cultural knowledge that gave rise to the Internet. For him the Internet is a symptom, rather than a cause, of what he calls "informational capitalism", which took hold in America in the early 1980s as a response to the virtual halt of economic growth and spiraling inflation in the 1970s (18-19). Thus the Internet is an expression of a broader pattern social change that began emphasizing decentralized networking structures in the domain of production a decade and a half before the Internet was widely available outside the military and the academy.
This rubric privileges the Internet as the site of the unfolding process of transition from industrial to informational social organization, and in it, Castells perceives the transition from a "space of place" to a "space of flows." (see time and space) This is a shift in the perception of space as determined by "a locale whose form, function, and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity," (453) to the mapping of "the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through" networked connectivity. Thus Redmond, Washington (home of Microsoft, Inc.) is closer to Xerox/PARC in Palo Alto, California and MIT in Boston, Massachusets than it is to Spokane. Along with this destabilization of physical closeness and containment comes "a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities" (Castells, 3).
In the end, then, we see that the Internet stands for and makes possible the interconnection of previously isolated media, roles in communication, market forces, social groups, etc. The consequences for the individuals caught up in this dynamic (all of us) reach far beyond changing patterns of watching and speaking. Yet, it is valuable to remind ourselves that the advent of every technological innovation (in the media and elsewhere) has brought with it the same intense scrutiny, and almost the same measures of hysteria and euphoria. A depth charge has been dropped, and the waters must settle before we will be able to see clearly the changes in the ocean floor. This does not by any means imply that we should cease to observe, to record, to encourage, and to challenge the development of the Internet, rather it is just this set of activities that we continue, as much as we are able, but always keeping in equally mind the past, the present, and the future.