Okay, confession time: I don’t really know how the Internet works.
Oh, I’ve got the arm-waving explanation down. In much the same way that I know gasoline goes kaboom inside my car’s engine, causing pistons to move up and down, turning a shaft that then turns the car’s wheels, I can map the intricate ballet between computer and modem, between DNS server and IP address, between router and router and router and server.
But drill down much further, and I start hitting impenetrable black boxes. For instance, what exactly does a router do, and how does it decide the best next step in the path? What whispered conversations happen between my browser and various other servers to decide if a security certificate is valid? And when Facebook serves up an ad, does it use every part of the unicorn, or just the pancreas?
Maybe I don’t need to know these things. But one of the beauties of knowing how a system works – even if it doesn’t affect the way you use it on a day-to-day basis – is that you can begin to understand whether (and why) some big change might be a great idea or a terrible one.
So next time I hit one of those black boxes, I’m going to do a little digging – and I think I’m going to start by trying to get my mind around secure connections like SSH tunnelling (where I start to hyperventilate around para 2 of the Wikipedia entry). If there’s one thing the Internet does spectacularly well, it’s making information about the Internet available.
I’m lucky. For a lot of people, anything and everything about the Internet is baffling. They’d love to know more, but have no idea where to start. This cartoon first appeared on Mark Surman’s blog post yesterday about an approach to helping people develop a higher degree of Internet literacy. (First person to call that “neteracy” gets a bowl of cold spaghetti poured into them while they’re sleeping. Ah, nuts – too late.)