Down the rabbit hole of understanding how the Internet works

These days I am working on the second edition of my book on the basics of digital economics. And one subject that really bugs me is the Internet, an innovation which I thought deserved its own dedicated chapter instead the section it got in the first edition. But each time I try to understand the inner workings of this gigantic and fascinating machine, it feels like I’m going down a rabbit hole. Down I go, and I stay for countless hours, but every time I come back to the surface it feels like I’m bloated with information but somehow I am slightly more confused… I am not a technical guy, so maybe it explains why I struggle to get a clear global picture of how the whole system works. But I also suspect that a lot of people who are actual players of the Internet : software and websites developers, content creators, telecom engineers, regulators… also struggle in many ways.

I often feel the need to get a complete in-depth understanding of any subject that I need to “teach” to anyone else. But with computer industries this it seems like a moving goal post. You finally understand how this layer works, only to find out how fancy the layer right below it really is. Then it takes me hours to come up with a few lines of carefully chosen words, since I hate to misrepresent the history or operations of such a crucial part of our modern lives. It is a mentally painful process, but at least I have the satisfaction to correct a few mistakes or imprecisions from the previous version, and I like to remind myself that airplane pilots, after all, are made responsible of flying these incredible machines without possibly knowing how to engineer, assemble, or operate the thousands of small components that constitute the plane.

In my current research, I found out how much the private sector was indeed involved in the early stages of packet-switching networks, despite the bulk of funding coming from governments. I also cannot help but be impressed at the decisions taken by the US government in the early 1990’s to open the network to the public and commercial applications. After all the money that was put into it, they could have tried to retain more control, but they didn’t (or didn’t succeed, does anyone really know how things unfolded in details ?).

What is known today as “the Internet” is not the direct and conscious result of a single project undertaken by any individual, government, NGO or private company. This simple fact is worth reminding since it is a natural tendency for us to look at the history of an innovation with hindsight (the fact that we know how it ends influences the way we look at its inception). Also, when looking at such a miracle of coordination on a worldwide scale involving virtually all actors of the high-technology industries, we struggle to imagine that this was not the direct result of a coordinated and planned effort. A brief look at this timeline of Internet history gives us an idea of the incredible cross-fertilizing of ideas that were combined and implemented in clever ways to slowly give birth to our modern Internet. A miracle of voluntary cooperation based on decentralized wizardry that would have been unimaginable by a single mind.

This is a rabbit

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