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The internet is really hard October 4, 2010

Posted by Sarah in Uncategorized.

I had dinner with some computer science students last night that involved this exchange:

CS kid 1: “Oh, I’m no good at math. You math people are too fancy for me.”
Me: “Well, you’re too fancy for me. I don’t even know how the internet works!”
CS kid 1: “Um, well…”
CS kid 2: “The internet is really hard.”
CS kid 1: “Most computer scientists don’t know how it works.”
CS kid 2: “I only know about it because that’s what I research.”
Me: “So I’m not just dumb?”
CS kid 1: “Nope. The internet is really hard.”

It’s been on my mind since I read this Douglas Rushkoff article. It’s a call to arms of sorts, an expression of dismay that we’ve become consumers of electronics that we don’t understand.

For me, however, our inability and refusal to contend with the underlying biases of the programs and networks we all use is less a threat to our military or economic superiority than to our experience and autonomy as people. I can’t think of a time when we seemed so ready to accept such a passive relationship to a medium or technology.

And while machines once replaced and usurped the value of human labor, computers and networks do more than usurp the value of human thought. They not only copy our intellectual processes–our repeatable programs–but they often discourage our more complex processes–our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning making that should be the reward of “outsourcing” our arithmetic to silicon chips in the first place. The more humans become involved in their design, the more humanely inspired these tools will end up behaving.

It hit home, because of course I use lots of devices and programs that I don’t understand. I consume much more than I produce. I can program — I can write a simulation in Matlab any time, and I could probably refresh my memory of C++ if I took a week or two — but I don’t know how the internet works. The techie ideal of having a DIY relationship to the technology I use is inspiring, but daunting. Maybe more daunting than it was in the 70’s, when Rushkoff was a new computer enthusiast; his ideal may have been easier to achieve when technology was simpler. I looked at an old CS textbook written in the 70’s — it wouldn’t have gotten me one-tenth of the way towards the goal of “understand all the technology you use today.”

I did find this non-technical intro to the structure of the internet useful, as a start. But I still wouldn’t say I understand how the internet works.



1. Mitchell Porter - October 7, 2010

You could say the same thing about the economy, or the sun, or your own body.

2. Sarah - October 7, 2010

That they’re really hard?

3. Mitchell Porter - October 7, 2010

More that you use them without understanding them.

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