Define the Internet

That’s my Idea For a Better Internet. Here’s what I entered in the form at

Define the Internet.

There is not yet an agreed-upon definition. Bell-heads think it’s a “network of networks,” all owned by private or public entities that each need to protect their investments and interests. Net-heads (that’s us) think it’s a collection of protocols and general characteristics that transcend physical infrastructure and parochial interests. If you disagree with either of the last two sentences, you demonstrate the problem, and why so many arguments about, say, “net neutrality,” go nowhere.

The idea is to assign defining the Internet to students in different disciplines: linguistics, urban planning, computer science, law, business, engineering, etc. Then bring them together to discuss and reconcile their results, with the purpose of informing arguments about policy, business, and infrastructure development. The result will be better policy, better business and better deployments. Or, as per instructions, “a better place for everyone.”

There should be fun research possibilities in the midst of that as well.

It’s a Berkman project, but I applied in my capacity as a CITS fellow at UCSB. I’ll be back in Santa Barbara for the next week, and the focus of my work there for the duration has been Internet and Infrastructure. (And, if all goes as planned, the subject the book after the one I’m writing now.)

So we’ll see where it goes. Even if it’s nowhere, it’s still a good idea, because there are huge disagreements about what the Internet is, and that’s holding us back.

I gave Why Internet & Infrastructure Need to be Fields of Study as my background link. It’s in sore need of copy editing, but it gets the points across.

Today’s the deadline. Midnight Pacific. If you’ve got a good idea, submit it soon.

After your taxes, of course. (Richard, below, points out that Monday is the actual Tax Day.)

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8 Responses to Define the Internet

  1. The Internet is an opportunity space. This is to say that its most important feature is its ability to enable, support, and facilitate the innovations that make for new and better interactions between people, institutions, devices, and information. We can best judge the wisdom of proposed policies and regulations in terms of the opportunities they enable and those they foreclose.

    I think that’s what you’re trying to say. The Bellhead/Nethead distinction is not really useful any more – if it ever was – because the infrastructure is so heavily involved in the enabling of opportunity, and its continual improvement is a vital part of the equation. Net neutrality is a train wreck because it’s so naive about the relationship of technology to innovation.

  2. Taxes aren’t due until Monday, by the way.

  3. Doc, seriously, I don’t follow. This falls under my saying of
    “How many problems are there in the world where the solution is MORE PUNDITRY?!”

    When you claim – “The result will be better policy, better business and better deployments” – isn’t the enormous amount of verbiage emitted on the topic already, a refutation? (as in, isn’t it a moral certainty that adding some more to the pile will have no effect?)

    Net Neutrality isn’t a longstanding argument because we don’t have definitions. It’s a longstanding argument because there a two enormous groups of big businesses on opposing sides over a multibillion dollar market dispute. That sort of money is a definition of its own (along the lines of the old accounting joke of “Q: What do these numbers add up to? A: What do you want the result to be?” – i.e. here “Q: What Is The Internet ? A: What makes BigCorp the most money?”)

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Richard and Seth.

    First, only 350 words were allowed, and I impulsively decided to submit something at the last minute (well, half an hour) while waiting to board a plane in Boston.

    For what it’s worth (probably not much … I’ve been a voice in the wilderness on this issue for years), I stand by my insistence that lack of definition has given us much of the trouble we’ve had coming to understandings about the Internet. Not that I expect agreement to happen; but I think it would be a fun and useful exercise to see what differences there are and to try reconciling them, whether or not we can put politics and business interests aside. Tall order, there. (But remember that this is a challenge to students. Tall orders should be welcome.)

    Richard, I agree about the Net as an opportunity space, and that everybody bringing tech to the table should have room to innovate.

    Seth, I think arguments about network neutrality in fact do derive, in large part, to highly different understandings of what the Internet is. Richard is right that Bell-heads vs. Net-heads an obsolete distinction; but the fact remains that the differences between arguing factions are huge and groups are talking past each other, using highly different vocabularies and framings. The reasons for this do not come down only to politics and parochial business interests.

    Anyway, I just got into my house in Santa Barbara. It’s 3:40am back in Boston, and I’m even more wasted now than I was when I wrote this post. So if neither the post nor this makes sense, forgive.

  5. Patrick says:

    SB welcomes you with a great day!

  6. Mike Warot says:

    I’m a day late, but I threw my intertubes idea up there anyway.

    A way to share data that routes around silos and walled gardens is the way to go for the future, I believe.

    intertubes dot org has a somewhat coherent description of the idea, if you’re interested.

    The problem now is that people are so used to the way things are, they can’t see the other possibilities, the opportunities to change things are still there, but are harder to explain to the massive crowd of people who grew up with the status quo.

    Explaining something different is hard… It’s like trying to explain the need for honest money (gold and silver coinage) to someone who grew up with the fiat dollar.

  7. Pingback: It’s called the internet and it’s awesome! But can you define it? « Laurent Courtines WordPressing

  8. I’m just surprised that up until this date there has been no formal definition for the word: internet. It has been way back since this word has been coined. I agree with the proposal that representatives from different sectors be invited to discuss this dilemma and generate once and for all a definitive meaning for the word, INTERNET.

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