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Chapter 14. Internet
Surfing's a breeze—and I do mean riding the Web and not a wave. Just point and click, and you can visit any Web site, anywhere in the world, in microseconds (or a few minutes, if you have a dial-up line). About the only thing easier is being dead, and that's not nearly as much fun (or so I've been told).
The Web is easy to use because, believe it or not, it was designed that way. Scientists working around huge particle accelerators—the kind that smash the tiniest pieces of matter into one another at nearly the speed of light to create huge research budget deficits—spent a bit of their spare time developing the idea. Basically, they decided to put a pretty face on the work of the military-educational complex that let college professors in Berkeley play Pong with researchers at Princeton.
But what's easy for you to use isn't necessarily easy for your computer. And it's not just your computer. Beneath all the fun and games is a snarl of cables more tangled than a planet-size bowl of spaghetti, millions of computers, and an assortment of hardware stranger than the collection of an alien zoo (routers, switchers, multiplexers, and demultiplexers), and some things so esoteric no one knows what to call them. That easy point-and-click interface of the Web covers up an international conspiracy of computers working together to put pop-up ads atop your every click.
As with any conspiracy, getting to the bottom of the Internet requires getting the answers to a couple of questions: What does your computer know, and when does it know it? The answers tell how the complex web of the Internet really operates.
Actually, getting to the bottom of the Internet is easy. You're already there. The computer sitting in front of you is considered the lowest of the low, a mere client to the millions of servers on the Web. At the far end is a hallowed space—actually a super-superstitious 13 of them—housing the true masterminds of the Web, the 13 root name servers, the machines that are the ultimate organizers of the Web.
In between is the Internet. But it's nothing you can get your hands on. It's nothing real. Although the Internet is built using hardware, it is not hardware itself. Similarly, you need hardware to connect to the Internet, but that hardware only serves as a means to access what you really want: the information that the Internet can bring to your computer. Without the right hardware, you could not connect to the Internet, but having the hardware alone won't make a new World Wide Web.
Despite its unitary name, there is no giant Internet in the sky or in some huge office complex somewhere. In fact, the Internet is the classic case of "there is no there there," as Gertrude Stein observed in her book Everybody's Autobiography (impress your friends with that gem). Like an artichoke, if you slice off individual petals or pieces of the Internet, you'll soon have a pile of pieces and no Internet anywhere, and you won't find it among the pieces. Rather, like the artichoke, the Internet is the overall combination of the pieces.
Those pieces are tied together both physically and logically. The physical aspect is a collection of wires, optical fibers, and microwave radio links that carry digital signals between computers. The combination of connections forms a redundant network. Computers are linked to one another in a web that provides multiple signal paths between any two machines.
The logical side is a set of standards for the signals that travel through that network. The Internet uses various protocols, depending on what kind of data is being transferred. The chief protocol and the defining standard of the Internet is TCP/IP, discussed in this chapter.
To work properly, the TCP/IP system requires every computer (or device) connected to the Internet have a unique address, the IP address. Although simple in concept—the IP address is nothing more than a 32-bit binary number, at least for now—what that number means and the future of the entire addressing system are two of the most complex issues regarding the Internet.
Of course, 32-bit binary numbers probably don't roll off your tongue, and remembering one for each Web site you want to visit sounds about as fun as an overnight study session with too much coffee and stress. Thankfully, the developers of the Web concocted the Domain Name System (DNS), which assigns somewhat more memorable names to every Web site. Making the DNS system work, however, is one of the great challenges of the Internet.
The most visible piece of the Web is content. After all, if there weren't anything worth surfing for, you'd probably turn your attention to something else—say, surfing for real when the tsunami warnings go out. Every Web page is, surprisingly, a computer program written in unique languages understood by your Web browser.
And finally, you've somehow got to make a connection with the Internet. That's what you pay for.
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