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A tangled web of differentiations

This morning, my twitter network delivered a bit of a red herring argument due to lack of differentiation between the internet and the web. So it helps to say first what is internet and what is web (these are not proper official definitions but will have to do for the purposes of this post):

The internet is a set of open protocols that have given rise to a specific type of network – a heterarchy. By heterarchy, in this case, I mean a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

The wikipedia article also points out that heterarchies can contain hierarchical elements and DNS is an example. But an (infra-)structural heterarchy such as the internet ultimately undermines hierarchies. I often paraphrase what John Gilmore famously said: The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – replacing censorship with control.

This feature of a heterarchical network:

…no one way of dividing a heterarchical system can ever be a totalizing or all-encompassing view of the system, each division is clearly partial, and in many cases, a partial division leads us, as perceivers, to a feeling of contradiction that invites a new way of dividing things.

- is the internet’s greatest advantage. Built into the fabric of the internet is the ability to bypass missing or ‘damaged’ nodes and so imposition of hierarchical structures is incompatible in the long run – such control is perceived as an obstacle and therefore damage*. The above is the ‘defence mechanism’ of the internet as a network. Now the ‘offense mechanism’ or better yet, the disruptive one:

What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.

This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.

The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.

Still, even on the web, hierarchy is not the defining organisational structure though closed platforms undermine openness of the web as a whole. There are overtones of feudal serf-lord relationship – you can farm my land in exchange for tithes and/or working for me (just substitute platform and data and you’ve got the current relationship between users and Facebook etc).

That said, there are emerging orders on the web which structurally can be described as power law and socially/politically sometimes as meritocracy. So not all order is automatically a hierarchy.

Another fallacy is due to the term democracy having two meanings. Those who argue that the web is a force for democratisation often use them interchangably which can lead to confusion about the nature of democracy online.

Democracy as open access i.e. right to and equality of voting – one man, one vote (though sometimes it’s not hard to see the one Man with the one Vote) and democracy as rule of the majority. The web is strongly driving the first meaning of democracy – anyone can connect (assuming sufficient resources such as a device and internet connection) and interact online. I can set up an email (communication tool), a blog (publishing platform) and twitter (distribution network). Pretty powerful and heady stuff considering that in the offline world all three capabilities are very expensive and highly controlled and controlable.

Democracy as a rule of the majority is not applicable to the internet or even the web. Nobody tells me what to write on my blog or who I connect and interact with. There is no General Will or Greater Good that would dictate or subjugate my actions online… though social pressures and technical limitations make this a far cry from a utopia. :)

With that out of the way, let’s look at the argument that the internet (or the web) is being used and abused by various government to oppress their citizens. How is that evidence of either the internet or the web being hierarchical? If it is evidence of anything, it is of the effectiveness of online in distribution and management or monitoring of data… and governments’ eventual catching up with those capabilities.

As Alec pointed out in an IM conversation about this – would those citizens be any more free or less oppresssed without the governments (ab)use of the internet? I don’t think so.

The real problem with countries using the internet to oppress its peoples is not in the ‘virtual’ world – they wouldn’t be able to control that any more than the rest of us can – it is in their access to its infrastructural underpinnings.

The use of hackers and cyberwar techniques against other countries by Russia and many other countries is not a sign of governments’ control of the internet either. Such techniques are not limited to governments and can be (and sometimes are) applied to the government.

Finally, I do take issue with the concluding paragraph of the blog post that sparked off this rant:

The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.

The claims that internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies are not exaggerated, they are based on understanding of the nature of the internet as a heterarchy. As long as that is unassaulted, the internet will be able to re-route around censorship, control or hierarchies as damage.

That said, none of this can or should be taken for granted. The web does reflect our mental models of organisation, social conventions and power structures. However, it is build on an infrastructure – the internet – that has already profoundly shifted balances of power, brought about phenomenal technological innovation and is currently having a go at social and organisational conventions. Let’s give it a hand where we can by keeping protocols, data and technology as open as possible.

*An important proviso – the underlying infrastructure of the internet has to remain open and not in the hands of some mega-hierarchy such as government, directly or via telcos.

cross-posted from Media Influencer

22 comments to A tangled web of differentiations

  • Here is the video of the guy talking about “iPod Liberalism” whose talk kicked-off the thread of blog posts: http://is.gd/3QYBZ

  • Laird

    Not being particularly net-savvy, a lot of this went over my head. Sorry. But I do have one question: At the beginning you observe that “it helps to say first what is internet and what is web”, but then you spend the rest of your rant defining and discussing only the internet. So what is the “web”, and how is it distinct from the “internet”?

  • Nuke Gray

    ‘Hetero’ means ‘other’, ‘differing’. All people should be different. Perhaps we should call ourselves PanHeterists! So we can join in the ‘caring and sharing’ rhetoric, our motto could be ‘Share Power’. WE would mean by decentralising down to landowners, but it would sound like we were in the group-hug business.

  • Eric Tavenner

    TCP/IP (Internet Protocol) was developed by the US Department of Defense, and was designed from the start to automatically route around battle damage to the net.

  • but then you spend the rest of your rant defining and discussing only the internet. So what is the “web”, and how is it distinct from the “internet”?

    She already answered that (and it’s pretty well understood by the 20% of IT professionals who have a clue), namely:

    The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.

  • Anonymous

    In practical terms, for the confused:

    The internet is the network created by computers talking to each other with the Internet Protocol (IP).

    The web is a subset of the entire internet, basically composed of hypertext documents, whence the file format HyperText Markup Language (HTML). For most intents, the web comes over HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) over TCP/IP (Tranmission Control Protocol via Internet Protocol), which is a collection of ways to format data that works well for transferring chunks of text (including HTML) and binaries (eg, images).

    In an appropriate viewer (browser), hypertext documents link to and within other documents. These interconnecting “webs” of links form the World Wide Web of sites serving hypertext documents. Now it should be no wonder why search engines employ “crawlers” or “spiders” to index and categorize web pages on web sites.

    The reason the author describes the web as “platforms and silos”, I think, is because of the resources needed on a server to handle the traffic and processing needed to serve modern web sites. If you research “the slashdot effect”, you’ll understand one of the problems with a small site becoming suddenly popular (“it melted the server”). In general, sites large in volume and complexity are hosted in data centers, which require a lot of capital to construct and maintain. Thus, even though anyone can run a server and host a web page — barring ISP restrictions or blocks — it’s impractical to serve several gigabytes to thousands of visitors in a minute for most people. So a capital “hierarchy” develops; or, rather, people pay for these services so they don’t have to worry about it.

    For what it’s worth the Coral Cache, which is a seamless web archival tool, and BitTorrent, count for a lot when you need to distribute large files to thousands of people in a matter of hours. Linux Distributions sending out CD and DVD images test those limits routinely. These are good counter examples to the assertion that only the “rich” have access to high-bandwidth communication channels.

    Anyway, internet as tool to destroy social orders? Sure, as much as the knowledge of language or the technology to print language or the technology to duplicate images and sound. And all the time, we realize that our concept of “trust” for individuals is based on heuristics that don’t really apply given the perfect ability to communicate and lie.

    So, do you trust your tool to be within tolerances and up to specified requirements? Do you trust your software not to lie to you or spy on you? Do you have a choice? If you did, would you be able to audit it to be sure? Who would you trust to do that for you? Why would you trust them? And so forth.

  • It could be worse. The other day I overheard someone explaining to someone else that “The internet” was not the same thing as “Google”.

  • ‘Web’ is the medium, ‘Internet’ is the infrastructure that supports this medium – corrections are welcome.

  • Jaques Charleroi

    The reason the author describes the web as “platforms and silos”, I think, is because of the resources needed on a server to handle the traffic and processing needed to serve modern web sites.

    I think the author describes the web the way she does (quite correctly) because in fact she is talking about the practicle usage that sits on the technical layer that supports it, so while Anonymous is correct, Adriana is actually discussing what the web is to the user (which to the user has nothing to do with technical protocols and servers any more than the experience of driving can be defined to the user by synchromesh transmission and fuel octanes).

  • Anonymous

    Then I suppose I don’t use the web or internet like those users. The methods I use online preceeded “social networks” and will outlast them, because they are simple tools doing effective things, and not a PlaySkool dashboard of pretty lights.

    Don’t mistake silos of knowledge for arenas of activity, nor platforms with which to leverage stability for rafts floating in cheap ocean estate. Mobs are fickle and dangerous.

  • Laird

    Thank you, all. Donna, I guess it’s pretty apparent that I’m not an IT professional and that I don’t “have a clue”!

  • RayD

    At the risk of being pedantic, the ‘inter’ in internet means the same as ‘inter’ in international, i.e. between. It is essentially a contraction of internetwork. It is a means of connecting networks together, not computers, although this is not obvious when your ‘network’ consists of only one computer.

  • RRS

    “Silos of Knowledge????”

    Information storage perhaps.

    Constructed connections between bits of information, perhaps.

    But – “Knowledge???”

    Of course, all these kinds of chats seem to result in examples of the uses of jargon; none of which is related to the nature of knowledge.

  • ‘Silos’ is the correct contemporary technical term for what she is describing, RRS. And it is not just “information” that is stored, it is also knowledge.

    A blog article such as this one is about opinions derived from knowledge relating to the subject, not mere informational facts (which are cheap).

  • Then I suppose I don’t use the web or internet like those users.

    Ok, but for the 95% of the rest of us the explanation makes sense.

    The methods I use online preceeded “social networks” and will outlast them, because they are simple tools doing effective things, and not a PlaySkool dashboard of pretty lights.

    Hard to comment on that as you don’t say what those tools are. But my guess is that “social networks” are actually what the net is really about almost entirely and not a lot more (and that is actually an epoch shifting thing)… well, that and porn.

    Networks will migrate from using this or that tool (and people will escape from ghastly things like facebook soon enough) until the tools becomes more and more what the users needs to extend and manage their social network as they wish… and tools with dashboards of pretty lights will always be there for people who want them… but of course what really matters is how they help you connect to your social network.

  • Billy Oblivion

    The Internet, as tool usable by “the masses” has been around since sometime in late 1995 or early 1996.

    How much more free are you today?

    How much more free are you likely to be tomorrow?

    How many truly destructive hierarchies has this vaunted internet brought down?

    As soon as the western powers (EU, US, UK, Australia) decide that if you don’t use approved routes, proxies and MX servers they will track you down and shoot you then your heterarchy is f***ing toast.

    Look at China. Vietnam (to a lesser degree). Exchanged IM with anyone in

    GOT AMMO?

    As to the difference between the “internet” and the “web”.

    The internet is the transport. The Web is the product. There are many products, Mail, Instant Messenger, IRC, UseNet (AKA NNTP), VOIP (skype et. al.).

    There are a couple of different transport protocols–TCP and UDP for carrying data, ICMP for control messages. The WWW rides on top of TCP, so does SNMP. DNS (the protocol that converts names to addresses) runs on UDP (mostly, sometimes it uses TCP).

    To draw a strained analogy, as your beer leaves the brewery on a big truck and is delivered to the distributor who puts it on a smaller truck to go to your local bar, who then puts it in a glass to give it to you, so does your Email go from Server to Server on SMTP, then gets handed out to your Mail Client via POP or IMAP, and then presented to you either in your web browser (over HTTP as HTML) or just rendered on your screen if you use a real mail client. Or you can just read it off the mail spool if you’re the BOFH. But that gets tedious.

    Clearer now?

    Good.

  • Pa Annoyed

    And nobody has even mentioned the Darknet.

  • RRS

    P de H -

    Thank you for clarifying the jargon of which I admit innocence.

    I am not clear on how opinions can be knowledge if that was the implication, but I may be misreading.

    I suppose the term “Silo” (though adapted for missles because of their shape) puts me off a bit from my agricultural experience as a lad in filling them, knowing into what their contents would be converted for me to deal with again.

    My efforts stretch back to the days of things like CompuServe and the early AOL, etc. which ultimately became all interconnected when the protocols for www.
    were established creating what was then called a “web” of networks (many of which were excusively internal [LAN] wthin some operating entities, but could become inter-connected). I just have not kept up.

    However, I do remember being given the example Samuel Johnson’s definition of “Network” as part of his task of creating a dictionary – relying on “interstices.”

  • Clearer now?

    I am clear you did not understand the article, that’s for sure.

  • J

    ‘Web’ is the medium, ‘Internet’ is the infrastructure that supports this medium – corrections are welcome.

    Hmmm, I think all these models miss the point. The Internet is a social thing. A bunch of people who own physical goods like computers and bundles of fibreoptic cables have agreed to join those things together by running common software (that’s TCP/IP), and, just as importantly, by agreeing to configure that software in very particular ways (especially the peering agreements of the large telcos – a topic too big to go into now).

    The internet isn’t magical. The air transport network could collapse easily by airports suddenly refusing to let certain carriers land. The internet could equally collapse if telcos refused to carry traffic originating in other telcos over their physical cables. Routing protocols won’t route around that.

  • Hmmm, I think all these models miss the point. The Internet is a social thing.

    All global infrastructures are social by definition, just like the air transport network. So no one is missing anything, it is simply implied.

    The internet isn’t magical.

    Thanks for that clarification:-)

  • Nuke Gray

    The Internet IS SO magical! At least, mine only works when I’ve cursed it a few times.