I’m not one to complain. Really. Well, hardly ever. But here goes: I’ve always been a fan of the magazine Time, but it’s going downhill so fast in terms of quality of reporting and design (its new web is so much harder to navigate than its old one) that I’m even thinking of cancelling the subscription that I have held for about 12 years… There, I got that off my chest, and it wasn’t too painful.
The cause of the most recent slump in my esteem for the publication is from an article back in December claiming that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the Internet. He’s not. He’s a brilliant man, who gave the Internet a usability and accessibility that powers the unimaginable amount of traffic that flows across it daily. But, I’m pretty sure that you got to this blog not through the Internet as such, but through the World Wide Web. And that, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did invent (along with several colleagues, as he would be the first to tell you).
See, here’s the thing: the Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. And for a magazine of the reputation of Time to think they are, is worrying. Maybe the article was written by an intern – but shouldn’t the tech editors pick up on that? And the thing is, it probably underlies a misconception that is much more extended than I realized.
Even such a brilliant thinker as Nicholas Carr seems to get the two terms confused. His book “The Shallows” (definitely worth reading, even if you don’t agree with everything he claims – he does provoke serious contemplation) carries the subtitle: “How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” (or “What the Internet is doing to our brains”, if you have the American version). The main theme of the book is that the overload of information that the Internet gives us is hindering our brain’s ability to think deeply, and to absorb long-form content such as, you know, books. Like the ones he writes.
Some sample quotes:
“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”
“On the Web, there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.”
“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways.”
“The Web… places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources form our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”
He appears to use the two terms interchangeably. And, whether you agree with him or not (I don’t), blaming the Internet for our misuse of the information overload is like blaming the oven in which we bake our cookies, for making us fat. It’s really not the Internet that distracts us. It’s what’s using it. What’s using it is the World Wide Web.
Let’s look at the differences between the two concepts, and settle this once and for all.
Imagine a book. A paper book, not an e-book. The paper, the cover and the binding, that’s the Internet. The print on the paper and the cover, that’s the World Wide Web.
The Internet is the hardware. The World Wide Web is the software.
The Internet is a network of computers, linked by cables or by beamed waves. The World Wide Web is a way of exchanging information.
Web pages, hyperlinks and browsers, that’s the World Wide Web. Your fibre optic cable, wifi modem or whatever it is that gets you connected, that’s the Internet.
The Web cannot exist without the Internet, but the Internet can exist without the Web. The World Wide Web runs on the Internet. It depends on the Internet. But the Internet does not need the World Wide Web. Other stuff is done on the Internet that does not involve the World Wide Web, such as emailing. The original Internet forums did not need the World Wide Web, they used Usenet, a different protocol. It’s still in use today, mainly for internal message boards and discussion groups. And the Internet uses the FTP protocol to directly transfer information between computers. If you’ve ever uploaded something to a server using Filezilla or something similar, you’re not passing through the World Wide Web. You are using the Internet, though.
If you can’t access any Web pages, it’s probably a problem with your Internet connection. Not your Web connection. You can’t say “the Web is down”, or “the Web crashed”, like you can with the Internet. It’s a bit like saying “the cake crashed” when it’s really your oven that won’t turn on.
Right, enough geekiness for one day. Is the difference even important, I hear you ask? Yes, it is. Because how we see something affects very much the uses that we can come up with. If we understand that the Internet is separate, distinct, not the same thing, then we can start to imagine what else we can do with it. The World Wide Web is but one way of spreading information via the Internet. It’s convenient, flexible, colourful and fun, and it is definitely the flavour of the 21st century so far. But with the development and rollout of the Internet of Things, which is gearing up to be massive, data is increasingly being transferred via other protocols. And as the Internet of Things – in which data is beamed from one object to another (sensors, blood pressure bands that wirelessly beam information to your doctor’s smartphone, toasters connected to the TV…) – takes off, we will need a new form of connectivity. This is already happening. In no way will it replace the World Wide Web (and there will be some overlap as some IoT information is communicated to us humans via Web pages). It can run parallel, using the Internet, without which neither would be possible.
Separating our notions of the Internet and the World Wide Web is very important if we are going to create the knowledge economy that will continue to propel civilization to new technological heights. Separating them is also important if we are going to continue to innovate in the distribution of information and ideas. Who knows where else we could take the Internet? Who knows what else it could end up doing for us? What if the hyper-connected society that we live in, thanks to the World Wide Web and the IoT ecosystem, is just the beginning?