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March 4, 2013 / Hannah

The internet is a series of tubes

The photo on the left is the fountain in front of the Houses of Parliament – when it was really cold the other day it froze solid and looked really cool (in both senses of the word!) Sorry for the poor quality photo, my phone camera’s not the best, and I didn’t want to leave my gloves off for long for fear of frostbite. See the end of this post also for another comically poorly executed shot of Parliament glowing in the late afternoon sun (and a close up of my thumb). I’m being totally spoiled by walking past these sights every day!

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks grappling with the internet. Not in the sense of, “where is all this spam coming from?” and “why is my computer making that noise AGAIN?” but rather the nuts and bolts of how it actually works. It turns out that for those of us without a computer science or network engineering degree, the answer boils down to: in a VERY complicated way. Working my way through explanations of ports, IP addresses, data packets and communication protocols, I’ve been in real danger of getting totally bogged down in jargon. One consolation is that the average internet user seems equally mystified by some of the inner working of this technology that we take for granted. An informal poll of my team-mates for last week’s pub quiz (we won! Sorry, I had to crowbar that in there) yielded answers to “how does the internet work” ranging from, “I don’t care as long as it works” to “pixies in boxes”; with one apparent Ted Stevens fan informing me that “the internet is a series of tubes”.

This is the real challenge and beauty of POSTnotes though: taking a subject which may be quite hellishly complicated, and presenting it to a lay audience in an accessible way – without abridging the facts so much that they’re drained of all meaning. And internet surveillance, a hefty topic which straddles technology, policy and society (all evolving rapidly), certainly seems to epitomise this challenge – I’m really lucky to have been given this area to research. Not only is it timely, with the Draft Communications Data Bill being redrafted as we speak, it’s also something that impinges on nearly all aspects of our lives. Lucky for me, because it can be so much easier to understand a difficult concept when it directly relates to your day to day activities.

This last point has been nicely demonstrated by the three people that I interviewed today. Generous with their time and knowledge, they were very patient as I tried to understand some of the concepts they were discussing. Rather than ploughing on in the abstract, they were able to come up with familiar examples that were much easier for me to relate to. “When you send an email…” “When you use Skype…” It sounds like a small thing, but having a real-life example to ‘hook’ the technical details onto made them much easier to visualise and understand.

A new appreciation of the power of case studies isn’t the only thing I’ve gained in the last couple of weeks. Yes, I’ve absorbed so much new knowledge about the internet that my brain may be in danger of starting to leak from my ears. But perhaps more importantly I’m getting a huge amount of practice in thinking about and researching a complex system – very useful for my PhD research, and undoubtedly in other areas of life too. Not only am I mind-mapping like it’s going out of style, I’ve also realised how useful it can be to have informal discussions away from the desk. I have to admit to having a slight tendency to completely isolate myself when I’m trying to crack a problem – getting impatient with anything I perceive as a distraction from beating my head against the metaphorical brick wall. However, in addition to the interviews, a couple of very useful experiences last week got me to re-evaluate this attitude and realise that talking about things with someone removed from the problem can help to get over a roadblock. A quip to a friend about supercookies not being as fun as they sound led to a more serious discussion about our daily browsing habits, and what cookies are doing in the background while we surf the web. I came away with a much clearer understanding of what cookies do (and a craving for chocolate chips, I can’t imagine why). And a lunchtime discussion with a fellow POSTie turned into a slight confidence booster:

Me:  It can be hard to even understand the explanations of these acronyms… I looked up TCP last week and it started talking about protocol stacks… what’s a protocol stack?

Him:  Hah, it sounds like nouveau cuisine, like those vegetable stacks you get.

Me:  Oh well it’s not a physical stack, it’s a set of interacting standard operating procedures for networking. It’s called a stack because each one in the set builds on the one ‘below’.

Him:  …So you do understand it then.

Me:  …huh.

There’s probably hope for me yet.

blog HoP

Not an attempt to balance light and shade, just a very incompetent photographer.

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