How the Internet Works (video)

June 11, 2012

I stumbled across this short and cleverly done video about how a Web page is transferred across the Internet. I applaud the use of the tourist analogy to explain how packets make their way from source to destination.


Explaining the Internet to newcomers

October 3, 2011

Bus with web address in the destination marque

“Explain the Internet” is not a simple question for the technology explainer to answer, but it’s a common query here at Explain Technology. The Internet has become a crucial element of everyday life, so I’m never surprised when newcomers seek an understanding of it. In fact, the lengthiest chapter in The Ultimate PC Primer is dedicated to providing a clear foundational explanation of the Internet and the most common benefits it can provide. (And I openly admit that single lesson is only an introduction.)  But in case you don’t have a copy of the book handy, here are some basics on how to explain the Internet.

First, let’s remember a question like “how does the Internet work” could be intended and interpreted different ways. Does the questioner want a description of the technology from an infrastructure perspective or help with the process for how to use it? In most cases, I find it’s a combination of both. Curious individuals want the infrastructure details abstracted away to easily-understood (and less technical) elements so that the application and process of using the Internet makes more natural sense. In short, people don’t care about the circuits and wires but also want a firm enough grasp to know it’s not magic. So here’s how I addressed both in The Ultimate PC Primer

I deal with the infrastructure portion first by explaining the following through analogies:

  1. How do computers connect to each other?
  2. How does my computer get in the mix?

The Internet is a group of interconnected computers, so how do they stay connected? Answer: they’re like teenage girls on limitless caffeine — they’re constantly on the phone gabbing with each other. In fact, they never hang up and they never sleep. How does your computer get in the mix? Answer: it needs to get on the party line, too (though it, and you, is allowed to sleep.)

Since the Internet has been often called the “information superhighway,” I willingly leverage the “highway” analogy to explain that every highway has an on-ramp. That’s where you can use your car to connect to the pavement that will take you where you want to go. The on-ramp for a personal computer is the connection point provided by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). (In the book, I also briefly explain different physical components involved with dial-up, DSL, Cable, and wireless.)

After getting “on the Internet,” the rest is largely about the process of navigation. The most crucial element of the Internet continues to be the World Wide Web, so much of the lesson in my book deals with explaining the principle of web pages/sites/services. I cover browser basics (common to all Web browsers) and again employ a real-world analogy — I compare the Web Browser to a bus, since a bus displays it’s destination on the marquee at the top of the vehicle just as the location always appears at the top of a browser.

I also cover e-mail basics the same way, explaining the concept through a real-world postal service scenario and continuing to generic e-mail software basics with corresponding illustrations.

If you’re interested in learning more, grab a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer: 15 Simple Lessons for Understanding Personal Computers (available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, from the publisher, or through many other booksellers) and check out Lesson 14.