The Net – It was born 40 years ago, in a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. Today it wraps the entire planet and features in the daily routine of more than 1.5 billion people.
Of course, it’s easy to take the internet for granted and forget that it’s very much a work in progress. So what forces are shaping it, how big has it grown, and will it ever evolve a mind of its own?
1. Who controls the internet?
Officially – no one controls the internet.
The internet is, essentially, a group of protocols by which computers communicate, and innumerable servers and cables, most of which are in private hands. However, in terms of influence, the overwhelming balance of power lies with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) based in California.
2. Could the net be self aware?
In engineering terms, it is easy to see qualitative similarities between the human brain and the internet’s complex network of nodes, as they both hold, process, recall and transmit information.
Ben Goertzel, chair of the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, an organisation inevitably based in cyberspace said:
“The internet behaves a fair bit like a mind…It might already have a degree of consciousness”.
New Scientist magazine points out that even if this does come to pass, it won’t “necessarily have the same kind of consciousness as humans” because consciopusness can be described as, “a system of mechanisms for making information pressing more efficient by adding a level of control over which of the brain’s processes get the most resources”.
3. How big is the net?
In 2005, Google estimated the internet contained some 5 million terabytes of data – that’s more than 1 gigabyte for each of Earth’s 4.5 billion trips around the sun.
Perhaps the simpler way is how many people use the Internet. The general answer seems to be that just over a billion people used the Internet in 2008. Of these, about 500 million use the Internet at least once a week, making them more-or-less permanent citizens of the Internet population.
Additionally, the size can be calculated by how many megabytes it takes up. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, the world’s largest index of the Internet, estimated the size at roughly 5 million terabytes of data. That’s over 5 billion gigabytes of data, or 5 trillion megabytes. Schmidt further noted that in its seven years of operations, Google has indexed roughly 200 terabytes of that, or .004% of the total size.
There are thought to be some 155 million websites on the Internet, but this number fluctuates wildly from month to month.
4. Could we shut down the net?
Almost certainly not…but why would we want to shut it down?
Much of the infrastructure – the servers, cabling and satellites, and the internet service providers (ISPs) that run them – is in private hands. A government might be able to mandate that ISPs in their territory be shut down, but people could still receive data through satellite links controlled by companies not answerable to that government. To extend that shutdown across national borders is barely conceivable.
“One very powerful government could have strong effects on their own country, but it would be very difficult to do on a worldwide basis,” says Milton Mueller of the international Internet Governance Project.
5. Where are the nets dark corners?
There are plenty of places online that you would do well to steer clear of. A brief visit to some unsavoury websites, for instance, could leave your computer infected with worms or viruses. Then there are the “black holes” to worry about.
If your emails mysteriously disappear, or your favourite website is suddenly unobtainable, you might have run into a dark corner of the net. Information black holes can create all kinds of problems for surfers.
Essentially they are points on the network at which data packets simply disappear due to broken connections, or misconfigured routers. A team including computer scientist Ethan Katz-Bassett at the University of Washington in Seattle has detected almost 1.5 million black holes since it began looking in 2007. The majority persist for over 2 hours, he says. Unfortunately it is tough to predict where they will appear next, so it’s hard for the average surfer to avoid them.