Riding the routes of the Internet – do you know where your information goes?

The time is 8am and by this time in the morning I have relied on the Internet to complete 5 different tasks as part of my morning routine. Rising to the sound of my alarm, I check social media and news sites for an update into the happenings over night. Happy that the world is still turning, I now progress to my emails and begin compiling a mental todo list. Having filtered through the spam, I check the weather for the day to inform appropriate attire and begin getting ready to go to work.

Potentially before I’m out of bed, I have trusted the Internet to accurately convey current events and recent developments from around the world and closer to home. I have trusted the Internet to reassure me that family and friends are doing ok through my maintained connection with social media. I have trusted the Internet to confirm important developments within my professional network via a different form of social media. I have even trusted the Internet to help me make an informed decision about the clothes I should wear. So I must know all about how the Internet gets this information, right?

According to the office of National Statistics, 36 million (73%) adults within UK used the Internet daily in 2013. A statistic which increases to 85% focusing on the 16-34 years age bracket. More people than ever before are trusting the Internet to provide their news updates via online newspapers or magazines (55%), to access their bank accounts (50%), to seek health information (43%) or to buy groceries (21%). So they must know all about how the Internet gets this information, right?

The majority of adults have no idea how the Internet works, where information goes, how it is stored or how it is returned to their device. Based on a 152 responses from a recent survey which I sent out on several social media websites: adults from 16 to 65+ rated their own understanding of the Internet as an average of 3.60 out of 5. Now I guess this doesn’t seem too bad, they can nearly all explain that the Internet uses a phone line, as many remember the troublesome dial-up days of having to decide whether Internet browsing or your phone calls were more important! Following the departure of that signal down the phoneline – what does happen? Only 21.6% of those who didn’t need to understand the Internet for work, believed they could explain the journey of a website request from beginning to end. Now I wonder, does it really matter if the average adult understands as long as there are some Computer Scientists who do?

In the simplest terms what happens is: your request to view a webpage travels along the phone line (along with 1000s of other requests from other people in your area) and is passed from router to router searching for the computer (or web server) where the website you requested is stored. When there, your computer is sent a message reporting where the destination is and can begin downloading its content (the text, images and videos which are shown on your screen). Anything sent across the Internet is broken up into small pieces and labelled with an address and which piece it is. They all travel separately to ensure the quickest possible speed. Once they reach the destination the computer reads the piece numbers which explains how to put it back together and the information displays on your computer as one complete piece. The whole process can take a matter of seconds, depending on your Internet speed.

So does understanding this make a difference? Considering the fact that so many things in our world are now run by computers connected to the Internet, even before taking into account personal Internet usage, we are placing a lot of trust in systems the vast majority of us don’t understand. How can we make informed decisions about what we should and shouldn’t use the Internet for if we do not know what happens in the void that we imagine the Internet to be? The Internet is a fantastic place, a lot of you probably wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t for the Internet, however, we all know it has to be used with caution. By understanding how it works, we can ensure that due caution is given without prohibiting access to the most substantial information-source on the planet.

I now dare to mention the new Computing curriculum which will be statutory for all state schools in the UK from September 2014. Within the KS2 curriculum changes, there is more than just the inclusion of computer programming, but also the addition of an understanding of networks and the Internet. This, I believe, is the understated necessity for the next generation. As the Internet grows, and our reliance on the Internet grows even further beyond this, the next generation need to be able to make those informed decisions that many adults are not currently in a position to make. How else can we continue to place more and more trust in the Internet?

It is now lunchtime and by this point in my day I have used the Internet to complete more tasks than I have been able to keep track of. I am lucky enough to have a basic understanding of how the Internet works and so I choose to place my trust with an open mind. I hope that I am critical when I need to be, but accepting when appropriate and that I can use the Internet as a tool rather than a magic wand. I am sure though that the next generation will be a lot better at this than we are. Remember, think about what you trust the Internet with and ask yourself: what if something went wrong?

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© Sway Grantham 2013 - Version: 1.13