From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: what you really need to know about the Internet

It all started with a question that I’m frequently asked. Because I once wrote a history of the Internet, people infer from that that I must have some superior insight into it and they eventually get round to posing a question that’s clearly being bugging them for a while. The question is couched in various ways, but it always comes down to the same thing: why is the Net such a big deal? The motivation for asking the question varies. Some people are baffled by the Internet, and wonder how it works. Some are awestruck by it, and wonder what it means for our societies and our futures. Some are irritated by it - especially by what they see as the social and behavioural changes that it appears to be driving, or by the challenges that it poses to the established order. Some are enraged by it - especially if they see it as threatening their livelihoods or undermining their professional authority. Some are fearful of it as an alienating, atomising technology that turns our children into screen-based addicts. And so on.

My inference from all this is that the root of the unease is a lack of understanding. This is not to say that my interrogators were uninformed. Their problem is not that they are short of information about the Net; au contraire, they are awash with conflicting data about it. It’s just that they don’t know what it all means. They are in the state once described by that great scholar of Cyberspace, Manuel Castells, as “informed bewilderment”.

My book is an attempt to ameliorate that bewilderment. I sat down one day and asked myself the question: what would you really need to know to understand the Internet and its implications?

It turns out that you don’t need to know all that much. You need to understand some history and some basic technological ideas. You need a different perspective on networking than you will get from the news media. And most of all you need to look at the Internet phenomenon in terms of what it’s doing to our media ecosystem - the information environment that influences how human culture evolves. What this amounts to is a smallish number of Big Ideas.

But how many ideas? In thinking about this I drew on a celebrated paper by the psychologist George Miller - “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information” published in 1965. The paper was a review of earlier psychological experiments which measured the limits of people’s short-term memory. His conclusion was that the effective “channel capacity” lay between 5 and 9 equally-weighted choices.

This idea seemed useful to me. So when deciding how many Big Ideas about the Internet would be meaningful for most readers, I settled for Miller’s magical number - seven ideas, plus or minus two. And from that decision, everything else followed: a book with nine chapters.