How the Internet Actually Works

To most people, the Internet is where everyone plugs in their computer, views webpages, and sends e-mail. That’s a very human-centric viewpoint, but if we’re to understand the Internet truly, we need to be more exact:

The Internet is THE large global computer network that people connect to by default because it’s the largest. And, like any computer network, some conventions allow it to work.

This is all it is really – a vast computer network. However, this article will go beyond just the Internet and explain the ‘World Wide Web. Most people don’t know the difference between the Internet and the Web, but it’s pretty simple: the Internet is a computer network, and the Web is a system of publishing (of websites).

Computer networks

And what’s a computer network? A computer network is just two or more computers connected such that they may send messages to each other. On more extensive networks, computers are joined together in complex arrangements, where some intermediary computers have more than one connection to other computers, such that every computer can reach any other computer in the network via paths through some of those intermediary computers.

Computers aren’t the only things that use networks – the road and rail networks are very similar to computer networks, just those networks transport people instead of information.
Trains on a rail network operate on a certain kind of track – such a convention is needed because otherwise, the network could not effectively work. Likewise, roads are designed to suit vehicles that match a pattern – robust cars of a specific size range traveling within a reasonable speed range. Computers in a network have conventions too, and we usually call these conventions ‘protocols.

There are many kinds of popular computer networks today. The most conventional is the so-called ‘Ethernet’ network that physically connects computers in homes, schools, and offices. However, WiFi is becoming increasingly popular for connecting devices, so cables aren’t required.

Connecting to the Internet

When you connect to the Internet, you use networking technology, but things are usually much muddier. There’s an apt phrase, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” because neither was the Internet. The Internet could only spring up so quickly and cheaply for people because another kind of network already existed worldwide – the phone network!

The pre-existence of the phone network provided a medium for ordinary computers in ordinary people’s homes to be connected to the tremendous high-tech military and research network that had been developed years before. It just required some technological mastery in the form of ‘modems’. Modems allow phone lines to be turned into a mini-network connection between a home and a particular company (an ‘ISP’) already connected to the Internet. It’s like a bridge joining up the road networks on an island and the mainland – the road networks become one due to a special connection between them.

Fast Internet connections are done via ‘(A)DSL’ and ‘Cable’ are no different from phone line connections – there’s still a joining process going on behind the scenes. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Molly Aronson

I'm an award-winning blogger who enjoys all things creative but is especially passionate about lifestyle design. I blog over at I love that I get to share my passion for healthy living, fashion, fitness, and travel with readers from all over the world.

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