This Nebulous Thing We Call the Internet: What Is It, Really?


A 2003 map of worldwide internet traffic. (CC The Opte Project / Barrett Lyon)


 “Omnia vivunt, omnia inter se conexa”

Everything is alive; everything is interconnected.”

~ Cicero

The Beauty of Global Connectivity

I love the internet. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t feel as if it’s some sort of magical plaything I get to use. I can’t imagine my world without it. The images above and below are visual maps of internet connectivity produced by Barrett Lyon and the Opte Project. Lyon figured out a way to “take a picture” of the internet by tracking, tracing and mapping internet data (see The Opte Project FAQ for more details). The image below was just released publicly in 2014—prior to that, it could only be seen in one edition of Discover Magazine or by visiting the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. For me, both images powerfully and perfectly convey the visual beauty of our global inter-connectivity.


A 2010 map of worldwide internet traffic. (CC The Opte Project / Barrett Lyon)


“When we try to pick anything out by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

~ John Muir

What is the Internet?

Most of us use the internet daily. But what is it? And how does it work? Until recently, I admit I was somewhat fuzzy about it all myself. It brought to mind the term cyberspace and images of some sort of nebulous clouds of information freely floating about out in space somewhere. I had no idea how all that data could cross oceans in an instant. I imagined information being beamed by satellites to points all around the world and then somehow getting wired to my home and computer. I knew that my computer was connected to my internet provider’s server and that my provider’s servers connected with other servers around the world, but I had no idea how such vast amounts of information could be transmitted globally in such short periods of time.

My curiosity about how the internet really works was piqued after watching one part of the fascinating six part documentary, How We Got to Now, with Steven Johnson on PBS (see trailer posted below). This brilliant series is all about how we, the human race, got to where we are now. The episode that touched on the internet starts with how the invention of glass dramatically changed our world and how, in particular, it has shaped modern technology. The story begins with the invention of clear glass by the Venetian glass blowers on the island of Murano, Italy, which paved the way to, among other things, today’s internet.

Steven Johnson’s explanation of how fiber-optic cables are made and how they are used to transmit internet data cleared up some of my fuzzy thinking about the internet. But not all of it: I still didn’t have a simple, clear schemata in my head of how the data actually traveled to and from my computer or mobile device. My interest still roused, I turned (where else?) to the internet itself, where I found a very simple and clear YouTube video that really simplified it all for me.

An Easy Visual Schematic of the Internet

For those of you looking for a simple, easy to follow explanation, here’s an excellent little video which explains the internet in less than five minutes:

What is the Internet Really Made Of?

For those of you who have had your curiosity further whetted, here’s another take on what the internet is, from a physical standpoint. For example, where are some of the world’s largest servers housed? And how does a connection instantly get made from your home computer, across oceans and around the world? For some of those answers, check out this interesting TED talk by Andrew Blum:


How We Got to Now with Steven Johnson on PBS

This is the documentary series that originally piqued my interest in the history of technology and how it changed the course of human history. Even if you don’t think you would be interested, you will be. If you can find it, you must check out this fascinating six part series which first aired on PBS in October, 2014. It is utterly compelling and totally engaging, no matter what the subject, from start to finish. I can’t say enough good things about this series:


Image Credits

The Internet 2003; CC (Attribution, Non-Commercial);
by The Opte Project / Barrett Lyon

The Internet 2010; CC (Attribution, Non-Commercial);
by The Opte Project / Barrett Lyon

15 thoughts on “This Nebulous Thing We Call the Internet: What Is It, Really?

  1. Those images are quite cool! I guess I never gave it much thought either..I will have to check out the videos you posted…Very nicely done Jeannie..Have a great week :)

    • Hi Sam! I think you’d enjoy those videos. I have a very curious side, so I found them all interesting and informative. And now, I’m much clearer about what the internet is and how it works. Wishing you a happy week ahead! :))

  2. I liked this article Jeannie. The pictures of the net are especially cool. They remind me of sacred geometry. I also just began building my own web site, so the whole article resonates in a lot of ways. FYI I’m having FTP issues so my site isn’t quite ready for viewing, but I’ve got the Domain name picked out, and content ready to be read…it’s a start. Go Flames!!!


    • Thank you, Trenton! I’m familiar with images of sacred geometry and I had a similar thought when I first saw these images. Good look with your file transferring and have fun building your website! And it has been fun to watch the Flames playing well. As you probably know, the Red Mile is back in Calgary! Thanks for stopping by. Wishing you a great week ahead! :))

  3. I’ve learned many new things today! I’ll admit to being unaware of what the ‘Internet’ truly is. The photos of the net traffic are great, and I agree, shows perfectly how we are connected. Thanks Jeannie! :)

    • Hello Takaimi! I can definitely relate—until recently, I didn’t really understand how it worked either. I too thought those images mapping the traffic were so cool when I first saw them. And when I discovered they were Creative Commons images, I knew I wanted to share them on my blog. Wishing you a very happy day, my friend! :))

  4. Jeannie, my gosh, I wish I’d had this post a couple of years ago when I was teaching Communication classes — it’s perfect! You’ve done such a great job of presenting information in a really interesting and fun way (the “perfect” package for students). If you know any teachers you might share this impressive post with, I really think you should. Excellent! And I learned a LOT! :) Thank you!

    • Thanks, so much Debra! But, I really think that all the credit goes to the people who did those great videos! I love well-made science and technology documentaries that make the subjects come alive for lay people, so I especially loved “How We Got to Now”, by Steven Johnson. If you have any interest in that kind of thing, it would be worth trying to track it down or wait for it to be repeated on PBS.Have a great day! :))

  5. I had no idea internet connectivity could be so beautiful! :) Great video, but I am still not 100% clear on this wrapping thing:)

    • Hello and thank you for your comment. I can’t say I’m 100% clear about it all either, but the video did give me a good “Big Picture” view. Thanks for visiting and have a happy weekend! :))

  6. Interesting subject the internet is. It is actually mind blogging how we can get answers immediately on any question. I had no idea how the internet works but your blog and videos posted were both interesting & informative.

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