requiem for certainty

How does internetworking work? (Talk at Metaphi.)

with 11 comments

This is for a little (2-minute!) talk I am giving tonight at Metaphi: <>.

What are media?  What is a medium?  We hear a lot these days about new media, old media, broadcast media, collaborative media, social media, civic media, and all other kinds of new-and-exciting media.  At the center of all this hubbub is the hub of hubs, that thing that we all call the internet.  But is that all that the internet is?  Is it just some new medium or new media?

What is the internet?  This seems like an easy question.  But it’s not.  Nobody in this room, given an hour of time, could craft a definition that would satisfy most of the other people in the room.  My sense is that we do not even yet have a concept for the thing that we call the internet, namely that thing we all use on a daily basis to send our flurries of emails, publish our articles, read the Times, and watch all those funny but exasparatingly innane YouTube memes.

I am a philosopher.  Now, the way that philosophers like to approach problems like this one is by way of the time-honored game of… giving a definition.  So with respect to the internet we look for a definition by asking: What is the internet?

So, what is the internet?  In this case, at least, this is altogether the wrong question to ask.   The internet is not a thing.  It is not a medium, new or old, it is not just some ‘new media’.  The internet, moreover, is not itself just a multimedia process.  It does not just bring together text, and video, and audio, or sound and light and word.  The internet is not a thing that can be defined, not a medium whose essence can be distilled.

The internet is not a thing.  It is a process.  It is a practice.  Or rather an intersection of a great many processes and practices.  It is a flexible protocol for reflexively working on, remixing, reusing, re-doing, re-synthesizing our media and our selves.

The internet is not a thing.  You can not just point at all the cables and routers and fiber-optic material strewn across the planet and laid across the ocean floors.  What makes all that stuff work are the practical processes by which we make use of all those cables, which are otherwise about as good as junk.  The internet is not something you can point at, not something you can define, not something whose essence you can grasp.

The internet, on the contrary, is only something that you can do.  But that sounds strange so let me give you another word for it.  Let’s stop talking about ‘the internet‘ as if it is a thing and start talking about ‘internetworking‘ in order to suggest that this is something that we do in the sense of a kind of work that we all perform.  Internetworking is our working together, a network of our networks, which net together our disparate works.

So, like a true philosopher, let me leave you not with an answer but only with a question or a set of questions to which I would not pretend to give an answer.  At least not yet.  Those questions are: “What is internetworking?  What internetworks?  How does internetworking work?”  It seems to me that we do not yet have the concepts to answer these questions.  So it is our job to make these concepts by better understanding how our work works.


Written by Colin Koopman

May 10, 2010 at 11:46 pm

11 Responses

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  1. so we start by identifying language traps like reification, but then what case-studies or experiments? or do we keep reminding the folks in the social sciences/engineering of the complexity/emergent/contingent properties of the process/flow of the stream of life?


    May 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm

  2. Ahh I wish I had known about Metaphi before it happened. This reification definitely presents problems with respect to how we understand and therefore use the internet, though I’m not sure “internetworking” captures the scope of use that’s at issue for me–I’d like to hear more on this. It seems that internetworking as defined is a major part of the internet, but what of instances when users consume content, never to interact or add value; or when users/companies advertise using the “old media” paradigm (largely ineffectively I might add)?

    As you say, it’s hard to define “internet” and its certainly something I think about often–it seems that by defining it we assign it a telos (which I presume to be counterproductive, particularly in this case), and yet at the same time, it’s useful to have a working definition of some sort.


    May 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm

  3. Working definitions are helpful indeed. But, yes, there is a danger of reification, naturalization, and essentialization. A danger, in other words, that people will take the internet to already be defined, understood, and tidied up. But it’s very much up in the air. And maybe that’s good. Or at least maybe it’s good right now. Why? Perhaps because internetworking is still emergent, nascent, inchoate, and so at its best when undefined and facing forward.

    Lots and lots of case studies and experiments are needed. Lots. Some involve engineers, some involve users, some involve both — and certainly there are more.

    Colin Koopman

    May 12, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    • “is still emergent, nascent, inchoate, and so at its best when undefined and facing forward”
      perhaps keeping this awareness/value as a live option is at least part of the calling, and the hope, of philosophy today. not to mark an absence but to recognize the adaptive/liberative potential in the not yet known/imagined, the excess even. as for working definitons as long as they are understood along the lines of something like prototypes, perspicuous presentations, than i say oui.


      May 13, 2010 at 10:48 pm

  4. was listening to arnold davidson from your conference (thanks for making that available) and he has this nice bit along the lines of mounting a ‘fight against the impoverishment of the relational fabric of our world’ which in the age of facebook, and other forms of commercial socialization, has all new resonances.


    May 20, 2010 at 1:42 am

  5. @dmf


    June 29, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    • thanks for this and the related link that is there from shirky on “institutions vs. collaboration” if you like these than you should check out the audio from the posting above which gets into the background-studies/theory/implications and is a nice update on some aspects of Dewey’s related works.


      June 30, 2010 at 2:07 pm

  6. Latour updating networking:


    January 31, 2011 at 2:31 am

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