Why is the Internet viewed as a medium

Stefan Krempl


The Internet - a new mass medium?

From the history of the development of the Internet

As with so many communication technologies, military considerations gave rise to its creation. One thought of the US military in the initial planning for the Internet was that a computer network wanted to maintain communication in the event of a nuclear strike. The first ideas for the future Internet were developed during the Cold War and promoted by the (Defense) Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA or DARPA), one of the most important research centers of the US Department of Defense. The first tests were carried out right from the start with leading American universities, which ultimately not only determined the technology but also the first applications and used the early computer network primarily for communication purposes (email) or to exchange files.

One of the most important visionaries in the early days of computer networking was J.C.R. Licklider, professor of psychoacoustics at MIT, who was intrigued by the idea of ​​using computers as thinking tools, thus directing ARPA research towards interactive computing.

It must be seen that the introduction of the Internet in the USA (if one disregards military beginnings) can be interpreted as a collective act of the country's academic community. It was accompanied by massive criticism of the conventional, directed media system, especially commercial, advertising and entertainment-oriented television.

Hans Kleinsteuber / Martin Hagen: Interactivity - Promises of Communication Theory and the Net. In: Neverla (ed.) (1998): The network medium.

One of the most important reasons for networking back then was that computers were still very expensive and only had limited computing power. The network pioneers therefore looked for ways to use the expensive equipment more efficiently and considered options for "timesharing". The computing power of a computer was split up into individual tasks that users could commission via terminals. A function was also built into the early timeshare systems through which individual computer users could send each other messages via the central computer. The "computer mediated communication" (CMC) was born, and at the same time the idea of ​​the ARPA matured to connect separate computers based on different systems via a network.

The basic technology for data exchange was developed by the "think tank" Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), where Robert Kahn developed the software and the interfaces for data transmission and made them available to ARPA at the end of August 1969. Initially, the University of California Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute in Silicon Valley were connected, a little later the universities of Santa Barbara and Utah were connected. At that time, the transmission rates were already in the range of an ISDN channel (64 kilobits per second). In 1971 twenty computer centers were already connected to the ARPANET. Further networks between research institutions such as BITNET or CSNET followed. In 1986 the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA took over the expansion of the NSFNET, which for the first time commissioned commercial companies such as IBM or MCI to plan the infrastructure, the so-called backbone of the increasingly branching network. So the step towards commercialization was not far. In the mid-90s, the NSF finally withdrew from financing the Internet.

The Internet only experienced the real boom with the invention of the World Wide Web, the "colorful" part of the network that Tim Berners-Lee developed at CERN in Geneva from 1989 (>>> see course unit on hypertext). In view of the colorful world of images in the multimedia web, however, one should not forget that most "surfers" do not surf as much as they read email, chat or discuss in newsgroups.

The network technology

The data transmission on the Internet takes place in a decentralized way. The Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP / IP) invented by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn divides documents or the communication to be conveyed into individual data packets ("packet switching"). Each parcel is given a recipient address and sent to the destination computer via various routes and network nodes. If packages are lost en route, they can be requested again and "routed" via an alternative route.

Individual computers can be identified on the Internet using their IP numbers, which can also be assigned easily understandable names in plain text (www.euv-frankfurt-o.de) using the Domain Name System. Since names can only be assigned once, and the domain endings such as .de or .com are limited, fierce disputes about the important identifiers in the network continue to flare up. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was founded in November 1998 to coordinate the assignment of IP numbers and domain names.

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn receive a research award from Ex-US President Bill Clinton for the invention of the TCP / IP protocol

Data and information are stored on servers on the Internet, from which they can be accessed via clients or networked terminals (usually PCs). In principle, every client can also become a server or a node in the network, which is what the so-called "peer-to-peer" technology (P2P) makes its own. The technology was made famous primarily by the music "exchange" service Napster, although the search queries still ran through a central server. Successors such as Morpheus or Audiogalaxy go one step further and only provide the software for networking P2P users.

Applications and Myths

If, in principle, there is no longer any great difference between the server and the client, every "recipient" or consumer can at the same time - at least in theory - also become a "sender" or producer. In general, the Internet is therefore viewed as a medium that can undermine traditional hierarchies and authorities and has a strongly decentralizing effect (cf. Gillet / Kapor 1996).

networked everywhere ...

The technical characteristics of the network - its decentralization, its ramification and the ability to both send and receive data - have given rise to numerous hopes and myths. Even if the use of today's mass media such as television is no longer viewed by modern communication research as a purely passive matter of reception, for example because the viewer zaps his "own program" with the remote control or builds parasocial interactions with screen characters, the degree of interactivity on the Internet is but much higher. Mass communication in the network is often overlaid by individual communication.E-mail can, for example, be used to address a single communication partner personally, or via a mailing list to address a group whose composition is usually not known to the sender of a message.

The specific profile of properties that is attributed to the network medium and which in a sense provides the material basis of the visions can be summarized in the term "rhizome" ... The French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, philosopher one, psychoanalyst the other, have ... described the transversal rhizome as a paradigm of postmodern society. This term is taken from biology and means the inextricable, underground, proliferating root network of bushes. Characteristics of the rhizome are networking and heterogeneity, diversity, permanent changeability and indestructibility through diverse connection possibilities. In the discourse on the network medium, the rhizome is taken up as a metaphor and characterization, combined with specific ideas about people and society, media and communication ...

Irene Neverla: Think the medium. In: Neverla (ed.) (1998), 24

One of the most persistent web myths associated with the rhizome-like structure of the Internet is that of the web's uncensibility. The co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Gilmore, is credited with the phrase: "The Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it." Other thinkers such as Pierre Lévy or Vilém Flusser conclude from this that the interaction possibilities of the network would undermine conventional hierarchies and that the Internet would prove to be a "technical realization of the ideas of modernity" and a "legitimate successor to the Enlightenment project" (Lévy 1998, 69 ). Because in the age of the electronic media "equality is realized through the possibility of each individual to become a broadcaster for all. Freedom is objectified in encrypted programs and in access to the many virtual communities that transcends all national borders. Fraternity finally comes through the worldwide context to validity "(ibid.).

Map of the Internet colored by national IP addresses by William R. Cheswick, Bell Lab

Such "redemption theories" are by no means new. Armand Mattelart describes in the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique in the taz of November 4, 1995 that similar democratizing effects were expected from the telegraph, radio, film and television media and even from transport networks such as the railroad. "At the end of our century, the" information superhighways "are the ticket for a new round on the carousel of utopias. In a speech to experts from the International Telecommunication Union in Buenos Aires in 1994, Albert Gore, then Vice President of the United States, presented the project "Infrastructures in the global age" justified with the argument that the great social inequalities in the world must be eliminated. The unattainable ideal of the "transparent society" was maintained on the Internet, a "myth that is as old as the idea der Moderne "and is only gradually disenchanted in everyday life on the Internet and through the dot-com crisis.

The Internet as an information medium

The Internet with its millions of websites and its numerous services and possible uses is the basic medium of the information society. Information that was previously only available to the secret services is now openly available on the Internet and its innumerable databases; anyone with an Internet connection can make use of it. Today, the normal surfer is able to research the holdings of libraries around the world within a few minutes, read daily newspapers from almost every country online, and have personal newsfeeds sent to their computers via news agencies or high-quality mailing lists To ask questions in newsgroups and to discuss God and the world on Usenet and by email.

"Five years ago, the intelligence services would not have shrunk from murder in order to get their hands on these opportunities. Today anyone can do it from their own place."

Adams, James (1998): The Next World War. Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line is Everywhere. New York (Simon & Schuster), 224

For the user, the question of the relevance of the information offered usually arises because of the oversupply of sources. He can no longer limit himself to understanding, processing and using information, but must also pursue and select offers in a critical and distant manner.

The Internet as a communication medium

As an "integration medium", the network supports three types of communication at the same time (cf. Krotz 1998, 118):

  • The traditional mass communication. Standardized media products addressed to a general audience can be received online. Television and the Internet are also growing ever closer together, the "Tagesschau" can be viewed on the web via real video, for example.

  • The interpersonal communication. Network users can exchange information directly with one another via email or Internet telephony, in chats or via video conferences.

  • A new type of communication takes place exclusively between machines or between machines and people. Intelligent software agents or "robots" interact with each other or with the surfer.

The Internet thus opens up "a new, integrated, context-variable and thus impressively comprehensive space of interaction for people, which enables very different modes of use and is used in very specific ways. Due to the structural conditions of computer-mediated communication, this use has consequences for people's self-understanding and worldview "(ibid, 126).

French internet cafe

It is important that a new form of public is established on the Internet, an arena of politically motivated communication that enables actors to actively participate and position themselves for which the public was not accessible to the mass media.

Ultimately, the largely free world of information on the Internet is only the climax of a media development that has taken its course since the invention of the Gutenberg press and television and reached its temporary climax in the 1990s. "In the past decade, the way the media expresses opinion has changed dramatically. CNN is everywhere, and wherever CNN goes, all the other media producers quickly follow suit" (Adams, op. Cit., 281).


All about the internet. Compilation of links to Internet history from the Interent Society

Ronda Hauben: The Birth of the Internet: An Architectural Conception for Solving the Multiple Network Problem, version 1.07, April 30, 2000 (ASCII text file)

A Little History of the World Wide Web from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

Mike Sandbothe: Is the Internet Cool or Hot? On the topicality of McLuhan's vision of the media community. Telepolis 09/12/1996

Stefan Krempl: Is the Internet a mass medium? Or: where is the digital revolution? Telepolis 07/22/1997

Bernhard Debatin: Metaphors and Myths of the Internet. Democracy, the public sphere and identity in the wake of networked data communication. 1997

Mike Sandbothe: Pragmatic Media Philosophy and the Internet. (Printed in: About Media. Perspectives on Humanities and Cultural Studies. Ed. by Sybille Krämer, Berlin 1998, 95 - 110)

Early visions of the internet and hypertext pioneers. Presentation from the University of Berkeley April 1998

Hans-Arthur Marsiske: Multimedia has always existed. A conversation with Johannes Fried, Professor of Medieval History. Telepolis 05/18/1999

Hans-Arthur Marsiske: One shouldn't overestimate the role of writing. A conversation with Wilhelm Voßkamp about the history and utopia of the media. Telepolis 06/18/1999

Mike Sandbothe: How the excursion into the world of virtual chatterboxes can enrich our real existence. 2001

Stefan Betschon: At the edges of the network. With peer-to-peer to manageable subsystems. NZZ May 4, 2001

Peter Kempin and Wolfgang Neuhaus: The Internet as a global "relationship machine". How virtuality is changing social demands for action. Telepolis 6.5.200

Goedart Palm: The future of reading. While the aliteracy increases, network-oriented readers tend to scan the texts quickly. Telepolis 05/24/2001

Richard Barbrook: The utopian moment of networking. The napsterization of the world. textz.com 2002

Geert Lovink: The network society and its reality romantics. Hubert L. Dreyfus: On the Internet - a review. Telepolis 04/18/2002

Niko Deussen: By time machine into the past. The American Internet archive has now made its website collection accessible to private surfers. The time 16/2002

Georg Jünger: A new universe. The World Wide Web of
today falls far short of the possibilities that the "Xanadu" system had designed 40 years ago. taz 04/17/2003