1.6 How It Works
Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet

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     The worldwide Net is actually a complex web of smaller regional
networks.  To understand it, picture a modern road network of trans-
continental superhighways connecting large cities.  From these large cities
come smaller freeways and parkways to link together small towns, whose
residents travel on slower, narrow residential ways. 
     The Net superhighway is the high-speed Internet.  Connected to
this are computers that use a particular system of transferring data
at high speeds.  In the U.S., the major Internet "backbone"
theoretically can move data at rates of 45 million bits per second
(compare this to the average home modem, which has a top speed of roughly
9,600 to 14,400 bits per second). 
     Connected to the backbone computers are smaller networks serving
particular geographic regions, which generally move data at speeds
around 1.5 million bits per second.
     Feeding off these in turn are even smaller networks or individual
computers.
     Unlike with commercial networks such as CompuServe or Prodigy, there
is no one central computer or computers running the Internet -- its
resources are to be found among thousands of individual computers.  This
is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.   The approach
means it is virtually impossible for the entire Net to crash at once --
even if one computer shuts down, the rest of the network stays up.  The
design also reduces the costs for an individual or organization to get
onto the network.  But thousands of connected computers can also make it
difficult to navigate the Net and find what you want -- especially as
different computers may have different commands for plumbing their
resources.  It is only recently that Net users have begun to develop the
sorts of navigational tools and "maps" that will let neophytes get around
without getting lost.
     Nobody really knows how many computers and networks actually make
up this Net.  Some estimates say there are now as many as 5,000
networks connecting nearly 2 million computers and more than 15 million
people around the world.  Whatever the actual numbers, however, it is
clear they are only increasing.  
     The Net is more than just a technological marvel. It is human
communication at its most fundamental level.  The pace may be a little
quicker when the messages race around the world in a few seconds, but
it's not much different from a large and interesting party. You'll see
things in cyberspace that will make you laugh; you'll see things that
will anger you.  You'll read silly little snippets and new ideas that
make you think.  You'll make new friends and meet people you wish would
just go away.
     Major network providers continue to work on ways to make it
easier for users of one network to communicate with those of another. 
Work is underway on a system for providing a universal "white pages"
in which you could look up somebody's electronic-mail address, for
example.  This connectivity trend will likely speed up in coming years
as users begin to demand seamless network access, much as telephone
users can now dial almost anywhere in the world without worrying about
how many phone companies actually have to connect their calls.
     And today, the links grow ever closer between the Internet and such
commercial networks as CompuServe and Prodigy, whose users can now
exchange electronic mail with their Internet friends.  Some commercial
providers, such as Delphi and America Online, are working to bring their
subscribers direct access to Internet services.
     And as it becomes easier to use, more and more people will join
this worldwide community we call the Net.
     Being connected to the Net takes more than just reading
conferences and logging messages to your computer; it takes asking and
answering questions, exchanging opinions -- getting involved.
     If you choose to go forward, to use and contribute, you will become
a citizen of Cyberspace.  If you're reading these words for the first
time, this may seem like an amusing but unlikely notion -- that one
could "inhabit" a place without physical space.  But put a mark beside
these words.  Join the Net and actively participate for a year.  Then
re-read this passage.  It will no longer seem so strange to be a
"citizen of Cyberspace."  It will seem like the most natural thing in
the world.  
     And that leads to another fundamental thing to remember:
 
                You can't break the Net!
 
     As you travel the Net, your computer may freeze, your screen may
erupt into a mass of gibberish.  You may think you've just disabled a
million-dollar computer somewhere -- or even your own personal
computer.  Sooner or later, this feeling happens to everyone -- and
likely more than once. But the Net and your computer are hardier than
you think, so relax.  You can no more break the Net than you can the
phone system.  If something goes wrong, try again.  If nothing at all
happens, you can always disconnect.   If worse comes to worse, you can
turn off your computer.  Then take a deep breath.  And dial right back
in. Leave a note for the person who runs the computer to which you've
connected to ask for advice.  Try it again. Persistence pays. 
     Stay and contribute.  The Net will be richer for it -- and so will
you.