The Web is not the same as the Internet, and why that matters

There must be some kind of way out of here.

I have been following John Naughton ever since I found his book A Brief History of the Future in a secondhand bookstore in South Philadelphia in the fall of 2011. (My thanks to Kathy Propert for taking me there.) Naughton is Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University in the UK. He’s a blogger at the aptly named Memex 1.1, he’s Vice-President of Wolfson College in Cambridge, he’s an adjunct professor at University College, Cork, his latest book is the extraordinary From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet, and he’s a crackerjack journalist for The Guardian. This morning, Naughton’s blog linked to his latest Guardian column, “Kicking Away the Ladder,” which concerns among many other things the persistent, pernicious error of confusing the Internet with the World Wide Web. Naughton explores why that error matters, in fact why it may be a fatal error, one that could mean the end of the “open, permissive” infrastructure that has allowed these extraordinary telecommunications innovations we’ve witnessed over the last few decades to grow and flourish.

The essay is essential and sobering reading. Please go read it now (it’ll open in a new tab). I’ll be here when you get back.

Is Naughton overreacting? Not at all. The danger is clear and present. And he knows his history, so Naughton understands well what we have gained from the Internet and the World Wide Web. He knows how they were made, and what principles animated and informed their design. And he knows what we stand to lose in the face of the strategies controlled by those who understand elementary facts about internet and computing infrastructure, history, and design, facts that far too many people are too incurious even to inquire after. These are elementary facts. They are not difficult to understand. Their implications take a little more work to get your head around, yes, but it’s nothing that a basic program in digital citizenship couldn’t address successfully–assuming that program was about how to make open, permissive use of the open, permissive platform. That is, assuming digital citizenship is about the arts of freedom and not simply the duties and dull “vocations” of compliance and consumption.

I read parts of the essay aloud to my dearest friend and companion, the Roving Librarian, and she asked me a great question: “So, if you had to explain the difference between the Internet and the Web, how would you do it?” And as so often happens in the presence of a great and greatly foundational question asked in the spirit of mutual inquiry and respect and love, a cascade of thoughts was triggered. (Not a bad learning outcome, that.)

Here’s what I have so far. It’s coming out quickly and will need much development, but I need to write it down now. I welcome your comments and questions and elaborations and collegial friendly amendments. (No blame should attach to the Roving Librarian, by the way, for any mistakes I make. Lots of credit goes to her, though, for anything that’s worthwhile.)

The Internet is about data transmission. It’s a network that enables any node to transmit any kind of data to any other node, and any group of nodes (any network) to transmit any kind of data to any other group of nodes. It’s a network and a network-of-networks. It thus engages, stimulates, and empowers data exchange that’s one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, and many-to-one. As Naughton points out in another essential essay, this structure permits unique and disruptive emergent phenomena, some of which will be disturbing and harmful, some of which will simply be puzzling or appear irrelevant (or be denounced as such), and some of which will be enormously beneficial. Naughton is not alone in his explorations. Clay Shirky indefatigably points out the enormous good that we can derive from the Internet. He points out the dangers, too, but when people call him names, they call him a “techno-utopian,” which as far as I can tell means he remains hopeful about our species’ powers of invention. Joi Ito, director of MIT’s Media Lab, emphasizes over and over again that the Internet is not so much a technology as the technological manifestation of a system of values and beliefs; not a technology, but a philosophy.

To summarize, then: the Internet permits open data transmission one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, and many-to-one. Seems clear enough. And that Clay Shirky talk on social media and revolutions I linked to above makes my point very vividly and clearly. (In fact, I learned to explain things this way from Shirky, from his blog and his two books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus and in other venues as well.)

So, then, how is the Web different from the Internet? Naughton says that it’s an application that runs on the Internet. The innovation Tim Berners-Lee brought into the world about a decade prior to the turn of the century could not have been imagined or built without the open, permissive foundation that the Internet was designed to be.

But then comes the logical next question: how then is the Web significantly different from the Internet, aside from providing a layer of eye candy that makes the Internet more appealing and the metaphor of a “page” that makes the Internet seem more familiar? Gregory Bateson says that a unit of information may be defined as a difference that makes a difference. So what difference does the difference of Web make?

If I can’t answer that question, then no explanation of the difference matters, because if fails the “so what?” question.

And the answer that comes to me, mediated through the readings I’ve done in learning environments like these (I consider a course a learning environment, a carefully crafted cognitive space or occasion that’s also a foundation for collaborative building), mediated through Jerome Bruner, and mediated through Mike Wesch’s evergreen “The Machine is Us/ing Us” and all that his creation mediates (like Kevin Kelly’s essay), is that the crucial difference is the link.

That’s all, and that’s everything.

The link allows us (and once we’ve seen it happen, it invites and entices us) to construct a thought network out of (upon, within, on top of, emerging from) a data network. That’s all, and that’s everything. It is the essential move that turns sensation–a matter of data transmission along nerve fibers–into what, given enough interconnections and enough ideas about interconnections, becomes cognition, a level-crossing connectome out of which abstractions, concepts, and conceptual frameworks will emerge.

The Internet passes data agnostically (video, text, audio, whatnot) and the Web allows us to create conceptual structures out of data by means of simple, direct, open, thoughtful, permissive linking. The linking is idiosyncratic, like cognition, but like cognition, it is not merely idiosyncratic. The linking is never random–human beings can’t be random–though it may be surprising or the relation may be obscure (at first). Some sets of links are more powerful than others, but none is as powerful as the very idea of linking, just as the most powerful concept we have is the notion of concept, something I delight in exploring with students and colleagues when we get to Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”

The Internet transmits information. The Web enables (stimulates, encourages) a set of connections that, from the first link to the enormous set of links we now experience, symbolize ideas about relationship.

The Internet permits the pre-existing connectomes within each mind and among many minds working together to pass their nerve impulses freely along a meta-set of data connections, a network of networks, an Internetwork. The Internet is a protocol and a foundation for the data transmission that enables communication considered as information transmission.

But this is only the beginning, an open, permissive, and thus powerful light-speed beginning. The next advance occurs when information transmission can be made into a foundation for sharing not just perception but experience, for sharing not just neural connections but the experience of cognition that emerges within each mind. And that level of sharing means not just sharing information but empowering and stimulating new ways of creating and sharing meaningful structures of information. (More Engelbart here, obviously.) The link is not merely a link, but a concept that enacts itself–as concepts do when we build them, and build on them.

To sum up:

The Internet is like sensation or at most perception.

(A crucial first step, and we could have gotten a network that allowed us to look at only a few things in a few ways, a walled garden a la Facebook. Instead we got something open and permissive, like a neural network of small pieces loosely joined whose emergent power emerged from the possibility of connection, not from strict specialization or over-particular design. More like cells and atoms, in other words.)

The World Wide Web is like perception leading to thinking.

(It’s like making concepts. Here Vannevar Bush missed an opportunity that we’d need a Doug Engelbart to explore. What Bush described as “associative trails” are not a mere search history. They are links, yes, but links that reveal conceptual frameworks, that symbolize conceptual frameworks, that stimulate conceptual frameworks. They are not merely a scaffolding–though to be fair, Bush does describe the scaffolding in rich ways that probably do rise to the level of what I’m talking about here. The links are fundamentally social both in the intracranial sense–the connectome in my head–and the intercranial sense–built out of the social experiment we call civilization, and returning to it as another layer of invention and potential.)

The foundational commitment in both the Internet and the World Wide Web is the same: both are built as “open, permissive” structures (to use Naughton’s words). These structures are not unlike the distributed (neuroplastic) design of the brain itself, one that, as it happens, permits all the higher orders of cognition to emerge, higher orders built of “adjacent possibles” and “liquid networks” that in turn enable even higher orders of cognition to emerge. From this open, permissive, distributed structure emerges our distinctiveness as a species. And our links within the World Wide Web enact this emergence, represent this emergence, and thus stimulate further emergent phenomena as we create and share even more powerfully demonstrated ideas about shared cognition.

The Internet is like sensation. The World Wide Web is like thinking.


The Internet transmits data of all kinds: text, images, sounds, moving pictures, etc. The World Wide Web is a newly powerful word (or medium of symbolic representation, or language) that allows us to imagine and create newly powerful n-dimensional representations of the n-dimensional possibilities of “coining words” (making and realizing representations) together.


A foundational commitment to an open, permissive architecture of creation and sharing enables the next layer (species, experience) of complexity and wonder and curiosity to emerge. This open, permissive architecture enables both the cognoplasticity of individual minds and the shared thinking and building that enables the macro-cognoplasticity of civilization.

There’s a fractal self-similarity involved that makes it difficult to tell Internet from Web, just as it’s sometimes hard to tell where I end and where you, or my history, or my friends, or my reading, begin. (Bakhtin’s “Speech Genres” maps these complexities most wonderfully–definitely worth extending your cognoplasticity in that direction, dear reader, with Professor Martin Irvine‘s fine guide as a beginning.) But the difference is there, and it is vital. I suspect the problem is that the difference is not well conceptualized because the conceptual framework rarely rises beyond, or in a different direction from, the technical distinctions. But then technical distinctions are rarely explored in ways that reveal the conceptual frameworks they represent and stimulate–hence Naughton’s frustration as well as the importance of his observations.

Now let’s connect these ideas to Bruner and his ideas in Toward a Theory of Instruction, ideas that influenced Alan Kay and other learning researchers who helped to envision and build the personal, interactive, networked computing environment we now live within with varying degrees of openness and permissiveness.

In Notes Toward a Theory of Instruction, Bruner distinguishes three levels of communicating (and thus three paths to learning):

1. The enactive: we communicate by doing something physically representational in view of others. If we want water, we mime the action drinking or lapping up water, and do so in the presence of others whom we believe might relieve our thirst.

2. The iconic: we communicate by pointing to something that materially represents at one remove, while still being physically connected to, the thing we mean or seek to draw attention to. Instead of miming the act of drinking, we might point to a cup or a water fountain, perhaps making a noise of some kind to indicate the degree of urgency we feel. This level is considerably more advanced than the first level because it entails a more sophisticated “theory of other minds,” a belief (supported by learning in a social context) that we can communicate shared experience directly through a shared locus of attention that does not directly connect to our physical bodies. To point to a cup indicates an experience of shared experience. To mime drinking almost gets there, but one might do this in one’s sleep as one dreams of drinking water. The enactive doesn’t necessarily indicate a theory of other minds–though miming drinking in the presence of someone whom one believes to be paying attention may approach the iconic and cross over to it, as when someone mimes drinking from a cup.

3. The conceptual (Bruner calls this “the symbolic,” but since it’s easy to confuse “symbol” and “icon,” I’ll use “conceptual” most of the time): we communicate by means of a set of shared concepts or abstractions. Here we don’t mime drinking, and we don’t point to a cup. We speak or write, “I am thirsty.” This is a wild and crazy thing, no? A set of squeaks and grunts. A set of ink marks (or pixel shadings). Words. Every one of those three words “I am thirsty” enacts, represents, creates, and communicates a state of enormous cognitive complexity that’s hidden from us because of our mastery. The familiarity cloaks the miracle. You can’t drink the word “water,” but behold, the word may bring you what you desire, or cause you to help another human being. (Obviously I’m thinking of Hofstader here as well, and I can recommend Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (with profound thanks to Jon Udell), I Am A Strange Loop, and for a rapid overview, his talk at Stanford on “Analogy as the Core of Cognition.” It’s all “metaphors we live by.”)

I think most education in our schools pretends to get to the conceptual but in fact stops at the iconic or perhaps even the enactive level. Pointing pointing pointing. Proctoring proctoring proctoring, the student always in the instructor’s presence. See-do, see-do, with “critical thinking” at a level of “see-do in the sophisticated complex way I your teacher have already imagined for you, and pointed to for you, as my expertise permits me exhaustively to define excellence for your seeing and doing.” A closed and impermissive architecture mediated through language, but not really conceptual and sometimes hardly even iconic–because it doesn’t support or represent emergent phenomena, what Bruner calls problem-finding:

Children, of course, will try to solve problems if they recognize them as such. But they are not often either predisposed to or skillful in problem finding, in recognizing the hidden conjectural feature in tasks set them….. Children, like adults, need reassurance that it is all right to entertain and express highly subjective ideas, to treat a task as a problem where you invent an answer rather than finding one out there in the book or on the blackboard. (157-158)

Like Facebook, our schools and the classrooms and curricula they provide form a walled garden full of “finding” by merely clicking on icons (including the face of the teacher, which when clicked upon may yield “what the teacher wants”), partly for administrative convenience, partly for administered intellectuality that hides our own conjectures (lest emergent conceptual frameworks undermine the power authority and wealth of the old architects), partly because it’s a good business model. Ah, the business model. Tim Berners-Lee put the Web in the public domain, and what kind of a business model is that? unless one considers it an investment made to benefit the species–a mission we say we follow in higher ed, of course.

Did I say that remaining at the enactive or at best the iconic while feigning the conceptual is a “good” business model? I meant a great business model, especially if one enjoys exploiting others without leaving visible marks, since it’s education that gives us the constrictive framework of pointing that enables, encourages, and stimulates the narrow ways we are able to imagine thinking about business models. Or even, at the level of curriculum, to imagine thinking about thinking about business models. I’ll drop the sarcasm and say that’s really bad news. If education fails us because its “great business model” and massively convenient administrative structures cannot or will not allow its participants to work at a truly conceptual level, a truly problem-finding level where the lowest and highest arenas of problem-finding are centrally concerned with learning itself, then we are trapped. There will be no portals. (The cake is a lie.)

So back to the Internet, now mapped along Bruner’s levels. The Internet permits enactive communication. Data transfer in an open and permissive network-of networks, like sensation in complexly open and permissive internal neural networks, permits a kind of data-telepresence that supports all sorts of miming-based communication.

The Web appears to be a graphical user interface for the Internet, but this is a dangerous misperception. Clicking on images (or even links, for that matter) is really no more than Bruner’s enactive level of communication. The Web is an environment for linking, which means it openly and permissively enables (encourages, stimulates), with each and every act and experience of linking and linked, an iconic level of communication that contains within it the potential of a powerful experience of the abstract and conceptual, an appeal (implicitly or explicitly) to shared experience at a symbolic level that depends on a more complex idea of other minds than the merely enactive or iconic levels of communication do.

People conflate school and education the way people conflate the Internet and the World Wide Web. Education appears to be synonymous with school, which is designed to be an environment for the focused and controlled delivery of content. This is a dangerous misperception that’s similar to the dangerous misperception that says the Internet and the World Wide Web are the same thing. I think the two misperceptions are related. One may cause the other. They may cause each other in a vicious circle. Hard to say. But the danger is the same. And Facebook is like Facebook because that’s the way we like to make a world, or have a world made for us, and school is school because we need to convince ourselves that any other way is stupid, wrong, or crazy.

At any given moment, however, there are people who, like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, insist that there’s a better and different and more open and freer world above and outside the walls of the cave. And at some lucky moments, those people get to build something that reflects that belief. Something we can build on, too, and not simply react within.

Yes, this is like moving from Flatland into a three dimensional space. We face the same difficulty, too: how to imagine a dimension that we cannot explain in terms of the data of immediate (two-dimensional) perception? Thankfully, the two-dimensional world of Flatland has a word for “dimension,” which some Flatland Folk might become curious about. And once that curiosity is awakened, you never know, some of those folk may ask themselves whether the abstraction of “dimension” might be a portal into something real that they simply cannot experience except through that portal of abstraction.

Isn’t that something like how language works? If you think about it, doesn’t language itself seem to open up n-dimensional possibilities that lead us to co-create new realities out of nothing but thought itself? Like the poet, lunatic, and lover “of imagination all compact,” as Shakespeare has a typically dense administrator pronounce, the result is that we “give to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.16-17). The dense administrator, the mighty King Theseus himself, imagines this ability to be a bug, not a feature. Poor King Theseus! Luckily he married up when he found Hippolyta, who responds to her husband’s pontification with practical visionary good sense:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s [imagination’s] images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.(23-27)

Minds “transfigured so together.” Too many linkings to be anything less than constant, strange, and admirable. A problem-finding education.

In Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Ted Nelson writes,

What few people realize is that big pictures can be conveyed in more powerful ways than they know. The reason they don’t know it is that they see the content in the media, and not how the content is being gotten across to them–that in fact they have been given very big pictures indeed, but don’t know it. (I take this point to be the Nickel-Iron Core of McLuhanism.)

Brilliant, but there’s more at the core: the big-picture-conveyance is not just delivery but itself a new symbol, a symbol of a specific instance (and a generalizable example) of the possibility of big-picture-conveyance. There is information about information itself, and the possibilities of conveying and sharing experience, being conveyed and shared in that big-picture-instance. Nelson’s word “conveyed” is still too close to “delivered.” McLuhan’s insight is still deeper, that what is “delivered” is always a metastatement about the conditions and means of conveyance considered largely. To put it another way, symbols do not only contain and transmit meaning. Symbols also generate meaning, the way. “link” is both a noun and a verb. A medium not only of figuration, but a figure and medium of transfiguration. Our “minds transfigured so together.”

As a species, among our many failings, we also have the wonderful endowment of brains that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. “Further up, and further in!” Truth, in-deed. A blogging initiative like the one going at Virginia Tech right now at the Honors Residential College is an attempt to enable, stimulate, model, and encourage intra- and intercranial cognoplasticity, the experience of “bigger on the inside than on the outside,” thus extending the inside (of a small group selected for academic ability) to the outside (which must exist in fruitfully reciprocal relationship lest the experience be merely elitism, defensive, or mutually destructive “othering”). But there’s no way to do this in our newly mediated environment without asking people to narrate, curate, and share on the open web. Until one speaks a language, a word is only a sound (an enactment). Until one reads a language, a word is only a picture (an icon). Until one writes in a language (or medium), one cannot imagine or experience or help build the portal to the thinking-together, the macro-cognoplasticity, the networked transcontextualism, the planetary double-take, that represents the next dimension we need (and desire and dread, too). Our goal is to become first-class peers for each other. Conceptacular colleagues, not just rowers in someone else’s galley.

And here I conclude for now. We have, if we choose, the ability to maintain the open, permissive architecture of the Internet and the open, permissive architecture of the Web that resides within and emerges from the Internet. If we choose to preserve the open, permissive architecture we have been lucky enough to build and lucky enough not to wreck quite yet, we may move to the third level of communication Bruner notes: the conceptual, abstract, symbolic level. For the Web is a network of links, but to call it that is to approach the realization of the next level of understanding, the mode of conceptual communication and enactment (yes there is recursion here) Bruner terms the symbolic. The World Wide Web is not simply a collection of links but an enactment of, an icon of, and an idea about (a symbol of) the complexly open and permissive activity we call linking, out of which we build together the linked and linking and open-to-linking realities of our next stage of cognoplasticity as a species.

This must also be the figure an education makes. Education is the technology that amplifies and augments the natural process of learning. Education brings Flatlanders to consider “dimension” not just as an experience one enacts or points to (a line can go this way, or that; see; now let’s test you to see if you remember that) but as a symbol that can be abstracted from experience and thus (paradoxically) lead to greater, more complex, more possibility-filled and possibility-fueled experience. To use Hofstadter’s language, education must partake of, and stimulate, and empower, the experience and emergence and creation of strange “level-crossing loops.”

The Internet permits, and the World Wide Web enacts and pictures and symbolizes, that experience and that emergence and that creation, those possibilities. (And it all recurs and is recursive, each level leading from and to each level–but that‘s a level I can’t get to in this post, except momentarily here.) Education must do the same.

It is no accident that computers and cognition and communication and education have been so intertwingled in the history of our digital age. From Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Alan Turing onward, all along the watchtower where the resonant frequencies are transmitted and received, a “wild surmise” about learning within and among the amphitheatres and launch-pads of shared cognition has accompanied each development in the unfolding n-dimensional narrative of unfolding n-dimensional possibilities and awakenings. It’s exhilarating in that tower, and exhausting as one strains to see distant shifting shapes. It’s cold, especially in the darkest moments. Or so I imagine.


[Correction: the Naughton column is from The Guardian. Naughton called it The Observer in his Memex 1.1 post, for reasons I don’t yet understand. At any rate, I’ve made the correction in paragraph one, above.]

7 thoughts on “The Web is not the same as the Internet, and why that matters

  1. Thank-you for this post. I’ve only read it once and I think I’ll save it and go back to it and look up the links.
    How rich to have referenced Shakespeare, Bruner, Tim Berners-Lee, cogno-plasticity, connectdomes, McLuchan, Bateson, Shirky and provided so many links to follow-up.
    How remarkable that Shakespeare echoes through the centuries to make an insightful and relevant comment to this discussion.
    I’m an Ed. D. student at an Open University and I think I’ll borrow some of this into my action-research proposal which will be a look at online doctoral education through the lens of the doctoral student who is elected as an Academic Vice-President of the graduate students’ union, to represent interests of doctoral students. I wonder if doctoral education were to be re-invented sans the oppressive history of knowledge creation associated to the feudal roots of the university, what would be the difference that makes a difference?

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  3. Gardner: I’m teaching in my annual foray into the classroom – this time 366 students trying to stay awake as I talk about “The Web From Inside Out: From Geeks to Google to Facebook”. I hold a couple of sessions on the topic of the development of networks, the inter-network (internet) through to the emergence of the Web. I’m fascinated by the way this topic is received, or slept through, by students today who’ve never known a world without the web.

    The development of the internet is the story of: Arpanet, Robert Taylor, Wesley Clark, (“you’ve got the network inside out!”, 1967, at the end of a meeting of ARPA’s Principal Investigators), Paul Baran, Donald Watts Davies,”Lick”, the boys at BBN, Len Kleinrock, Doug Engelbart, & Vint Cerf, to name the central figures (apologies to the tens of dozens of others who played central, marvellous, and creative roles omitted here). But it’s fundamentally a story about connecting first multiple hosts and then by extension multiple networks.

    The web doesn’t enter into it, as you know, until someone came along and needed to find and share research documents to visiting physicists who had limited time on an expensive and constrained resource at CERN, and needed to be brought up to speed on the work of their predecessors at the place quickly and without personal guidance. TBL offered a way to do that. Of course others were doing document distributed find and share (Mark McCahill notably with his furry bucktooth rodent thingy). But the web was about distributed information and really did harken back to the associative trails of Vanneaver Bush.

    We have to do our Woods Hole thing my friend. Really. All the best in your new intellectual “home”.


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