The Internet & Our Digital Reality

Chanel Turner

The internet. What would life be without it? What would lockdown have been without it? A shocking thing to think about… But how can we visualise the power of the world wide web, and the power of global connectivity? Join us as we explore the power of our digital reality.

Internet of Things (IoT), WiFi, social media, online profiles, online dating, working from home, virtual showrooms, virtual trade shows, Zoom meet-ups, virtual house parties, digital newspapers… These are all products of the information age, and all products of the age of the internet. These form our digital reality, our digital tomorrow.

It’s hard (and simply terrifying) to imagine what COVID-19 would’ve looked like without the internet, and what subsequent lockdowns would’ve felt like without the ability to log into our online communities. Without the ability to WhatsApp with friends and family from afar, without the ability to connect with social issues around us, without podcasts, virtual tv shows, or staying in tune with the rapidly shifting ‘new normal’. The internet has introduced global connectivity like humanity have never seen before, and in this digital age, that connectivity grows in strength with every year.

 

The internet is a very complex thing. It’s made up of many pros and cons, and it will take you 5mins of Google searching the ‘deep dark web’ to realise where the cons come in – alongside Cyber Security, data protection and more. But the pros are also quite immense: Connecting people from opposite sides of the globe, information sharing like never before, seeing the ‘Influencer’ career take off, enhancing international communications, online gaming with friends in other cities and/or countries, and so much more.

And what’s more, the internet introduced this connectivity with no need to leave the comfort of your home. It forced global industries to innovate and keep up, it allowed society to use ‘smart tech’ in buildings, in schools; and it enhanced the capabilities of education, science, research, entertainment, and well, most would argue, life itself: “The Internet global network is a phenomenon of technological civilization, and its exceptional complexity surpasses anything mankind has ever created. In essence, what we are dealing with here is a huge quantity of utterly unstructured information.” (Map of the Internet)

The ‘new normal’ for our COVID world has put a lot of subjects into question, and no more so than tolerance, understanding and equality; as social norms have been subject to global scrutiny and global expression. But this global connectivity, this global movement in support of Black Lives Matter for example, this global togetherness made us think – without the internet, would we be able to rally together in such a prolific way? Could we connect with supporters on the other side of the world with such speed, and such potency? We think the answer is quite simply, no. Because “it was the creation of the world wide web in 1989 that revolutionised our history of communication.” (Our World in Data)

So how can we visualise the potency of the internet, and its global strength? A website that visualises the power of the internet as far back as 2011 is ‘Map of the Internet’. It showcases the internet as a ‘semantic web’, a visualisation that quite frankly could be a work of modernist art, but this is so much more complex than an initial glance would notice:

“The map of the Internet is a photo shot of the global network as of end of 2011. It encompasses over 350 thousand websites from 196 countries and all domain zones. Information about more than 2 million links between the websites has joined some of them together into topical clusters.” (Map of the Internet)

When we compare this complex map of the internet in 2011 to that of visualisations of the early internet (seen here from AVL), it showcases just how much the internet has grown in complexity. And in 2020, with COVID firmly on our shoulders, we are seeing more additions and innovations on a daily basis. According to Our World in Data the overarching trend globally is clear: “more and more people are online every year. The speed with which the world is changing is incredibly fast.”

And what would the internet movement be without social media?! The powerhouse of modern-day social interaction, the curator of global communities, local communities, and above all else, social media introduced the very foundations of digital personality. Facebook profiles, Tinder profiles, you name it – social media allowed society to create an online image, online personalities; and whether it be 'Catfishing' or not, people could suddenly shift their reputation with no need for personal interaction. Mind blowing stuff!

In 2012, the University of Illinois did a geographic analysis of social media, and it’s still so relevant today. Specific to Twitter, they analysed the language and location of over a billion tweets to depict a remarkable ‘broad view of humanity, by language, location and other factors’ (Smithsonian Magazine). Their visualisations echoed the strength of social media, of global connectivity, and of global networks built on the internet.

To think Twitter was only created in 1999, and today is a staple on popular culture, with hugely influential celebrities and public figures using the platform to voice their thoughts, their opinions, and their support (and opposition) to anything and everything. And when we say everything, check out Kanye West’s twitter account! This first visualisation shows the diverse geography of Twitter from ‘all exact location coordinates in the Twitter Decahose 23 October 2012 to 30 November 2012’, specifically over Europe.

This next visualisation then shows geo-referenced tweets from the same 'Twitter Decahose 23 October 2012 to 30 November 2012', but over the USA. These visualisations tell a powerful story – Twitter might not be the most popular social media platform, but these images show the global span its popularity does hold. Every light is an active Twitter profile, and those lights span the globe. Plus, this data is based ONLY on those who allow geo-referenced data to be held on their profile. See the detailed study on First Monday.

 

So, it’s no surprise then that social media is the money generating, business promoting, marketing and communications heavy weight champion that it is, across all corners of the globe. But this kind of popularity and this kind of connectivity also opens society up to those pesky cons of the internet we referenced earlier, and the most prominent being cyber security. We’ve all heard the rumours of Russia’s tampering of the US elections, and their potential hand in helping Trump win his place in the White House. Or speaking of Twitter, their recent hack of a number of their biggest accounts – If you saw Obama and Joe Biden tweeting about BitCoin… that was it! Cyber threats and data breaches are all around us; and while the internet offers great accessibility, it also offers great threats to our intellectual property, and our privacy.

An intuitive website that allows you to see areas of concern when it comes to Cyber Security is Cyber Map. You can see the world in a whole new light, and the interactivity between the globe and vibrantly coloured cyber threats really echoes the commonality of this internet instability - These threats are prevalent in every major continent in the world. With great power comes great attention after all, and in the world of the internet, nothing is 100% protected.

This topic of global connections and global information sharing is even more prevalent when we delve into the Internet of Things: “The internet of things, or IoT, is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.” (Internet of Things Agenda) Now a ‘thing’ could be classified as someone with a heart monitor implant, or a diabetes monitor implant, an animal with a biochip transponder, or really anything with built in sensors and built in alerts. When your car informs you of needing more air in your tyres – that’s an example of IoT.

“An IoT ecosystem consists of web-enabled smart devices that use embedded systems, such as processors, sensors and communication hardware, to collect, send and act on data they acquire from their environments. IoT devices share the sensor data they collect by connecting to an IoT gateway or other edge device where data is either sent to the cloud to be analysed or analysed locally.” (Internet of Things Agenda) In other words, it digitises key data in the real world and allows the exchange of information without any human to human contact, or any need for human intervention. IoT is so intuitive that it enables data and real-world insights to deliver knowledge to businesses, farmers, and well, anyone – with limited waste and improved service delivery. Now that is using the internet to really aid humanity!

Ultimately, the world is a more connected and a more intelligent place thanks to the internet. We have global communities, online social platforms, and a world that is largely formed around our access to information from the web. We live in a digital reality, and work towards an even more digital tomorrow. We are the most intelligent generation in history based off the information we have at hand; so, as we develop and grow as a society in a COVID world, we should assess how we use this enormous resource, and how we can craft it for future generations.

We’ll leave you with one last question to think on:

If the internet turned off tomorrow - forever - what would your reality look like?

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