This website is a collection of educational activities and material explaining how the internet works, at levels that generally don’t get thoroughly covered in introductions to the internet. The activities are designed to mostly take place offline using physical objects, field trips, and games.
Technically, this material is for anyone who doesn’t totally understand how the internet works, but that kind of just means almost everyone in the world (including us!). We developed this material for audiences between 11 and 14, focusing on that age range for the following reasons:
That being said, while we had a totally great time workshopping these activities with students, a lot of the material on this site is for the educators who might use this material. That’s why in addition to the actual descriptions of the activities, we have reference sections that go into further detail than the activities themselves.
This project is the result of a Knight Prototype Fund grant received in summer 2015. We workshopped this material in workshops coordinated with the Point Arena Technology Center in Point Arena, CA, at the Radical Networks conference in New York, and with the afterschool program LeAP at MS 51 in Brooklyn, New York.
The original name of our grant was Network Geography 101. We’re not really sure Networks Land is a better name, but, well, the domain was available. Naming things is tricky. We welcome better suggestions.
In the United States, there’s a growing understanding that internet access is a basic necessity for living in a modern society. It’s where jobs are sought, where bills are paid, where relationships form, where content is consumed, and where memes are rendered dank.
With this in mind, more and more organizations and institutions have embarked on campaigns and development of curricula for “digital literacy” or “code literacy”, tools and resources to get the newly online comfortable and savvy with the network.
For the most part, these initiatives focus on the experience of the web–what a browser is, how to search for information, how to make an email address. Sometimes digital literacy education gets into maintaining security and privacy with living online, and sometimes it’s an on-ramp for teaching people how to code.
This is all well and good for making people feel comfortable manipulating interfaces on a screen (and yes, that’s the majority of what coding education looks like too, fight me), but very rarely does digital literacy education get into what’s happening behind and beyond the screen. Where does that information loaded from Google actually live? How does it travel from that location to my computer? Who owns all this stuff?
While the wireless signals that connect a user to the internet may be imperceptible to the human eye, the cables, antennas, data centers, and other physical objects that make up the internet aren’t. They are, however, easy to ignore and increasingly obscured in explaining how the internet works. Similarly, the mechanisms of governance and ownership of the network aren’t entirely hidden from public view, but they are often relegated as “impractical” knowledge much like the physical infrastructure. Understanding ICANN or where “the cloud” lives won’t help you navigate a website or learn to write code.
This attitude is a problem. When neither a computer scientist nor an eleven-year-old can coherently articulate how, on a tangible level, data travels through the internet or who owns the top-level domain my website uses, that’s a problem. When the internet is understood only through its screen components, it’s reduced to a dystopic interface for absorbing content and involuntarily feeding advertising engines.
(Julian Oliver, “Stealth Infrastructure”)
The point is, the internet is an increasingly crucial component of how people throughout the world live their lives. Understanding the systems and infrastructure that make the internet function, from the levels of protocol, physical objects, and governance isn’t necessarily going to make a generation of better programmers and it isn’t going to make anyone better at using a browser. But you don’t need to be a plumber to appreciate understanding how the sewer system works, and you don’t need to be in Congress to benefit from understanding how government works. Understanding systems and infrastructural elements is a useful part of being an informed human being and a useful thing to know when trying to figure out if and how those systems could change or are changing.
This material was developed by Ingrid Burrington and Surya Mattu, who both live in New York and do weird things at Data and Society Research Institute. We had some amazing design assistance from Disk Cactus, an excellent studio of excellent humans based in Oakland, CA.
This website lives on Github.
Network Geography 101 Demo Day Presentation Notes