WTF is the Internet?

The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization. As an artifact it challenges the pyramid, the aqueduct, the highway, the novel, the newspaper, the nation-state, the Magna Carta, Easter Island, Stonehenge, agriculture, the feature film, the automobile, the telephone, the telegraph, the television, the Chanel suit, the airplane, the pencil, the book, the printing press, the radio, the realist painting, the abstract painting, the Pill, the washing machine, the skyscraper, the elevator, and cooked meat. As an idea it rivals monotheism

Virginia Heffernan

Throughout this semester we will be exploring and experimenting with Internet art through the lenses of different online cultural niches; each community having different goals and perspectives, each celebrating their own masterpieces, like net.artist Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, digital folklore enthusiast Cameron Askin's homage to GeoCities and the CSS Art of cascading stylesheets virtuoso Diana Smith.

Before we dive into any one of these creative corners of the Internet, it's worth taking a moment to zoom way out and possibly consider the Internet itself as one giant work of art, or as Virginia Heffernan put it, "the great masterpiece of human civilization". In her book Magic and Loss, Heffernan considers the Internet itself as a massive work of art. She explores the logic, aesthetics and values of the Internet as a collective cultural whole. The entire book is worth a read, but we'll just be reading the Preface.

The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural, but it makes a certain deep and basic sense. It's rather like the "anarchy" of the English language. Nobody rents English, and nobody owns English. As an English-speaking person, it's up to you to learn how to speak English properly and make whatever use you please of it. Otherwise, everybody just sort of pitches in, and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehow turns out workable. And interesting. Fascinating, even. Though a lot of people earn their living from using and exploiting and teaching English, "English" as an institution is public property, a public good. Much the same goes for the Internet.

Bruce Sterling (1993)

Stories of the Internet

The Internet is often described as a "cloud", an amorphous entity that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This sort of magical thinking does us a disservice as artists. If we hope to make meaningful work with the Internet that also speaks to living in a world mediated by the Internet, it would help if we knew what it really was.

The Internet is actually a very real, very physical thing. You can touch it, you can smell it, it has a "delicious old odor" as Leonard Kleinrock put it. The Internet exists in time and space, and came into existence at specific time[s] and place[s]. Maybe it started in "deep military secrecy" within a "Cold War think-tank" as science fiction writer Bruce Sterling writes in his "Short History of the Internet". Or maybe "ground zero" for the "birth place of the Internet" was actually a dingy university classroom in California, as filmmaker Werner Herzog narrates in his existential documentary "Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World." Or maybe it didn't happen in the United States at all? Maybe it started in a British Laboratory? Or maybe it was a French Laboratory?

Where did the Internet come from? When was it created? Who created it? And, perhaps most importantly, Why? To answer these questions...