How the Internet Works: For You and On You

I would link to a recent April 1st post on Randall Munroe’s XKCD (it’s if you need to know) but I can’t because I’m not sure what you’ll see when you get there and some of the possible images are not safe for work. The theme of his post is umwelt, the notion that your perception of your own world is highly personal, influenced by your previous experiences and the lens that you have on your environment.

This is the image I see now – using my default browser. It is, very much, what you make of it. (I attribute the image to XKCD, but I can’t link to it for obvious reasons.)

A well? The Ring? The Sun? Your perception of what this mean depends on your senses, your experiences and your world to date.

Some people saw images of unlikely earthquakes. Some saw images of groups being stalked by velociraptors – but only when they elongated their screens enough to see everything on the page. Serving military saw a supportive post that encouraged them to keep an eye on the missiles. Panels adjusted based on who you were, which browser you used, where you were, even what size screen you used.

How did this work? Your browser provides a great deal of information as to what it is, to allow sites to adjust for browser variation. At the same time, the Internet Protocol (IP) address of your computer, the address that other computers use to get to it, gives away your location and your organisation. That’s why students at MIT got MIT jokes and people in Israel got an XKCD comic in Hebrew.

I can’t think of a better way to introduce students to the idea that gazing into the abyss also involves the abyss gazing into you. There are two great summary pages here (Reddit) and here (Google document).

This is the Internet and it’s ubiquitous. This is a great way to discuss the amount of information that is being sent back by every browser, from every platform. The amount of information that can be obtained by underlying systems that most people are unaware of.

For me, what I found most amusing is that a friend sent the link of the image to me saying “Hey, Voight Kampf test” (from Blade Runner) and I saw a picture of something completely different and thought my friend was mad. That’s something else to talk about – what it would mean if information itself mutated depended on who you were and where you were.