How can our 'Net skills and knowledge be enhanced by a conceptual understanding of the Internet?

NET 11 ~ Assignment 2

by Peter Borbely

Submitted: 21 January 2008
Word count: 1586

Essay

As defined by Nardi and O'Day (Nardi & O' Day, 1999) in their paper, Information Ecology is " ...a system of people, practices, values and technologies..." where communication and information related activities are " ...human activities that are served by technology" . We also learnt throughout this unit that " effective Internet communication and information (management) is a combination of technical and communicative competence" . This competence can be achieved and greatly supported by gaining a good conceptual understanding of the history of the Internet, its technical cornerstones which enable this medium to function, the nature and conventions of its communication methods, the protocols that channel its functionality and the principles that intend to govern it.

In this essay I plan to demonstrate the practical application of some of the key concepts we have discussed in this unit and particularly those, which have specific relevance to my daily online activities, such as asynchronicity , the " invisibility of difference" and the melding of communication and communication management by giving examples of how they have impacted and bettered my communication skills in my professional life and as a student.

Many of the Internet's early applications and protocols are forgotten or simply invisible to the general online public and at first sight they may appear to be old-fashioned. These protocols however are not only still carrying value, but are often powering system critical layers of the Internet . An example of such outdated protocol is Telnet, which provides text access to information on remote computers, and enables information sharing - the exact motivation behind the efforts of building the first computer networks. I have experienced the simplicity and power of Telnet while completing the task in module 1 by logging in to the Deakin University Library to retrieve author and publication details. While Telnet is now anachronous due to security vulnerabilities and has been replaced with a more secure and flexible protocol, the command line shell access (SSH), other rather old methods, such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP), which manages two directional client-server data transfers, is still widely used. In fact FTP is still one of the primary methods used in web publishing. Furthermore, it was the protocol that made it possible for users to extend computer network functionality with direct communication. Early users placed addressed text files (such as " toTom.txt" ) on remote computer drives to message each other, which eventually lead to the development of the first email protocol (Vleck, 2004.). Email has become the most popular and widely adopted activity on the Internet today (Lyman &Varian, 2003). As the development of email logically evolved from a particular application of FTP, the development of real-time online chat was also shaped by the adoption and the way email was used, filling the gap, satisfying new requirements of users, but keeping existing functionality intact, where the respective services were satisfactory. For example email utilises FTP-like functionality by the option to attach files to mail messages; yet the protocol itself is different. Chat applications also allow direct file transfer amongst connected users. Although some of these technologies are dated, they are still actively powering layers of the Internet , proving the importance of scalable programming architecture. These examples also show us how the appreciation of " the persistence of history" helps the advanced Internet user to understand and utilize the potentials of the Internet. As mentioned by Merrick in her lecture on Information Ecologies, even obsolete technologies have value by providing perspective and help us contextualise social, cultural and economical effects of new technology.

As previously stated, email communication is the most widespread use of Internet technology nowadays. While it seems that email communication is instantaneous because it has a relatively low lag time even in intercontinental mail exchange, it must be considered an asynchronous communication form as participants may not only be located in great physical distance, but also in different time zones. In addition, communication is not considered complete upon receipt of the message, but rather when appropriate actions are taken after delivery . Advanced Internet users are assumed to be information literate and are required to communicate effectively, especially when using the more challenging asynchronous methods, hence it is even more important to practice reflective communication techniques. An example of my application of effective and reflective communication is my email management at work, where I typically receive several hundred messages daily. Some of them are computer generated emails, while others are human communication containing information relevant to my team, but don' t require my direct action, so these are redirected to dedicated folders by automated rules set up within my email client. Messages addressed directly to me (where my direct email address is in the TO or CC box) are kept in the (top-level) inbox folder to first be manually prioritised based on subject line meta-data, then be evaluated by reading the message body to make decisions on what action is required. On the other hand, when I compose emails I too pay special attention to subject line information as well as basic formatting of the message body (bullet points, line breaks and other rapid formatting methods that builds scanable text) as I understand that clear and reflective writing is the key to effective communication which encompasses both technical, e.g., the configuration of my email client and communicative competence e.g., the construction of messages. Furthermore, reflective communication also considers " the invisibility of difference" , which may be more obvious when discussing online publishing (which I will detail later on), but its importance is nonetheless in other forms of online communication, for example sending plain text messages when the recipients computer system is unknown to me or in choosing common file types for email attachments wherever possible.

Many computer mediated communication tasks can also be automated - as shown by my email management example - utilizing the fact that electronic communication is always some variation of recorded digital data. From a technological perspective the data, as the content of communication and the data related to the management of this communication aren' t much different; these form a typical data � meta-data relationship. Programs, such as mail or chat clients not only manage the actual message transfer, but also handle the contact database and help to organize the received data; however the organisational logic is defined by us. The nature of electronic data allows us to easily modify, reuse, store and later retrieve the information. This property of digital data allows easy access and multiplication of information with previously unseen flexibility by indexing (categorisation) capabilities, essentially making it searchable. Consequently, due to the ease of recording and storage, the volume of data is exponentially growing. Advanced users are continuously on the lookout for new and more effective methods to search and find information on the Internet, however finding the relevant information with such rapid increase of data volume is only part of the challenge. Assessing and verifying the information is even more important, which consists of the verification of authority, the follow up of references and the investigation of influences the author may have been subject to, causing partiality.

By understanding these challenges of searchability and verification, advanced Internet users follow the principles of reflective communication when publishing online as well. As one of our assignments, we were asked to keep a learning log in the form of a weblog, in which I actively demonstrated these principles by writing scanable text, highlighting keywords, clearly referencing sources as well as providing some background information on myself to help assess and verify my authority on the subject. My intention was to create a website with the " invisibility of difference" in mind from both a usability - e.g., access for people with disabilities - and technical perspective, by creating standard compliant HTML mark-up for cross platform accessibility. Another aspect I considered was to provide access to search engines via ATOM XML data feed, a format which can be easily interpreted by search engines. In addition, because the learning log is powered by a dynamic, database driven content management system, I made efforts so that the final pages are referenced by well formed URLs (excluding logical connectors, such as question marks from the address string) so search engines can easily process them.

In the days of the latest web standards debate of the HTML specification , " one of the crown jewels of the web" (Berners-Lee, 2006.), the question of accessibility carries significant importance. We, advanced Internet users are all invited and are also responsible for its outcome. The future of the Internet requires that it remains scalable to accommodate arising technologies and the inevitably growing volume of information published on the World Wide Web as much as ensuring that all human knowledge already shared online remains accessible.

I have highlighted some key concepts an advanced Internet user must be aware of and actively practice, which shows how information literacy and a conceptual understanding of the medium can further our skills to become more efficient and influential participants of our information ecologies. Skills which aid us to communicate with clarity, to search, find, retrieve and verify information with confidence and that these activities give us the ability and opportunity to shape the future of the Internet, a medium that has been called to life to better our species by sharing the knowledge we accumulated throughout our history.


References

Berners-Lee, T. (2006) Reinventing HTML
Retrieved 22 January 2008 from http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/166
Curtin University of Technology - WebCT. (2007).
NET11: Internet Communications - Subject Curriculum, Concept Document Retrieved 27 November 2007, from: http://webct.curtin.edu.au/SCRIPT/305033_b/scripts/serve_home
Lebens, B. (Speaker) (28 April, 2004). Introduction to Blogs [iLecture]
Curtin University of Technology, WebCT, iLectures.
Retrieved: 9 February, 2008 from http://webct.curtin.edu.au/SCRIPT/305033_b/scripts/student/dropbox_stud_home.pl?++++avail
Lyman, P. &Varian, H. R. (2003). " How Much Information"
section IV: Email and spam
Retrieved 23 January, 2008 from http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003
Merrick, H. (Speaker) (26 May, 2004). Information Ecologies [iLecture]
Curtin University of Technology, WebCT, iLectures.
Retrieved: 9 February, 2008 from http://webct.curtin.edu.au/SCRIPT/305033_b/scripts/student/dropbox_stud_home.pl?++++avail
Nardi, B. &O' Day, V (1999). Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart
MIT Press. Retrieved 6 February, 2008 from http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_5/nardi_chapter4.html
Van Vleck, T. (2004). The History of Electronic Mail
Retrieved 21 January, 2008 from http://www.multicians.org/thvv/mail-history.html

Bibliography

Hickson, I. (2008) Mistakes, Sadness, Regret
Retrieved 20 January 2008 from http://ln.hixie.ch/?start=1201080691
HTML Working Group [a.k.a. HTML WG] (2007)
Charter. Retrieved 20 January 2008 from http://www.w3.org/html/wg/#charter
Information Literacy (2008) University of Idaho
Retrieved 12 February, 2008 from http://www.webs.uidaho.edu/info_literacy/
Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group [a.k.a. WHATWG] (no date)
Charter. Retrieved 20 January 2008 from http://www.whatwg.org/charter

© Peter Borbely

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