Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

From Circuits to Sentience, An Introduction to Digital History and Ethics

J.Yoo's picture


Note: I'm not sure why the script is printing above, it's not part of my paper.  Sorry about that.



            The distinction between 'internet' and 'Internet' lie in the period being referred to.  Pre-sentience, the Internet had no name to capitalized, and so was known simply as the internet.  Even as the name began appearing as a proper noun, signed at the bottom of public notifications, Digital Tech refused to admit they had a self-aware entity on their hands.  In fact, until the sector split  in April 2021, Digital Tech would answer name technicians and developers as the source of their problems, memorably crediting one Chell Creamer as a skilled, juvenile hacker, and firing her from DT's mid-level hardware development team.  Though Miss Creamer would eventually get her job back, it would be with the newly created Internet Containment Unit.  With the efforts of digital humanitarians and various organizations (ARPAnot and Techs against Vests, to name a few) and several cases that made it to the Supreme Court, the Internet was left alone, allowed to develop and mature into the entity we know it as today.

            As we write today, almost everyone uses the Internet in some way: to stay in touch with friends, to research for school papers, to play games, to read the latest new reports and discoveries.  Circuits to Sentience serves as an abbreviated guide to those more interested in the academics surrounding the Internet than its uses.  This book was written as an introduction to Internet-based Digital Humanities, specifically for those interested in American Digital History or Philosophy (Hayles, The Evolution of Digital Humanities).  The Internet adapts to different cultures, organizing and presenting itself differently in other cultures; keep this in mind if you are a student studying abroad or planning to continue study in another culture.




            In our time, this paper serves as a thought experiment: if we had limitless contact with our friends and libraries at the edges of our brains (one of Chorost’s future plans in his book World Wide Mind) how would the human race deal with it?

            Unrestricted, I believe people would fill their minds with knowledge until we ran out of room and began forgetting personal details (how to tie shoes and home phone numbers come to mind).  Without something to cut us off, I believe we would download ourselves sick.  That’s where the sentient Internet comes in, as the parental control settings behind our direct, brain-to-information connections.  In each of the “Digital Sectors” I will show how this omnipresent background guardian deals with the influx of information, what restrictions it places, how they can be avoided and the consequences of avoidance.

            The story: this is a textbook, printed some decades in a future where technology can be wired directly into the nervous system, though just as often lives outside the body as a personal device.  These personal devices, both inside the body and out, keep a set of personal information about the user and

            Shortly after these technologies, called External Devies (EDs) and  Internal Devices (IDs), hit the market, the internet began showing signs of intelligence and self-awareness, splitting itself into first three, then four Digital Sectors as it adapted to its users.  The result: sentient parental controls and accountants, keeping careful track of users and their activity.  Newspaper clippings and notes are attached to some pages, presumably, the owner of the textbook was writing a paper on the subject.  You can also see highlighted area where he or she found something worth noting.




Circuits to Sentience: An Introduction to Digital History and Ethics


Table of Contents


PART 1 The Technical Story

            Chapter 1.1…....... The Telegram and Early Communication

            Chapter 1.2…....... Baby Computers: Point-to-point Communication and Packet Switching

            Chapter 1.3…....... TCP/IP, the Internet Protocol Suite

            Chapter 1.4…...... ISPs and the World Wide Web

            Chapter 1.5….......Technology, Internal and External

            Chapter 1.6…...... The Sentience Debates: Who is the Internet?

PART 2 Internet Today: the Four Digital Sectors (CEEN)

            Chapter 2.1…...... Connections

            Chapter 2.2…...... Education and Entertainment

            Chapter 2.3…...... News         

PART 3: Modern Days, Modern Problems


            Chapter 3.1…....... Digital Illnesses

            Chapter 3.2…..…. Hacking and Hack-related Problems

            Chapter 3.3…....... Instant Advertisements

            Chapter 3.4…...... Moral Dilemmas, Moving Forward



Chapter 1.5: Technology, Internal and External

Most technology today is compatible with one or more of the digital sectors, though some people prefer to keep a few with only the most basic applications.  Any singular piece of technology is called a device; your cell phone is a device, along with any computers, televisions, or internal technology you might have.  Certain pieces of technology (tech for short) are, obviously, known by other names (cell phone, computer, television, etc.), but they all fall under the category of 'device.'  All devices take some form of personal information for access to different parts of the Internet. 

            This helps reinforce anti-theft and age restrictions.  If your device begins visiting websites that don't match you history, the Internet has the power to red flag the device and ask you for identity verification.  Unusual banking activities are treated the same way.  The Internet also runs quick background checks on users; for example teenager might claim to be an adult to gain access to an adult’s only website, but if their personal information reports their age under eighteen, the site will be blocked.  It's possible to get around these restrictions by changing them on the device itself, but this can result in temporary ban from a site or sector.

One of America's largest device producers is Digital Technology (DT), located in Manhattan.  DT houses about eighty to eighty-five percent of the American Internet's hardware and servers, the other fifteen to twenty percent owned by independent companies and websites.  DT is also a substantial contributor to the country's technological research and development, with thousands of staff and nearly a quarter of its fifty-billion



dollar budget dedicated to creating new hardware for customers.  A large percentage of DT workers keep the Internet's hardware in good condition.  While the Internet is a self-sustaining entity, it is still a digital entity and can't survive without the proper maintenance.  The Internet keeps backups of its data, and in the event of a mainframe malfunction, has outline a thorough reboot and reconstruction plan.  Individual digital sectors have been gone through scheduled shut down and reboot before, but the Internet and DT employees keep the sectors running smoothly.

            Devices can be further categorized by location of usage.  External devices are outside the body and can't be directly accessed by the central nervous system.  Because of easier access and mobility, external devices come in a wide range of variety and function, but at the cost of a shorter lifespan; new tech is put on the market every day, yours will go out of fashion quickly.

            An internal device is any technology implanted within the body, close to the brain or one of the major nerve clusters. IDs are usually implanted at an early age, while the brain and nervous system are still developing, so the individual will adapt smoothly, though receiving one later in life is not uncommon. Software can be easily scanned and updated, but hardware is difficult to replace without surgery at this time; most people only use their IDs for connections at this time. Individuals with IDs don't 'listen to' or 'read' their devices the way external devices uses, since the technology converts any data to low level electrical signals the brain can



interpret. For this reason, people with mental disorders are not candidates for IDs


An example of an internal device, circa 2034, compared to the size of an old fashioned match.  Recent advances in technology allow for even smaller devices3


            The external/internal choice is a highly personal one, and many factors have to be considered before it can be made: a businessman might want an internal device for convenience, but it could also be distracting during meetings and working hours. Many people prefer external devices over internal ones for safety and health reasons, and while these are valid concern, there are two misconceptions we would like to cover in this chapter.

            A hacked internal device can cause serious physical and mental problems.

            Because they are connected directly to the nervous system, internal devices are equipped with stronger security software that is updated more frequently than an external device. Every hack, attempted or successful is recorded in the internal device's history logs, which is uploaded to a secure section of the Internet's history archives (personal information backups, which are made automatically whenever you go on the Internet, are stored in the archives, and are the most closely guarded pieces of data on the Internet). This data is used to update security and track the hack to its source; the Internet has a reported seventy percent catch rate, putting most amateur hackers out of business before they have the chance to become threats. In the unlikely event a hacker evades the Internet and breaks into an internal device, the device will shut down before allowing any access to



the user or their personal information. At that point, you can visit an internal technician to have the device inspected and fixed. The worst case scenario is a replacement hard drive.           

            A malfunction could cause electrocution/brain damage.

            Internal devices are powered by the body's natural electric current, similar to the way touch screens operate. If an internal device were to malfunction, the most likely outcome would, again, be shutdown, because it would not be able to draw power. The only chance of physical damage would be if the device were placed incorrectly, and since implantation is in the neck and shoulder region, the brain is well out of harm's way. Internal devices have been on the market for nearly a decade, and in carefully monitored development for a decade longer; mistakes like incorrect power usage and placement have long since been eliminated.


device/tech: an independent piece of technology

Internal Device (ID): technology implanted inside the body

External Device (ED): technology located outside the body

0 false false false EN-US ZH-CN AR-SA



Chapter 2.7: Connections

            The first and digital sector is known as Connections. A connection, also known as a user-to-user or 1-1 (one-to-one) link, is any link between two or more active users. It is important that all users are active, as it draws the distinction between a connection and other types of information transfer, like news reports or information checks.   A connection can be either public or private, as decided by the users. The Connections sector is made of all connections made over the internet, including posts on forums, instant messages, and phone calls, among others.  Connections creates interpersonal channels that allow individuals to communicate over long distances, and can be accessed via any connection-capable technology. Almost everyone has some experience with connections, since it's one of the most convenient ways to send and receive messages. 

            When used through an external device, Connections creates a vast network that links multiple users. Keep in mind that while a connection may be private, its existence is recorded both by your device and by Connections. External devices are currently the only ones that can receive videos calls, for obvious reasons, and




ARPANET logical map circa 19772


            When used through an internal device, Connections can be much more personal. Some of the more basic IDs are like cell phones, and can receive calls and texts. The more modern IDs create a constant link to Connections, which allow for constant contact between users. A common misconception is the idea of a ‘hive mind,’ that everyone’s thoughts stream back to a single melting pot. While an ID does allow others to listen in on you, you can block them out at any time, and keep messages, meant for single parties, private. What you consider private, however, is up to you.

            Connections was created by Digital Tech in 2019, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of first data packet sent by ARPANET (see chapter 1.3). The American Internet has always shown the least presence in the Connections sector, allowing human administrators to watch over their forums. In other countries, however, the Internet takes a more aggressive stand: the Chinese Internet recently shut down a forum dedicated to anti-government sentiment, and the German Internet canceled an anti-Semitic website within minutes of its creation (Turkle, Identity and the Internet vs. the Internet’s Identity).


Connection: a link between two or more active users

Connections: the fourth digital sector, dealing with user-to-user communication




Chapter 2.2: Education and Entertainment

            Originally, Education and Entertainment shared the title Information as the second of three Digital Sectors. At 9:05 am on Monday April 19, 2021, the Internet sent out the following notification:


            Attention Users:

            Beginning Monday, April 26, 2021, the 'Information' sector will be split into two new sectors: 'Education' and 'Entertainment.' For the         next  week, data will be sorted into the new sectors, and will be clearly labeled for your convenience. Any questions can be forwarded to Digital Tech, NY.

            The Management


            Interestingly enough, the technicians at Digital Tech, where most of the Internet's hardware is housed, received a similar memo on Friday April 17, 2021, only three days before the announcement was made to the public. It wasn't the announcement, but the memo that provided the first, concrete evidence of the Internet's sentience. Digital Tech CEOs, who had neither confirmed nor denied their involvement in forming the Digital Sectors, readily told the media they did not send the company memo a press conference held on Wednesday, April 21 2021.   Scientists and psychologists around the world were sent scrambling for pen and paper. By July, thousands of papers and theories cluttered the News sector, most supporting the same claim: somehow, when we weren't looking, the



internet achieved sentience and became the Internet.

            Also of note is that Internet's signature, 'the Management.' Although it would later drop this title in favor of 'the Internet' (legal and corporate reasons are cited), it is a clear statement of power and control. The Internet was making a definite declaration of existence; the Internet was real (Clarke, Who are the Real Cyborgs?).

            When someone creates a piece of data (a book, a movie, a paper, etc.) and uploads it to the Internet, they decide whether it is sorted into education or entertainment, and where the it will be placed in either category (history or action thriller movie, among others); the Internet then reviews the decision and compares it to similar works. If the Internet agrees with the labels, it will set the data in place, otherwise it will send revisions to the author, who may or may not agree. This process continues until a compromise is met, but it's important to remember that the Internet has final say. 

            Education deals with nonfiction information, and is used by academics around the world. When registering for a class, a student's personal information taken filed under the class's attendance list. Student's with IDs are then cut off from downloading information pertaining to the class directly, and have to use EDs to get the information they need.

            When an assignment is submitted, the Internet runs it though an appropriate data base. The course instructor then runs another check, in order to double check.   If the assignment is found too similar to an existing work and does not site the work, it is considered plagiarized, reported, and returned to the student. It is possible to fight the plagiarism verdict; studies have shown nearly half of all cases are false alarms caused by



similar experimental findings and writing styles (Hayles, Plagiarism and Modern Writing). Students take priority in the queue for plagiarism-checks for speed so they can receive grades and usually pass within a day or two; alternative academics placed further down the list, and can take up to a week to process.

            Entertainment deals with fiction information, including music, fiction movies, and books. Users who want to use the entertainment label usually upload clips of their media as they to help prove the originality of their piece. This speeds up the process, which can take a few days to several weeks. Entertainment data takes longer to check because it has a wider range of media than education.


Education: digital sector containing nonfiction information

Entertainment: digital sector containing fiction information




Chapter 2.3: News


            A 0-1 (zero-to-one) link is when the user is receiving input from another user, but not giving any back. Not to be confused with 1-0 (one-to-zero) link, in which the user actively reads and absorbs information, a 0-1 link is when the information is given to them. This type of information is known as News

            News covers current events such advancements in science and technology, politics, and fashion. There are several major news sites, each organized by type of information. Based on a user's desired location, they can choose between international news (outside the country), domestic news (inside the country), and local news, each again sorted by the kind of information presented.

            Each news station has several anchors presenting the same reports, so an ED user can choose their favorite (two popular anchors are Vanessa Knightly and Young Justin Beiber).    Vocal translators are not accurate enough at this time, so subtitles have to be used to listen to international broadcasts. Because ID users can't watch broadcasts, they don't have the anchor-option; instead, they 'listen' to streamed broadcasts. Anchors cannot have an IDs at this time, since stations don't want to risk distraction with countless viewers watching their employees. 

            One of the fastest ways to understand another culture is to watch their news; the American Internet allows most news to come through, but strictly enforces age restrictions, while European news is more careful about what gets through than who listens to it.


News: digital sector containing recent events







ARTICLES mentioned in excerpt(2)


The Evolution of Digital Humanities.

                Katherine Hayles

                In 2005, I wrote an article detailing a growing field I called, ‘Digital Humanities,’ at the time referring to traditional humanities and how they could be applied to new technology. A few short years later, the name was used on Internet Studies, Digital History (study of the history, biography?, of the Internet) and Digital Philosophy (is the Internet a separate entity, and what rights does that grant it?). Obviously, technology has changed quite a bit in recent years, but the argument of my original essay holds: the way we think depends on the medium of the material we are learning.

Continued on page e2


Who are the Real Cyborgs?


            Andrew Clarke



            A few years ago, we were arguing over how 125 mb computers were corrupting our future generations, how all that memory space would keep them from learning properly. Now, with direct connections to the Internet in the palms of our hands, the debate has become more important than ever. The entire Internet has become our mnemonic device, except we aren’t remembering on our own. With a piece of our minds perpetually stored on the World Wide Web, we are more cyborg now than ever before. But is anyone absolutely certain the connection is one way? We are able to download information directly from the Internet, but is the Internet download information directly from us?

            People with internal devices usually only catch snippets of the information they download, converted to electrical impulses their brains treat like memory and understand. Rarely can an individual remember an entire download, because that kind of memory takes too much space for our brains to handle. But occasionally, someone will retain the entire piece of information, like a book or paper. Scattered studies have shown that none of these reported ‘complete memory recalls’ are the same, that no one is complete recalling the same information (of course, there are probably plenty of people who don’t report complete recalls, so the data could be skewed). Is it possible the Internet is using us as external hard drives, keeping copies, or possibly original works, in our brains for safe storage?

            DT (Digital Tech) CEO Stephan Brin, son of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, dismissed such claims, but the Internet’s main shareholders have hardly been forthcoming in the past. The Internet itself has not yet replied to the question, though…

Continued on page a12