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New Project Launched by PETRAS in Newcastle: What on Earth is the Internet?


PETRAS National Centre of Excellence for IoT Systems Cybersecurity was in Newcastle on the 26th November 2021 launching an exciting new project: “What on Earth is the Internet?”. The workshops took place in the Urban Sciences Building in the Newcastle Helix, Newcastle Upon Tyne. This first creative workshop, led by Civic Digits theatre company and PETRAS Synthesis Fellow Joe Bourne, brought together academics and members of the public to explore how we think about and visualise the internet, and consider what it will become and how it will change our lives.

Participants first discussed their own use of and relationship with the internet. Some reflected on the way it is changing their home, both their sense of privacy and security, but also the way they were embracing smart home devices as a way of being able to ensure their home is a safe and comfortable space for them in their old age.

One participant spoke about what their digital footprint meant for their death, what their legacy would be and whether they could control it. Others commented on the connections they make through the internet and the emotions involved, as well as whether these were equivalent to non-digital emotions and connections.

“The internet is a world of private joy and public shame”

Small groups then created physical models of the invisible processes behind the internet: Malteser delivery systems represented sending messages of love; delivery bikes made of paperclips explored how the messages are sent and responded to in disaster zones; and various networks were represented by pipe cleaners and string, with sweets acting as binary. Where participants didn’t know how something worked they were encouraged to use their imagination.

“The e-mail travels through a cloud in my home then goes down my driveway to the box I’ve seen the man fixing. Then it goes up the hill down the road and up into the atmosphere”

Finally, the workshops imagined what the future looked like: Participants anticipated data being more in the hands of the everyday user, for good and bad; imagined new types and layers of internet with different ownership, rules and geopolitical boundaries; and questioned the effect the internet will have on the social habits and human emotions of the future.

 “Changes mushroom; things get very big, very fast”

These workshops were the first activity in a larger project which will engage artists and creatives in capturing the ways different people understand the workings of the internet and the risks that it poses. By co-creating new metaphors and images of the invisible aspects of the internet and internet of things, the project aims to create resources which can engage new audiences in considering innovations in the internet, the cybersecurity risks which are emerging and how we build systems which are secure for all.

To get involved in the project or follow its progress please contact PETRAS Synthesis Fellow Joe Bourne.