In an interview for my new job, I was asked how I would explain the Internet to my Grandmother. Wow, that one caught me unprepared. How would I even go about explaining something which has such great complexity to someone utterly unfamiliar with the concept? How would you do it? How do we explain technology to the technologically challenged?
I began by talking about the physical structure of the Internet: general purpose computing devices connected by optical and copper transmission conduits. I realized that it was wrong, so I began talking about what the Internet does: connecting people, organizations, data stores, etc. That wasn't quite right either, so I went on to explain what the Internet allows: shopping, chatting, referencing information, etc. This was better, but still not great. I made analogies to talking on the phone with a network of friends and to looking up words or concepts in an encyclopedia. Still not perfect, but I made an impression on the interviewer that was good enough to get a job offer.
But the question remained with me and I have thought about it quite a bit. The problem of how to explain anything to anyone is one that almost nobody is talking about how to do this. It really boils down to about three components: a near complete knowledge of the material, adequate knowledge of the audience, and an ability to relate the two. In answering my question, my problem was that I didn't do the latter two very well. I really don't know enough about what problems my Grandmother faces (out of milk, how to take care of a diabetic, what to do on Tuesday afternoon with the Great-Grandkids), how she solves them (going to the store, asking a physician, reading the local paper), how well her solutions take care of the problems (very well, moderately well, poorly), and what outstanding problems she still has (how to keep someone from wanting to eat cookies, nothing going on in town this Tuesday). And so not knowing these things, I cannot adequately explain to her how the Internet works in a way that she will understand as being relevant to her (posting questions on forums, researching helpful websites; lesser known events, new fun things to do around the house). Instead of doing this, I was trying to explain it to her from my point of view and taking only my concerns into account.
After doing some more thinking, I came to the conclusion that I was on the right track with my explanation, but for the wrong reason. I had the general groups right, but the format was all wrong. The key to understanding many systems is to think about them in three layers: What something is, what it does, and what it makes possible. The Internet then is a large number of copper, radio, or optical connections for a large number of general purpose machines around the world. It allows communication between these disparate machines by automated processes or by human users. It makes possible things like shopping, referencing, entertaining, etc. There is overlap between these categories, for example protocols could fit in the "what it is" and the "what it does" but in general, this is a good way to categorize and conceptualize these divisions.
The right way to come at explaining this system is to begin with the higher level, the "what it makes possible" part of the equation -- this is another reason why my explanation failed. Analogies can be an important part of this to make sure the audience understands. So I would begin by explaining to my Grandmother that she can order things online as she could do in a catalog. Or she can research and ask questions of doctors, others taking care of diabetics, researchers, etc. And she could find more local information, so maybe she could find a regular local event that the papers don't bother to include. This way, I have her attention and she is interested in learning how all of this is made possible.
That is when I would begin to explain the details of databases, webfront shopping, user generated content sites, trustworthiness of information, etc. I can tell her how Amazon is able to offer that reprint of a book she read as a girl when no local stores have even seemed to be able to order it for her. I can tell her that she can share her experiences caring for a diabetic with others to help them learn from her great experience. I can show her how her computer is a part of the global network and what that means in terms of responsibilities and freedoms.
Then if she is interested in learning the technical details and inner workings of the Internet (and what Grandmother wouldn't be), I can describe these things. I can talk to her about protocols, the OSI model, and the benefits of optical versus copper for data distribution. As this will probably be later in the day, it will be a perfect time to address these issues as they will ease her way into sleep. We may both pass out simultaneously when I get to the rainbow series of books.
If there is an information security lesson here, it is that you really can explain to others how technology works. You have to know your subject well, know your audience, and know how to connect the two. But the most important part of this is to get the audience interested quickly and draw them in by connecting the audience to the subject in a way that is meaningful to them. You can do this using third layer of my system model, the "what does it make possible" layer. Then you can delve deeper as is appropriate. It might be more difficult at first, but I think that it will become easier with more practice.