Explaining Internet to your Grandma

Sulabh Gupta

Have you ever had the pleasure of explaining something technical to your non-technical parents or grandparents? If yes, you know how frustrating these tech-conversations can be sometimes, especially because you wouldn't be able to find an appropriate analogy that they can understand.

Albert Einstein once said,

“You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”.


Image Source: Brainyquote.com

My grandmother recently asked me how the Internet works. So, like the ideal grandson, I opened the Internet (pun intended) and read her the following definition from Wikipedia in one go.

The Internet (or internet) is the global system of interconnected computer networks that uses the Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to communicate between networks and devices. It is a network of networks that consists of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies. The Internet carries a vast range of information resources and services, such as the inter-linked hypertext documents and applications of the World Wide Web (WWW), electronic mail, telephony, and file sharing.

The look on my grandma's face was priceless!!.

Needless to say, she didn't understand a word of what I read online. So, I tried to explain her TCP/IP, World Wide Web, etc. and it didn't go well. After a painful next half an hour, we agreed to finish our video call by agreeing to disagree whether I know what the Internet is or not - an insult to my 4 years of learning Computer Engineering. Oh well, I tried to Grandma, but you didn't understand and kept asking the same questions again and again. But, because I am a good grandson, I promised her that I will explain how the Internet works on our next video call. So, over the course of the next week, I constantly thought of how to explain the internet to my grandmother and since I know her well, I knew that she would ask me again on our next weekly video call. I had to come up with an analogy that wasn't too complex but at the same time explained to her the basics of how the Internet worked. Took me a few days but I finally got it.

How do you explain the Internet to your grandmother is in fact a very commonly asked interview question and it can be tricky to come up with a good response on the spot, especially when you under a lot of pressure during the interview. Before you read on, give it a few seconds to think of how you can explain the internet to your not so tech-friendly grandmother or grandfather.

Here is how I tried to go about it when explaining it to my grandmother in my second attempt:

Grandma, do you remember when you saw the telephone for the first time and how you could call and talk to your brothers and cousins from another city. There was an electricity pole near our house and we had these wirelines connecting to the phones in our house and the neighbors’ houses. Similar, electricity poles were available in other areas including the cities where you called to talk to your brothers and cousins.

Now, imagine that instead of these wired phones, there are computers that are connected. Just like the telephones, computers (yes, the big TV like creatures) were initially connected to each other through these wires. As technology progressed, wired telephones got replaced by mobile phones that didn’t need wires to work. Similarly, wired computers now don't need wires to connect to each other.

Just like you could call anyone from your home phone in any part of the world with their phone number, the same way you can reach out to anyone on their computers through this network (no you don’t need anyone’s phone number to reach them). Just like with a telephone you could share a message through your voice, with computers you can share other information like pictures, audio, video calls, music, etc. So, the internet is essentially a connection of millions and millions of computers interacting and sharing all these videos, pictures, music, etc.

While the basic concept I explained to my Grandma made sense to her, she had a lot of follow up questions like why is it called the Internet? Who owns it? Is the Internet and Data, the same thing? Luckily for me, Wikipedia helped me answer these questions.

It took a full one-hour video call where I felt like I was interrogated by the FBI but I came out triumphant. I can't explain how relieved and accomplished I felt after that video call. I am pretty sure she will come up with some other technical concept that she would read about in a couple of weeks and we will do the same cycle again.


Image by Alex Harvey on Unsplash.com

Since my grandparents have lived through all the innovations from when the wired home phones started to get in trend to the internet to the phones being replaced by mobile phones. It was easier to explain this from a point of view of wired and wireless phones as they witnessed the evolution and the Internet is essentially a network of computers.

Though painful and frustrating, I enjoy such conversations with my grandmother. I get to learn a lot from her through these conversations and I couldn't agree more with the quote that "You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother". Explaining a complex concept to someone with no technical background, in plain and layman terms is not the easiest thing to do but it is a good judge of how clearly you understand the concept. The key is to find a simple analogy that a person can relate to based on their occupation, or personal experience and not to complicate your explanation with too many technical details. For example, I didn't need to explain what a router or a modem or TCP/IP was to my grandmother.

Tell me about your experience with tech-conversations with your family and how you would explain the Internet to your grandmother.

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