"The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck; it's, it's a series of tubes."
Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK)

One of the marks of the Internet generation is the sense of caustic, ironic humor that we use to excoriate the Internet-phobic. Though previous social movements have separated people into haves and have-nots, the fact that being part of the "in" crowd on the Internet has nothing to do with age, social status, or appearance, but knowledge, has led to this trend.

There's a bitter, cynical delight that people take in grabbing examples of the Internet-unsavvy (call them "noobs") and spreading them over the Web like so much rancid butter. When George Bush's tongue (or comprehension) slipped during a debate with John Kerry, and he made passing reference to "the Internets," it was Internet culture within the week. Frequently, it is the powerful who do not understand the technology, and the powerless taking them to task for it.

So when Ted Stevens, a decidedly noobish senator, made the mistake of relating a series of (pardon my French) piss poor metaphors about bandwidth while arguing against Net Neutrality on June 28, 2006, he irrecoverably shot himself in the iFoot. He moved from being the second-worst thing to be on the Internet (unknown) to the worst (a joke).

The most famous part of his speech is the sentence blockquoted at the start of this writeup, but the speech was a litany of accidental gems. He claimed that power users "use the Internet for a delivery service, rather than for a concept of communication — that's the difference." He expounded his belief that they shouldn't be greedy, that they should use FedEx to deliver things instead of sapping his bandwidth.

There are several reasons that this speech has become so infamous. The most obvious is that Net Neutrality was (and as of this writing, still is) a powerful, polarizing debate, and Stevens put himself on what's seen as the classist side, the side that argues there should be an Internet for the rich and an Internet for the poor. Very few informed players in Internet culture are against neutrality; the socializing power of the Internet is what made it so important.

Another reason is that the word "tubes" is so, well, goofy. If Stevens had had the right premonitions, and said "pipes," "channels," or "lines," he might have gotten away with it. But he chose "tube." Here are some reasons I've compiled for why "tube" is funny.

  1. Inner tubing is fun.
  2. The tuba is the funniest-sounding instrument in the brasswind family. (We all knew that fat kid in band class who made farting sounds on a tuba.)
  3. "Tube" rhymes with "boob."
  4. "Tube" is dismissive slang for a television. Dismissive, mind you.
  5. Et cetera.

unperson related a very good third reason via /msg after this node went up:

"I always found it ironic that Stevens' remark about tubes was probably the least ignorant thing he said in the entire speech. But I think the thing that filled people with distain was that he wasn't just speaking about this, but pontificating about something he had absolutely no understanding of. It fills one with fear over what other issues he might be similarly active on."

And in the end, that's at the core of this issue: are the people making the Big Decisions about our Internet the ones who understand it? (Just as, are the people making environmental decisions the ones who understand the environment? But that's another node.)

The saddest part of all of this is that the Internet is a series of tubes. If a computer scientist were speaking before Congress, and used the same metaphor, nobody would have blinked. (Well, we might have noticed that it's a funny word. But it wouldn't have become a meme.) But because Stevens knows next to nothing about computers, as well as because of the juxtaposition with other hilarious metaphors, he couldn't swing it.

How is the Internet a series of tubes? Well, it's a lot like the plumbing system. Narrow (low bandwidth) tubes connect machines on your local network to each other and to a gateway, through a system of hubs, switches, and bridges. This gateway is connected through larger tubes to your ISP, which is connected to still-larger tubes to a backbone network, which has the widest (highest bandwidth) tubes of all. And like the plumbing system, you have old timey tubes made out of copper, and newfangled tubes made of plastic — or at least, plastic casing on fiber optics. So you see, the Internet is quite like a series of tubes. (And really, when you get down to it, packets are like trucks…you just dump data on them and send them out…)

You might as well say that society is going down the tubes. But not to worry — Congress has a fine plumber on the job.

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