The Internet Metaphor

Bizarro World Senator Ted Stevens last week had this to say about the internet:

“They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand that those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material…”

Now, I did my master’s thesis (340k pdf) on metaphor, but these are new ones for me. “The internet isn’t a truck. The internet is a series of tubes.” Huh. Does he mean like pneumatic tubes?

Now obviously, Stevens doesn’t know the internet from his elbow and needs to spend a few minutes learning how the internet works. But it is interesting the odd view his choice of metaphors give us on how the internet can be perceived by people who know very little about it.

Most tech-savvy folks (yes, that’s probably you) are used to thinking of the internet in a few different ways: as a web (which relates to the underlying structure as much as anything: it is and it isn’t a series of tubes) or as an ocean, upon which we “surf.” Even though we’ve probably heard the metaphor “information superhighway,” I guarantee few of us have ever compared the internet to a truck!

Human beings use metaphor as a way of grasping unfamiliar, abstract concepts by comparing them to familiar, tangible items, just as Stevens did here with the abstract internet and the more concrete tubes and truck. Even metaphors that don’t make much sense (such as the truck metaphor here) can reveal things about the target of the metaphor. For example, before this, I hadn’t really given much thought to one thing the internet does quite well: haul stuff long distances. Like, well, a truck. The internet is exactly like a truck. Of course, with this “truck” there’s no engine, or driver, unless you extended the metaphor to say that http is one of those.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that we should remember that not everyone has the same metaphors in their head as to how abstract things work. For Stevens and those with only a vague notion of the internet, a series of tubes sounds about right. I probably have similar, misguided metaphors about how, say, government works. I somehow think that senators should be leaders, not embarrassments, say.

3 thoughts on “The Internet Metaphor

  1. I liked your MS thesis.
    About this internet Metaphor – I think the ‘pneumatic tubes’ hold good in the web 2.0 scenario! 🙂
    Pneumatic tubes = RSS
    After all Web 2.0 is just data not the address (http) or the web page. We get what we want … so I feel even though the truck metaphor may not apply .. the tubes one is getting there 😉

  2. Great last line. Goes will with your next post on patriotism.
    Trucks. That’s probably going to stick in my head now. But so true about how people perceive things differently based on their knowledge of the subject, allowing for metaphors to be different.
    Perhaps when I am next talking to a less tech-savvy folk I will bring trucks into the conversation to bridge the metaphor gap.

  3. I have been trying myself to develop a metaphor to explain in simple terms the relationship between TCP and IP, and also describe within the same metaphor how http, smtp and DNS work. Try it yourself. It is no easy task, even for tech minded people like myself or yourself, to develop an everyday metaphor which encompasses all that happens on the Internet.

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