Sen. Stevens, the tubes salute you
By Alexandra Petri
June 28, 2006 was the day it all changed. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska uttered the following words about the Internet:
Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got... an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.
...They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And, again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, 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, enormous amounts of material.
"The internet is a series of tubes!" This was the gaffe heard round the 'net, igniting a response that spanned every news outlet from Fark to the New York Times. The phrase became a badge of pride. Stevens's quote showed up on the Colbert Report and the Daily Show. Experts confirmed it. People remixed his speech. The “tubes” even have their own Wikipedia page. Google briefly incorporated them into a program as an easter egg. They took on a life of their own, ensconcing themselves in online lore. The Internet was not a big truck! It was a series of tubes! And it was proud.
Now that sources have confirmed Stevens's death in a plane crash, the tubes have come to pay their respects. The senator has fired up the blogs and Google searches. He's even trending on Twitter.
That Alanis Morissette song has forever muddled the meaning of irony for me, but the fact that Stevens's loss first manifested itself via the tubes seems strikingly ironic. And as people remember him, make ill-timed jests, and muse on his legacy -- all in real time, in great profusion -- I worry that they are disrupting the ability of people elsewhere to receive their Internets. But for us in the Facebook generation who weren’t around for the first plane crash and know the Bridge to Nowhere primarily as an SNL punchline, the senator's legacy is in that series of tubes.
Initially, the tubes speech served as a net neutrality rallying cry. The people who sought to regulate the Web, advocates cried, didn’t know what they were talking about! How could we trust them to preserve equal access when they thought the internet was a series of tubes?
And the debate remains fresh. Indeed, the news of Stevens's passing broke on the same day as the proposal from Google and Verizon that might result in “fast lanes” -- speed tubes? -- for the mobile web. And when bloggers fume about the potential cost of such a proposal, they now do so in terms of tubes. "I don't see how putting a pricetag on the tubes can solve our problems," noted Adrienne Gonzalez. Surely Stevens did not envision the impact -- nor the staying power-- that his words would have. But as long as the debate on net neutrality continues, the tubes will live on.
| August 10, 2010; 3:06 PM ET
Categories: Petri | Tags: Alexandra Petri
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